Tag Archives: big family farm life

The Salvagers

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Yvonnes Musings

imagesMy father, a major restorer of order and tidiness to all things within his reach, had done an amazing thing for a man with his character traits. He had taken something built by someone else’s hands and torn it down. One day it stood as a testament to the hard work of the many hands that had made it, and the next day it was a scattered heap, lying across the ground.

The enormous elevated barrel— the water tower next to the CNR tracks, in nearby Strathroy, was where steam locomotives had filled their tanks with water for generations. It was no longer necessary when diesel engines took over. The tower was up for grabs, and our dad’s bid won. After careful planning and consultation with his Uncle Fred, a lifelong railroad man with many skills himself, the measurements were all worked out, and the distance of the fall was calculated…

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Plates Will Fly!

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I love to write and I have taken great joy in putting pen to paper since my early childhood. Perhaps I should say that in those days, in the Fifties, it was, at first, a  big, fat, red carpenter’s pencil, stubby and flat-sided, and the paper was usually old paper grocery bags, the insides of empty cereal boxes, or anything else that was of little value. (I learned by bitter experience that wallpaper doesn’t fall into that category.)  That first pencil, I “borrowed” from my father, who often kept one tucked behind his ear as he worked out measurements or put down marks where he wanted to saw next, whenever he was working on a project. God provided fathers with ears, not just to hear, I’m sure, but also to keep them from cursing at their children. Where else would that pencil be safe from  covetous little fingers? Well, in truth, my dad was not a cursing man anyway, but just to be on the safe side he still kept his pencil there.

Once I arrived on the scene, there were two kids in our family; but by the time I married and moved out of the house, there were eight. In large families, it is always difficult to maintain ownership of any of your things for very long. A favorite doll gets quickly adopted by a little sister (if it doesn’t lose an arm or a leg in the transaction); that first bottle of “grown-up” perfume becomes an everlasting drawer-scent in a dresser —soon destined for an unappreciative  brother’s use. Unfortunately with another little bed, moved into your room, it just takes up too much space. Your most treasured books end up as a pile of scissors’ fodder ( even for blunt-tipped ones, no less!) Dresses are inevitably borrowed, unasked, or even shortened, unasked, when a sister has a “really important occasion”, and the family’s finances are tight. “Lost” “snagged” “ripped” “gouged” “broken” “stained” “spilled” and “run-over”— these words are the true driving force behind a child becoming a writer. When you are young, your writing is just about the only thing that nobody else attempts to lay claim to. It is the only thing that is truly your own.

So it  was, that my love of writing evolved. I moved on to thinner, longer, yellow pencils, of course, to ancient nib pens for learning perfect handwriting “the old fashioned way”, in a one-room schoolhouse with a crotchety teacher; to refillable fountain pens with blue, black, or turquoise ink; to ballpoints; to fine-tip markers and then eventually the computer keyboard.  Perhaps you noticed that I  left “typewriter” off my list… a deliberate shunning, actually.

My first attempt at learning to type was in Grade Ten; I was anxious and uncoordinated from the outset. It didn’t help that I was two weeks late starting classes— an accepted practice among farm families in the tobacco belt. Generally parents required their older kids’ help until the harvest was complete and the school boards accepted it. Although in all other subjects I quickly caught up, unfortunately,  in typing I never got up to speed. Literally! On my final exam I got a humiliating 26%! When I told my parents “My fingers got jammed in the keys!” in all likelihood it was a false memory of that event; it is more likely that it was actually a panic attack. But that 26% isn’t a false memory! It still appears on an aging yellow report card, in a rusty old tin box in the back of my crawl space.

 Even more traumatic than the mark was the fact that it was used to factor my academic “Final Average” for that year. This was the cause of deep mortification, and teenage angst. To this day I sometimes use it as an excuse for the throwing of plates and silverware at my siblings.(Back then, of course, not now— I’ve finally mellowed out some.)

