E. H. . .

A couple of months ago, E. H., the youngest son of one of my parents’ friends, was diagnosed with Leukemia, a fairly advanced stage, with the only possible cure a bone marrow transplant. E. who lives in southwest Iowa is my oldest sister’s brother-in-law, a couple of years younger than she and nine years older than I.

A slight and skinny man, rail thin, with a face that has always seemed diminutive to me, this 79-year old man, cannot speak or hear.  And he was never taught standard sign language; from what I understand, a decision made by his parents.  Over the years, E. H. created personal hand gestures of his own that was accompanied by various sounds and he learned to read and write some.  His mother and father were friends of my parents long before my older sister and their oldest son married, a marriage that lasted until the children were grown.

E. H.’s oldest brother, my sister’s ex-husband, was a hard-drinking man during his years in the service and more so after he returned from his tour of duty in Vietnam.  After he and my oldest sister divorced, my sister eventually moved from what was their home on Flathead Lake to Kalispell.   After a drunken rampage during which her ex-husband shot and injured a man whom he thought was an intruder, my ex-brother-in-law moved from Montana back to his home town.  Years later, after he died, his children returned from Montana to help clean up the house and ready it and the contents for sale, but it was no use.  The building was in such sad shape that it had to be demolished. But there is so much more to the story.

I remember not being very old when E. H. first pestered me when his parents  came to visit  When he became a teenager with desires, I became the object of his somewhat ineffective and juvenile sexual intentions.  When I was four or so, playing in a sand box that my father had made north of the house, and E. H.  was age 13 or 14, E. H. would expose himself to me.   I would be frightened and run and hide.  Going to my mother and father was useless, for they understood that one doesn’t become upset with someone who has and always will have an immature mind. Even when I was adult, even during both of my marriages, E. H. would gesture to me as if he pleasuring himself.  At the same time he would rapidly point at me and back at himself to indicate we should make a connection.  I would shake my head no and walk away, which was often whenever he was around.

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Fire

My grandma Snyder, my father’s mother, was 4’2″ tall, humpbacked from scoliosis of the spine, not from falling off a tightrope, as she often whispered when asked by one of us grandkids.  Not that she couldn’t have, for according to family historians, which really mean family gossips, her relatives were Hammond Circus trapeze artists who died in an Indiana train wreck in 1918.  I would try this genetic disposition out more than once by attempting to walk barefoot up the steel cable that braced the grandparents’ yard light, traversing the cable lengthwise through my instep and grasping it with my toes, but it never failed that after a few feet or so, I either fell or froze such, weaving back and forth, that I had to be helped down.

Grandma was very soft-spoken, so soft-spoken that we grandchildren had to be quiet to listen to her.  The radio was seldom on, and of course there was no television.  In her house, on a sofa in the living room, we grandchildren played games–button-button, the most popular.  But outlandish noise, no.  All had to be done with respect to silence and the unsaid.

Grandma’s other version was that a horse kicked her.  That also could have been true, but I doubt it, considering my father’s propensity to tell tall tales, something that he surely inherited from his father and that was probably shared by his mother.  Then, true stories were banded back and forth between adults, if they were aired at all.  We grandchildren had to listen behind closed doors, but if caught, from then on, we could only hear the sounds of barnyard animals snorting for position and nudging open waterers and feeders.

Grandma’s presence was one that inspired awe.  We grandchildren measured the depth of our maturity by our height in comparison to hers.  Her words golden, but she could wedge kindling in the fire pit of the kitchen’s wood stove and not be burned.  When she hooked the cast iron lever into the lid, she did not grasp the lever with a potholder.  Sometimes she did first grab the end of her apron if the stove was really hot, but that too would amaze me, for the cast iron stove contained all that fire. While flames spurted out from the firebox, Grandma would wedge in a piece of kindling without singing her hands.

Grandma in Botna

Grandma made all her aprons from a special pattern that conformed to the hump in her back. After my mother’s death, in one of her boxes, I found the pattern cut out from old newspaper, laid inside a few yards of flowered material ready to be cut anew. I don’t know where the pattern is now.

The kindling was kept in a steel bushel basket over by the sink, replenished often, especially in the late forenoon and late afternoon.  The farmstead contained numerous trees, enough for us kids to gather dried sticks and twigs to get the stink out of us, as my father would say. I only remember a few times when I was told to stoke the fire in the wood cook stove, for most of the time, Grandma seldom left the kitchen fire unattended.

In that tight kitchen a small table with an enamel top was positioned right beside the door that led into the living room.  There Grandpa would pull out a chair and sit and drink coffee, eat lunch and dinner, the space so tight that none could scoot behind his chair into the other room.  At that table after stirring in teaspoon after teaspoon of sugar into a cup of coffee, Grandpa would then pour some of the contents into a saucer, and drink the concoction from that saucer.  During strawberry season, I was always amazed at the spoonfuls of sugar Grandpa would spread across the mound of strawberries and cream.

Grandpa and Grandma Snyder

In the kitchen, to bide my time while Grandma worked in the kitchen, Grandma would set up a small table for me to play canasta, most of the time by myself, or she would reach over and move a card once in a while or tell me what card to play.  For years, I thought I would never forget how to play that game, but even though I still see the stacks of cards, the steps have dwindled from my memory.

On the other side of the sink, to the left of the door that led into the dining room was a pantry, with its sacks of flour and sugar, canned goods retrieved from the cellar, beans sealed in jars, and other grocery items.   The colors in that pantry those of an autumn garden. The entrance only a curtain that moved in accordance with what breeze strode in behind whoever entered.  On warm days especially to balance the intense heat of the kitchen, Grandma would open the tiny west window in the pantry, and the curtain would flutter constantly.

I remember one time Grandma told me to hide in the pantry.  I remember crouching in a corner to the right of the opening.  I remember fearing something, but not sure what.

When I was a sophomore in the middle of winter, after I worked for the Hueys, the neighbors across the road from Grandma, I worked for one of their friends, a family who lived on a farm close to Irwin.  My pay was to be ten dollars a week.  During that week, I caught the bus from their house to  school.  My job was to help the man’s wife in the kitchen and to tend to the children, but first in the morning to make sure the fire in the stove was enough to  heat the house.  I believe I slept with one of the children, but I do know that where I slept was upstairs in a room in the far corner.   I don’t remember what the wife looked like, but the man looked and acted like Glen Huey, a short stubby man that for some reason I felt had a mean streak.

One cold morning, the fire mere embers, after I stoked the fire in the pot-belly stove that stood in the middle of the living room, the man of the house seemed to sneak up next to me and say that I would make a good wife for I knew how to build a fire.

I don’t know what my father heard or his reasoning, or if my mother urged him, but I do know that without warning, at the end of one week, my father drove up to get me, insisting before I left that the man pay me the ten dollars that I was owed.  I know I never told anyone, much less my father, what the man had said to me.

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.