Raw Eggs

Every night Mom would force us kids to swallow a dose of cod-liver oil. She would hold our nose, or we would once we quit fighting the daily routine, and force us to swallow that rotten fishy liquid.  After, she would put the bottle high up on a shelf, tuck it behind other unmentionable liquids, probably thinking that we couldn’t reach it and hide it, or dump the contents in the slop bucket. Besides the pigs would have the runs, and that would have resulted in trots at market.

It would  not have done any good to fight the good fight, for Mom was a fanatic about keeping us healthy.  Vicks Vapor Rub, the least sign of a cold or sore throat, under our nose on rubbed on our neck and chest.  At times we would be forced to swallow Mentholatum, as if we were cats with hair balls.  Mustard plasters on our chest, but no hair shirt.  On the Paxton place, Mom heated bricks in the cast-iron stove and wrapped them in towels.  They not only rested on floorboards in Fords as we headed to town, one kept me warm at night.  Mom would tuck it between the sheets at the foot of the bed, and pile quilt on top of quilt on top.  Of course with the lack of insulation in these old farm houses, waking up with frost on the covers often occurred in winter.  And if we were really sick, running a fever of 101 or so, and possibly delirious, the extent of Mom’s fear was palatable.  One could see it hovering in the air as if a spector from a deceased ancestor guarded us while she cooked and baked and cleaned, and fed the chickens when we couldn’t.

In the summer time, cold well water, not ice for a fever, for no ice could be had.  With the heel of a spoon, Mom grounded aspirins to powder and mixed it in water for us to drink.  We gargled with salt water the first sign of a sore throat.  And there were many of those we had as children.

Then there were hot toddys–whiskey and sugar and hot water but no tea–that we craved to sooth a throat or calm tickles in the throat.  They dumbed us to sleep with a warm buzz.

Besides the cod-liver oil regimen, Mom believed that children must be de-wormed once a year as are all farm animals. Something must have warned her about the pests that could be housed in our bowels.  Only once for me at age 5.  Hives erupted inside and out, and breaths became difficult to catch and hold.  I remember Mom pacing back and forth in what could be called the only room capable of communal living on the Paxton place, a space in front of the folks’ bed that contained a table and chairs in front of the east window, a player piano that Dad eventually chopped into firewood on the north, a wood stove on the south wall, some chairs scattered here and there.

Dad must have gone to town to fetch the doctor, or went over to a neighbor’s house to phone, for Mom didn’t usher Dr. Hennessey into the room.  He strode in as if announced by bugles and ordered Mom to fill a bowl full of egg yolks.  Dr. forced them down my throat.  Needless to say, anything and everything that was in my stomach followed the yolks as I threw them up.  More and more until my breathing became somewhat normal.  After which I slept.

Mom told everyone it was strawberries that caused a reaction, and I suppose it could have been, for it was that time of year; but I know, and so did she that is was worm medicine.  I found out a few years later when I bit into Grandpa Snyder’s plug of tobacco and hickupped myself almost to death that chaw also keeps worms at bay.

Trolls

Trolls, mythical boggymen who hide in thorny brush scattered along river banks, under rotting stumps in dense forests, were sown in cautionary tales of Billy Goats Gruff by my mother to prevent me from wandering.  When I was tiny, I remember listening to those tales, watching for the little people as I crossed the plank over the stream that separated our place from Grandma and Grandpa’s and over the Botna River as I lowered my head and ran fretfully across the bridge on my way to kindergarten, not looking back until I was on the other side, an instinctive fear of a curse.  They stealthily encircled our house at dusk and disappeared at the first light of morning.  I can still see the blue-black trolls as they emerged covered in moss out of the depths of my dreams.  When my younger brother and sister were born, the trolls followed, lurking in the shadows around the stock pond that my sister and I passed on our way to Greeley Country School, along with the dinosaurs of old limbs that bobbed in its murky depths.  But mother was deathly afraid of water, refusing to let any one of us learn how to swim in fear that she would retrieve our drenched bodies even from a stock tank.