Like me, several of my siblings love to write and, in fact, they write very well. Sometimes they write poems, and sometimes stories of shared family history. At other times it’s simply a story to make everybody laugh, or to lift someone in particular up. And some of them write in an attempt to make things better in the world at large. Each of my siblings mean so much to me that words cannot really express it. But just let one of them try to borrow one of my stories, and say that it was they who got bitten on the leg by Aunt Grace’s  chihuahua,  or yelled at for loudly singing a hymn in the schoolhouse bathroom, or that it was their eye that the baby robin pooped in— then plates will fly! Mark my words: Plates will fly!

The Other F Word

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After little brother Jim learned one of the worst words from the primers he was banned from riding the horse in the field.

Little brother Jimmy picked up a very bad word from the primers and was banned from riding the horse in the field.

Growing up on a tobacco farm in the midst of the kind and gentle people of Caradoc Township, near Melbourne, Ontario, we still sometimes heard particular words that were so fraught with emotion when they were uttered that their impact was never forgotten. One of the worst of them started with the letter F. Any kid in the 50’s and 60’s caught saying that one usually ended up with tears in his eyes. The tears were partly in reaction to his personal humiliation at the hands of his mother, and partly from gagging on the luxurious lather on the Lifebuoy bar being jammed into in his mouth. I say “his mouth” because the soap tasters tended to be boys. In tobacco farming areas there was another F word that had even more power. This one could even bring tears to the eyes of grown men—that word was frost.

Imagine waking early one morning to discover that every hour of your work, every hour of your wife’s work, every hour of your kids’ work— labour that brought everyone to the brink of exhaustion for weeks on end— was all for nothing.

Imagine that every dollar you spent for the seed, for the greenhouse soil, and for sterilizing the seed beds was wasted. The cost of labourers to work alongside your family pulling the seedlings up from their beds, planting them in the fields, and hoeing them carefully is all lost the moment the sun comes up.

The temperature unexpectedly dropped to zero overnight, and there is no way to get irrigation lines set up fast enough to spray away the ice crystals on even an acre of your crop. The second the sun heats up the ice crystals the cells in the leaves will rupture. In moments the green of a hopeful beginning turns as black as despair. Frost is a dirty word too—one of the really bad ones.

One year when frost hit our farm early enough in the growing season to allow for replanting a second time all the other farmers in the area had been frozen out too. Whatever seedlings they still had left in their greenhouses they were in need of themselves. Our greenhouse was totally depleted from planting a larger number of acres that year and Dad had to search far and wide before he was finally able to locate plants. He would have to go all the way to Port Burwell near Lake Erie to get them.

Hearing of our troubles, my cousin Barbara Smith volunteered to come up from Pittsburgh to help out with replanting. She hauled one truckload after another of heavy wooden boxes packed full of plants. They had healthy hefty root balls loaded with rich black soil so much fewer fit into each box. The marathon of round trips continued for several days in order to give a fresh supply to the planters until the crop was in the ground again. It was amazing that, despite the much earlier planting season near the lake, this farmer still had enough seedlings in good condition for us to replant. It was definitely an answer to prayer. The plants may have come at a high price that year, but they were definitely worth it. Otherwise we would not have had a crop at all.

If the harvest started in the last week of July, by the end of the first or second week in September we would usually be finished if we had not had many days too stormy for working. Every day off work was a day later that a tobacco farmer’s older kids would be delayed in joining their classmates at school. This was always a trial for us, but worse still was if we were late enough to be getting into the frost danger zone again. The break even point in tobacco growing often happened only at the tail end of the harvest because it was such a costly enterprise. This was when we would earn the money to cover living expenses for our family of ten. That money would still be tied up until the finished baled product was sold at auction in the winter months and the bank was repaid, but at least we would know that it was coming.

