We raised chickens when I was a child. They began their lives warmed under the bright orb of a heating lamp, and completed their sojourn with us in the dark recesses of one of our enormous chest freezers. Then each of them, at their appointed time, was changed in the blink of an eye, into something beautiful and new— fried, roasted, stewed or souped. Their attributes were greatly praised around the Sunday dinner table by one and all who wondered at the transformation—all, perhaps, but Mom who had actually slaved in the heat of the kitchen all morning by herself.
The chickens’ summer abode was a small lean-to dwelling in the midst of the orchard just beyond our backyard. Marsha and I spent many an hour playing in this orchard climbing in the trees for a better vantage point during endless games of hide and seek with the neighbor kids or our younger siblings. Sometimes we helped Keith to build forts from the huge slices of elm trees that were stacked in one corner awaiting chopping for winter fuel. There were once four massive specimens lining the driveway, that each, in turn, succumbed to Dutch Elm disease, giving us a bounteous supply of firewood.
Due to the generous application of fertilizer from our fifty feathered manure spreaders the orchard grass was long and lush under the cherry, plum and pear trees and the one tall peach tree against the fence nearest the house. There is nothing more soothing to the hot dry dusty feet of shoeless children who spend their summers running up and down sandy driveways or trudging down gravel roads to neighbouring friends’ houses, than the cool damp softness of orchard grass in the shade of ancient trees. Such refreshment! Such bliss! Until the inevitable warm wet squish between the toes brings one back from Shangri-La to the chicken yard again. A quick cleansing rub of the foot through the longer blades of grass and the feeling of dirtiness soon disappears, fortunately, as a full soap and water cleansing must wait until bath time.
On a philosophical bent, the meaning of clean is certainly relative isn’t it? Is a body fully immersed in a soap, water and dirt solution cleaner when leaving the bath or not? Speaking of relative, I never had a bath without one (or more) in the tub with me until I was ten or eleven—fortunately just the girl ones, usually my sisters, with an occasional visiting cousin thrown in now and then. City dwellers whose biggest water- related problem is how to pay the bill may consider this situation disgustingly gross, but as a strategy for water conservation in dry years, or when the septic system was overloaded, it was an absolute necessity. By the time I was 10, I had seven siblings, so not only was it necessary to double up in the tub, but sometimes during a drought when the well was overtaxed the cleaner kid combos bathed first, and the dirtier ones in the same water next.
When Marsha and I bathed together and modesty became a necessity for our budding psyches, we achieved a happy compromise by bathing back to back. Although, frequently one of us would turn and soap up the other’s back and play a game of tic tac toe. The soaper could see their own move, but the soapee had to use their memory to decide where to have the soaper put their X or O for them. If you couldn’t remember and accidentally chose a spot that was used, you just lost your turn. The loser had to get out first and the winner could then pull the plug and stay in to play a game of slip and slide up from one end of the tub to the other when the water was nearly drained away. That’s if there wasn’t a sand bar at the bottom of the tub from the earlier bathers. That brings to mind a stanza of a poem I once wrote based partly on my thoughts on this childhood activity:
The kids make the waves in the oceans, you know;
In the warmer parts of the world
They’re splishing and splashing and sloshing and slooshing
Until all the water gets hurled
Up on the beaches everywhere,
Like the water out of my tub
Whenever I slide from the front to the back
When I’m finished my nightly scrub!
Our soap was always Ivory which was slippery enough to lend its residue to a good fast slide. Though our mom bought it, I’m sure, because it was advertised as 99.9% pure. If she couldn’t always get us to church on Sundays at least she tried her best to enhance our Godliness through cleanliness. Probably the vigorous rubdown with the crispy-textured, bleach-smelling, line-dried towels would get that other .1% dirt off. It seemed to remove enough layers of skin with each swipe to ensure that effect anyway!
Dirt has always puzzled me. Just how dangerous is it anyway? My granddad always said “You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die.” (He was a bit hard of hearing). Nevertheless, whenever he offered us a newly pulled carrot from the garden he very carefully wiped it clean across his grubby overalls, and he always made a point of blowing the dust off any slice of bread and butter we dropped on the floor, before handing it graciously back to us. Nevertheless, it troubled me…What if you got to your full quota of dirt at a young age because you happened to eat outside a lot, and lived by a really dusty road? Would you die young? Thoughts like this always dissuaded me from erring on the side of dirt.
Strangely enough it was me, the one who never lay in the tub with my head under dirty water, who got constant ear infections,while my carefree older sister never got a one. Though I have to say I was never troubled by “impure thoughts” as listed in our childhood catechisms as confession-worthy sins— at least not enough to make a point of having to mention it to a priest! But with that .1% of Ivory soap’s impurities floating around in the bath water, along with all the other pollution, and all of it going straight to her brain I wonder if my sister Marsha ever was?
What’s a girl to do when she has a date on a Saturday night, her father has just dug up the malfunctioning septic tank and she has been told not to take a bath because there is no where for the water to go? It only takes brains and a bucket! One summer night while everyone was lingering over dessert and sharing some family fun we were all disturbed by what seemed like a torrential downpour flowing down the dining room window and forcefully dislodging the purple petunias from the window box below. We all jumped up to check out the reason why it was only raining on one side of the house. When we ran out the side door we looked up to see our sister Marsha in her slip, furiously heaving buckets full of bathwater out the bathroom window. Shortly after the deluge her date arrived at the sudsy side porch where he was greeted by his blushing date who actually wasn’t blushing at all, but simply flushed from the task of bailing water for the last twenty minutes—the only flushing that was permitted at our house until the septic tank was pumped out on Monday!