Mother feared most everything that could possible happen to us, except what did happen.  She feared us lost in corn fields, being chased by sows; feared us being trampled by horses.  She would wring her hands as we were lifted up or stepped up on the tractor to lean against a wheel rim while hanging onto Dad’s metal seat as we jostled from one pasture to another, down an edge of a field to take a look at the crops, or cultivate.  If Dad didn’t override her, none of us kids would have risked anything more than a bruised shin.

When Dad stuck a corn knife in my hands and ordered me, and later my brother, to tramp down one row, with him in another, to cut weeds, she didn’t say anything for it was part of necessary work. She let me in the granary with my brother to shovel corn or oats aside as gushers of grain streamed from the hopper above.  In that steel granary with its only door that one had to step up to exit, we were up to our knees in oats or shelled corn with more raining down on us, the kernels pelting us like hail while we shoveled the new to the side to make way for more.   In there my brother tormented me, sticking dead and live baby mice and what else down the back of my shirt.

Being left to stay with Grandma and Grandpa Hodder she didn’t fear, but should have, considering the ugly tales about Mom’s stepfather that I know and that she probably had an inkling of. But Mom not doing so would have seem disrespectful to her mother.  When I was in the fifth grade or so, one time Grandma came to stay with us.  I was ordered to sleep with Grandma on the sofa that clicked open into a bed.  I had a fit, refusing to sleep with her.  Mom threatened me by telling me that she was going to send me to an orphanage and I would never see Grandma again.

Mom didn’t seem to mind my carrying five-gallon buckets of slop and grain in each hand to feed cattle or pigs or lifting steel bushel buckets full of corn on my shoulder or lugging cream cans to trucks and lifting them onto the chest-high truck bed. My huge arms today I swear the result of all that lifting.

But she couldn’t keep an eye on us all the time.  When Dad hired on Herb Wiese, the divorced husband of his sister, in order to help out the drunken sot with some room and board and a little wages, she didn’t know that her seventh-grade daughter, me, drank wine with Herb in the backseat of his broken-down car at the top of the hill on the Beh place.  He swore me to secrecy.  She didn’t know that a bunch of us high school kids broke into a known ghost house west.  She didn’t fear we kids catching our deaths of cold  sleeping on make-shift beds of coats on living room floors of relatives as they played pinochle or poker, nor our inhaling gray clouds of cigarette smoke that lifted off each relative.  And it seemed then that she didn’t seem to mind that kids at the country school picked on me mercilessly.  Now I know that both she and Dad went up to the country school once for sure to complain about a classmate RuthAnn pushing me out of a swing onto broken glass that gouged open my knee.  Mrs. Griffith did nothing, for the family was sort of that section’s power elite.  The folks told me to forget about it.

Spring on a farm has its own smell, a wet birthing of grasses peaking through the soil, the chill wind that swirls, the thawing frozen fields, a mix of winter rot, manure, seeds, and animal sex.  And dogs that roam in search of other dogs that roam.

We kids had this black and white border collie that we loved. One spring it was tied up, probably a result of running off too many times.  But the dog got loose, and was gone for over two days. We kids were worried, raising a stink; but the weather was such, cold spring wind and fields of mud, that Mom wouldn’t allow any of us to search pass the out buildings.  We were stuck inside the house all day except for school and chores.  On the third day, a Saturday, our dog was still gone.  Mom ordered us to stay in the house.  She disappeared.  Where Dad was, not sure.  Hours later, Mom returned, leading our dog.  She had walked the creek bed that weaved through the farms to the south, stopping every once in a while listening for a bark or a whimper.  She found him next to the creek, his leash entangled in dead limbs embedded in mud, the weight too much for the collie to free himself.

Feigning sleep

First memories, very first memories, fragile like a whistle in a wind.  In the Paxton place I slept upstairs in a room above the folks’ bed, alone the first few years of my life.  I remember my father disappearing down the steps after leaving me there crying.

Interior picture of Paxton

But I was a difficult child, I was told, always into everything, never sitting still, or perhaps I was one-year-old and being weened, the age when Mom weened each one of us.  My youngest brother wailed all night, sobbed pitifully.  Stories were told about my older brother bawling about horseys while imitating one. Sobbing and neighing merging.