Those farmers in our neighbourhood who grew other less frost sensitive crops, and those who raised animals that they would sell throughout the year may not have understood entirely what was at stake for our family should we lose a number of kilns’ worth of  tobacco. But this they did know—my father was always there for them in any crisis. Whether it was equipment break down, a barn fire, a grass fire, an illness, an injury or an unexpected death that called for the men to man up for one another, my dad, like the good and decent men of his generation, was always there. These men took over one another’s work loads when necessary, and they lent out their children as free labourers when the need arose. Every farm kid over ten had calluses in those years.

“Many hands make light work”— my grandfather Jim Stephenson’s favourite saying— was our family’s credo, and it seemed to matter very little how small the hands were. It was this shared social convention in our community that made it alright for the oldest four Stephenson kids, aged 14, 13, 12 and 11 to pick up corn for their neighbour Evan Howe for $2.oo a day in 1963 (with a nice sandwich lunch included.) Because Evan’s old and faltering combine had missed harvesting too much of his crop we were sent over to help. We weren’t there for the token payment—that was at best a fraction of what it was worth. It was done so that we could be a part of what was right and good in the time and place that we lived. It was this thinking that also made it alright for the Howe kids, and the Derbyshire kids to be out trudging up and down tobacco rows until 10:30 PM on a school night in early September.

Working by tractor light in the fields, and expecting no payment in return for shivering in the cold as the temperature dropped towards zero, all the volunteers had one goal in mind. Get it picked! Sloppy, sliding bundles of leaves were carried clumsily row to row by kids, by neighbours of both sexes, and even by old men like our Uncle Fred, my grandfather Jim’s brother, in the hope of reaching the boat before it got too far ahead of us.

Our hands and forearms were soon blackened by sticky tobacco tar as we added our armloads to those of the gang of “primers”— the half-dozen pickers who boarded with us during harvest time. Their own enormous bundles, almost a foot across at the stem end, put ours to shame but every little bit helped. They were all placed carefully in the boat, a box sled on runners pulled between two rows behind Jack the horse. At the end of the field the boats were quickly hooked on behind the tractor and raced to the kiln yard by my brother Keith, the boat driver. Here they were unloaded and the bundles stacked side by side on the ground, giving the appearance of cord wood from the stem side in the dim yellow circle of  light that the pole light gave off.

Somewhere in the field there was a brief but noisy interaction between Mom and Dad. Voices carried far on the cool night air. She was struggling to drive a tractor that she had never been on before and whenever she tried to slow down the jerking of accidental stops and starts made it hard for Dad. He was on the wagon behind her trying to stay upright. He was lighting bales of straw on fire and throwing them to the ground as close as he could get them to the rows that weren’t yet picked clean. These smouldering smudge fires would provide a smoky haze, a blanket of warmer air that just might be able to keep the air temperature underneath it above zero. As soon as Mom finished driving the tractor she raced into the house to prepare and bring out big thermos jugs of very hot, very sweet, milky coffee for one and all, even the kids. It was a night when all the rules seemed to have been thrown out the window.

Finally, when Dad felt that the tobacco that was picked and stacked would be all that we could pack into the kilns in the next day or so the priming was called to a halt. This stacking of tobacco on the ground for a subsequent marathon of filling kilns was a last ditch effort to salvage what we could. The grade of tobacco produced after curing it would be much lower than usual, but hopefully still saleable. Any stacked tobacco not in the kiln curing within two days time would rot. The spoilage would begin even earlier if the weather turned hot again.

That night was a moment in time that I will never forget— forged into something solid in my brain by the emotions of fear, excitement and gratitude (and in all likelihood a walloping jolt of caffeine as well.) Strangely I don’t remember the final outcome. Did all of the remaining crop freeze? Did some of it survive because of the smudge fires? Did we have money for new school clothes that year? Was there money to be able to get an allowance?

In the end I cannot remember anything that would reveal the answer. What I do remember is a house full of hushed people gathered around the kitchen and dining room tables helping themselves to the heaping trays of hastily made sandwiches, and plates full of cookies and donuts. Were they hushed because they knew there were little ones sleeping upstairs? Were they hushed because they already knew what tomorrow’s sun would bring?