I was born before my dad returned from the service, but no memory indicates a fear of him at this young age.  A longing, yes, but no fear.  Perhaps that too became reshaped and submerged.

A storm, a possible tornado, something forced my father one night to ascend into the cubicle that was my bedroom.  I feigned sleep when I heard him come up the stairs, and became limp  and kept my eyes shut when he picked me up, and remained so as we descended, my body wrapped by my father’s arms.  I remember bustle and hurried shouts from my mother as we left the front porch door and scurried around to the cellar. And I remember warmth, the smell of tobacco and the heady smell of the farm that emanated from his shirt.

Empathy

One Saturday afternoon I drove from Omaha, Nebraska,  to Council Bluffs, Iowa,  to pick up my aunt Bobby and take her to visit her husband, my mother’s brother, in a nursing home on the Bluffs’ east side.   I had geared myself for a visit.  I dislike very much the walk towards the glass doors of a nursing home and the inordinate strength it seems to take to open them. There the desolate furnishings in the waiting room reinforced my lack of willingness to engage with those sitting in vinyl chairs around the perimeter, at tables playing solitaire, or in corners watching television.  I’m sure that after they have endured years and months of being ignored, as old ones usually are, their attitudes towards visitors like me are ones of indifference.

It’s not the residents themselves that bother me, or the sickening mix of medication, Pine-Sol and bleach that arches the nostrils as soon as the door opens; but the warehousing of people, what it says about this stage of life, what it demands of a couple who have been married so many years–separate and then fade into death, what it will say about my own latter years, the lack of a spouse who might have or might not have visited, children, who like me, reluctant to come, drive by without stopping.  It takes courage and a certain faith in something beyond.

On one of the many weekends as my parents aged that I spent in Manilla, Iowa, visiting the folks, my father at this time a resident of Manilla Manor, I took my mother somewhere.   I don’t remember exactly where or why.  Maybe it was to  Elkhorn to visit Aunt Beulah, my father’s sister, who was beginning to lose her sight, as were my father and mother.  My father’s lazy eye growing stronger as his other eye lost vision; my mother’s ever-present use of eye drops to treat glaucoma.  I’m not looking forward to my cataracts being removed next year, for when Mom’s were, the anesthesia had worn off by the time the doctor began cleaving.

As we headed back through Harlen on Hwy. 44, my mother asked me to stop at the nursing home so she could visit a friend.  We parked on the south side and entered the main door.  No one to greet us, as if there should have been.   Mom knew where she wanted to go, heading straight down the hallways, excited about seeing an old friend.  After a little jog, clear down one long beige corridor, turn right, then down another beige corridor.  Finally to a room on the left. But the bedcovers were snapped tight, the chairs empty, no television running, her friend, absent.  We tracked down a caretaker who said Mom’s friend was visiting family.  On the way back through the long corridors, we saw a small women dressed in shades of gray and brown, thin but not skeletal, wiry, her hands frantically wheeling her wheelchair, aiming for mother.  She grabbed my mother’s hand and pulled Mom towards her, begging, “Tell me who I am.  Tell me who I am. Please tell me who I am.”  Mom tried to extricate herself from the woman’s grip by caressing her hands to calm her.  The woman’s wheelchair erratic as the woman pulled my mom closer to her.  I remember the woman’s brown loafers and white ankle socks as she scurried her feet along the floor, the rests for the feet bumping into mother’s legs.  We were by a lounge, so Mom maneuvered the woman and herself there, while I tried to rescue my mother from the woman’s grasp; but no one came to our aid.  All the while, the woman frantically begged for her name.

That incident unnerved me.  My fear of having only senses but no knowledge of my history, for as I age, memory is my only comfort.  For now at least, I know I have a past, I had dreams, and squandered some, if not most.

From the little of what I overheard about Roy and Bobby, their married life was not always pleasant; the family life, as are most, fraught with those struggling to extricate with those who control.  From what I suspect, Roy demanded and Bobby responded passively.  But in gatherings of relatives there was little evidence of discord.  At the end of their lives, Bobby could not take care of Roy anymore in their home.  As is often with those with ill spouses, she desired a little peace, time enough to sleep until she woke up, not to be in the kitchen preparing a meal, not be at demand, for she too needed care.

It was in the spring of my junior year of high school, when I had enough sense to count backwards and realize that my mother was one month pregnant with me when the folks married.  I know my ignorance sounds improbable; but I never even considered that my mother and father had to get married, and I never doubted the love they had for each other.  I only remember one argument, if three days of silence can be called an argument.  Recently, however, my older sister told me that she came across a note Mom had hidden under the oil tablecloth, one that indicated that Mom was upset with Dad.  If disagreements were more than those sporadic, like many couples I know, I never felt as if my world was falling apart because of the way they treated each other, as I’m sure my children did during my divorcing their father.

Improbable or not, I never knew that my mother was pregnant with my little brother, who is fifteen years younger than I, until a classmate told me that she heard my mother was going to have a baby.  I remember saying, “She is?”  I’m absolutely sure that my classmate thought I had the brains of a gnat.  My youngest brother, the youngest of five children, was born a month later.

I suppose it was in the spring of my junior year, for I didn’t have on a coat, and the house was warm.  For some reason, as there usually is between mothers and teenage daughters, Mom and I were having some difficulties.  I don’t remember what for.  Stuck on that farm with my dad refusing to teach me to drive, and being someone who struggled to fit in a new school, not driving meant I was at the mercy of my parents.  When I stepped inside the kitchen after walking up the lane from the bus, Mom was on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor, at times a daily task for her considering how much mud can be tracked in on a farm.  Cleaning staved off memories for her, I believe, for she often said it kept her from thinking.  When I confronted her about her and Dad having to get married, she never rose up off her knees.  But when she raised her head to look at me and sat back on her heels, the rag in her hand, ready to rinse and ring it out in the wash water and scrub another patch, she was crying.  All she said was, “Wait until your dad gets home.”  A good threat then.

After Aunt Bobby’s and my visit to see Uncle Roy, Aunt Bobby and I sat in her living room and drank coffee.  We talked about cousins, about Larry who is one month older than I, Bobby and Mom pregnant at the same time.  Both Roy and my dad were in the service.  Dad never left the states because of his lazy eye; Roy served in Italy for sure, and most likely other places. When Bobby went into labor, various Bargenquast women would take turns sitting with her.  Labor then was not like it is now with classes on relaxation and the drugs for pain.  Not even oxygen.  But when mother’s turn came to sit, my mom cried so much during Bobby’s contractions that Bobby had to comfort my mother.

When Bobby told me that, I thought about all the times I saw my mother’s tears as she read letters, as she listened to sad tales, even mine.  And I thought about what it meant to be a pregnant woman in 1943 and have to get married, the feeling of being imperfect, the fear of being ostracized.  I thought about my mother having lost her first husband and having a child age 11 when I was born and giving birth to me in a nursing home without my father around.

 

Soap

Not much I remember about my kindergarten year at Jefferson, or even if I attended an entire year, or a year and six months or so.  When tenant farmers move, they move the first of March: enough time to settle in before plowing the fields, harrowing, seeding; enough time to cut potatoes into sections, each with an eye, and tramp them eye down in holes a foot apart, in rows two to three feet apart; enough time to prepare a brooder house for chicks, to settle in heifers to calf or to gather the ones born too early in the season and move them into heated pens at the new place.  We moved to the Beh place either the spring of my kindergarten year or the spring of my first grade.  My oldest brother was born when I was five, and I turned six in the spring of kindergarten.  More than likely I did not finish kindergarten at Jefferson.

I do remember being betrayed. Of course, the betrayal had more to do with my actions than the teacher’s.  If we were lucky students then, a teacher in a country school might have four years of college in a normal school.  Most likely, two was enough for a woman to gain a certificate for teaching.  Sometimes, the only qualification that a teacher had was that she graduated from high school.  My older sister, when she returned from Washington, D.C., was asked to teach in a country school when the teacher fell ill.  Not pregnant, but ill, for pregnant teachers were thought to expose young children to the harshness of existence.  That prescription did not leave education until the late 1970s.

In a box of pictures, I have a black and white of Jefferson’s country school teacher and me sitting on a blanket in our front lawn.  Behind her is a decorative woven-wire fence, crunched in places, to her right, my left, a lilac bush, a mainstay of rural lawns.   She faced the camera while I sat beside her.  Probably the photo was taken in August or early September, right after school started.  If Mom prepared for her visit, as she did for anyone else’s, everything had to be clean and there must be lunch, more than likely sandwiches and lemonade.  I’m sure we sat outside because the interior of our home spoke poverty. I don’t remember her visit, except what it appears to be in that picture.

Life on any farm is hard, labor intensive. Sweating becomes something that one does in spite of oneself. Salt pills are taken to keep in moisture when out in the field or gardening. On a farm, livestock don’t behave as they should, especially if one is loading them onto trucks for slaughter.  Fruit jars don’t seal, meals are burnt, milk spilt.  As an result, an occasionally swear word seeps out or is spit out of the corner of a mouth by either parent. My mother and father never used words that demeaned a person’s background or suggested sex in any way, but an occasionally swear word that invoked the name of God would ride on the summer air or hiss in the steam of a wood stove. My mother often swore in low German, never explaining to us the jest of what she said.  If Dad understood, he went on about his business, perhaps grinning a little.

One morning at school, I said the word damn. I suppose it was in imitation of a parent, for no television back then; only the radio–the words vibrating there conformed to Rockwell’s paintings. Almost immediately I was singled out, embarrassed, maybe duly, taken into the coat room where the teacher, the one who had visited our farm house that autumn, on a day during which canning was set aside while tomatoes ripened in wire baskets, in a house with fresh, stretched, and starched lace curtains, my parents’ iron bed in the same room as the dining table and the player piano, to find out who I was, and who sipped my mother’s lemonade and probably ate cheese and baloney sandwiches on Mom’s homemade white bread, washed my mouth out with pink soap.

Jefferson Township

Jefferson, the little country school about a mile north and a little east of the Paxton place, the one where I spent kindergarten, is no more; but I can still see its iconic structure, black trim with white wooden siding, shaded by huge elms and pines on two sides, a ways back from the roads on the south and the west.  Beautiful white steps, three, it seemed to me, and a playground to the east, the side that if I could move in time I would gaze at the house on the hill that we lived in during part of my sophomore and junior year, the Botna place.  I don’t know to whom we paid rent for that place.  If it existed now as it did then, it would have to be condemned by county officials, I’m sure.

The entryway was a strange geometric space. The opening to the main room where we were taught and where Christmas pageants was at a diagonal, the door only shut during blizzards and cold winds.  There was no door that set off the coat room from the rest of the school.   We would walk directly in the coat room, take off our five-buckle overshoes, if we had them on, which was always advisable, set them with their heels against the wall under the coat rack, and then hang up our coats on the pegs. A small pedestal sink with pink soap in a cradle by the faucet was on the far side of the coatroom, next to another opening that led into the one-room classroom.

At Jefferson there was only one Christmas pageant of which I was a part as were all of the other students.  Every year the students put on a Christmas show for our parents and siblings, friends, and neighbors: acting and singing, carols, games, deserts after. I  don’t think it was that Christmas pageant in which I first acted but it could have been, but I do have memories of singing “Silent Night” for every Christmas pageant except the sixth-grade one at Greeley.  The parents snuck in gifts to put under the tree as if Santa Claus magically appeared and disappeared with a nod.  That one Christmas  the only thing that I remember was this toy, a pull toy of a wooden black dog with some white spots, not a dalmatian, more like a dachshund.  It was about a foot long, its body a slinky, a string on its nose that I held onto as I pulled it around the room.  I delighted in its clackling legs.  I was my mom and dad’s first born.  My oldest sister was my mother’s from her first husband, a husband who died from tuberculosis. Betty was not at the party, as far as I can remember.

Years later in Sioux Falls, soon after leaving my second husband, after an afternoon of garage sailing, I stopped at this one house south of McKennan Park.  My children weren’t with me, thank god.  I parked on the east side of the street and walked across into an older garage with a cracked cement floor.  Some of the items for sale were vintage toys: a metal top, the more you pumped it, the faster it would go; a slinky dog like the one I received at Christmas; old play trucks and cars.  There in the middle of that garage as I stood in front of the black slinky toy dog displayed on a chest-high table, I experienced a completely disorientating anxiety attack, one that resulted in my not remembering who or where I was.  All I knew is that I had to leave.  I stared out the opening and recognized my car, but instead of walking towards it, I backed out of the garage; then turned around and ran to my car.  Once inside I locked the door.  The separation and the impending divorce were harrowing, but I don’t think that had anything to do with the anxiety attack.  Something had happened to me as a child and the toy that I had, something that only exists in the far reaches of my memory, unable to be touched or witnessed again.

Scar

On the Botna place, we didn’t have a phone, not one at the Paxton place either.  At the Beh place, three rings and a short on a party line. Seven on that party line, I’m pretty sure.  With a hand over the mouthpiece, one could eavesdrop on conversations of the other six.   Mom listened in, not often but enough to know superficially what went on within a mile.  The wall oak telephone at the Beh place was on the south wall of the kitchen above the old trunk Mom bought at an auction, one that served as a place to store wood; at one time, a lamb, often runt pigs. The operator for all the lines was in Irwin.  The telephone operator’s place was on Main Street in Irwin, right down at the bottom of the hill on the west side, next to a confectionery store or a bar, not sure.  If we were in town during the day, I would sometimes go into her place and watch her insert one cord in one line and flip a switch and ring so that two could talk. I found the contraption amazing.  Not always busy, she was; so in between times, she would swivel around on the oak stool and visit with me. An emergency would wake her up in the middle of the night, so one had to be sure before bothering her.

Mother could call others on our party line without having to connect with the operator–two shorts, three shorts and a long, whatever. We kids only talked on the phone when given permission. Dad seldom did. Crank the handle once for the operator, or crank it for the code to connect to the Walkers, the Nordbys.  A phone call was rare and often unwelcomed. No news is good news, not like today when the latest emotional tidbits are keystrokes.  No one sat on a chair and jawed the afternoon away, for one had to stand up to talk into the mouthpiece.  One could sit down and listen, for the ear piece was almost always long enough to sit on a chair, but if rubbering –listening in–that seal between the palm and the mouthpiece had to be as tight as a drum. One also had to be careful how one lifted the ear piece off its cradle, for if there was a lull in the conversation at that moment, that tiny little click was audible.  Mom was good at both ends, but she just hated it when one of us slammed the door or started talking before checking what was happening in the kitchen.  Then she would wave as if shooing away flies, and make this god-awful grimace.

Mom didn’t listen often, but the skills  I observed became useful during my listening-in escapades to teenagers’ and ex-husbands’ conversations.

Being without a phone late at night babysitting a little brother while the folks went to town and when that little brother would not stop crying for whatever reason caused me nothing but alarm and panic.  My sister didn’t know what to do either, that is if I asked her.  And it was late, like close to midnight late.  The road that passed by our house, as were most all of the rural roads then, were often nothing more dirt ruts caused by tractors and implements, wagons and horses.  The nearest place that had a phone was the farmstead to the east and south; and I could see from the house that the lights were on.  I couldn’t go down to Grandma’s for that was over a mile away and it was pitch dark outside, a sliver of a moon and that sliver draped by clouds.  We had this old wreck of a thing called a bicycle that once in a while one of us rode around the farmstead but never on the roads–too full of ruts to negotiate.  I pulled it out of the bushes to the west of the house and headed east. Halfway there, the pedal broke off and my foot slipped off, the metal gouging a gash into my left leg right on the shin, a gash long enough that the white scar still throbs today at times.

I don’t remember if I made it to the neighbors or if I turned around and walked the bike back up the hill, but it was hell to pay when the folks returned home. I think I called, for it seemed to me that they were more upset that the neighbors knew they were in town at the tavern than the fact that my leg was cut.  No doctor, no stitches; bandages. Years later, after fishing with my soon-to-be second ex, I stepped off the boat onto the dock too soon and the sharp edge of the boat opened up that scar again.