People embraced each of my parents in turn as they left the house. Were they embracing them to instil a sense of hope, or was this being done to console them in their sorrow. This part of my memory is like water rippling under a bridge.

But of this much I am certain—those kind and gentle people of Caradoc Township were going home to their own houses that night with our concerns on their hearts. In the same way, their concerns would be on our hearts if ever the day came when their words could not be spoken without tears.

My Collage Of Christmas (Part 2)

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08710_all_dec-03-starYesterday I promised to continue on with my Christmas collage, an assortment of colourful Christmas remembrances that have somewhat bluer shades than all the rest. While growing up in the 50’s and 60’s on a South Western Ontario farm, our family eventually expanded to five girls, and three boys in all. I also had the most loving and caring parents any child could ever have been blessed with, so I really have far more memories of every bright and happy colour imaginable, than I do blue ones. But those which I have chosen for this written collage of sorts, are those which have embedded themselves more deeply— perhaps because of the darker shades of disappoint in those fleeting moments collected together here.

Stars

From the moment that my mother first guided my tiny pencil-clenching fist over a piece of scrap paper, causing me to leave a squiggly drawing of a five-pointed star behind, I have loved stars. Whether it is myself I first remember or one of the later toddlers in the family sitting on Mummy’s lap and going through those zigzagging motions until they had learned it, I am unsure. It was certainly me once, and as my mother took great enjoyment in teaching us to draw and write and play little games with pencil and paper, it was an oft-repeated scene. Soon each little one learned to draw perfect stars—sometimes with great abandon on freshly papered walls and newly painted woodwork (which of course was far less appreciated!)

My first fancy doll arrived one Christmas from my Godmother, my Aunt Catherine who lived far away in Pittsburgh. This doll was a dark-haired princess who wore a royal blue gown encrusted with tiny silver sequin stars all over it— not just the satin top, but all over the wide flowing skirt made of matching blue see-through fabric, as light as a wedding veil and draped over the satin underskirt. My little brother Keith who was called Butchy at the time, still slept in a crib in the same room as my sister Marsha and I, but he had learned to climb out of it and would soon need a big boy bed. The day after Christmas I found my princess doll in my baby brother’s crib. He had escaped during nap time and kidnapped my doll. Then he had climbed back into his crib again. When I went to wake him up from his nap, I found him laying there in his soft little footed sleeper with his pudgy face all covered in slobber and stars. He had chewed every single one of them off my princess’s dress with his tiny baby teeth. Her gown was now a chewed on sopping wet rag! I was so angry I balled my eyes out. I eventually forgave my baby brother of course. He was so wonderful and cute and only a baby after all, but that particular Christmas I felt no joy at all in tinselly Christmas stars.

Christmas Pudding

My first Christmas pudding experience happened at the end of a long ago Christmas dinner that my mother had put on for the extended family on my father’s Scottish⁄ English side. We had now traded our small white house for our grandparents’ much larger brick farmhouse. Anyway, there was the usual feast with all the long-awaited festive dishes that Mom had prepared. Just as an aside—there is a reason they call stuffing “stuffing”, particularly after third helpings!

Just when we were all sitting around on our last gasps, as overstuffed as Grandma’s parlour settee, out from the kitchen my Aunt Irene paraded the steaming pudding.I had never seen one of these things before and was not the least bit impressed. What was it anyway? It looked like someone had taken a big mixing bowl full of our dog Judy’s food and tipped it upside down on a cake plate. “It’s a Christmas pudding and Mom says we have to eat it!” the whispered message quickly passed mouth- to- ear around the part of the table my siblings and I had laid claim to. In an effort to keep the peace with her difficult Scottish mother-in-law my mom was determined that we children must do our family duty. “Why do we have to eat it?” “Because Mom said so!”… “Or else!” Marsha whispered back. Aunt Irene, my Dad’s sister then took a big silver spoon and began scooping gargantuan mounds of bloated cooked raisins, mushy carrot bits, and dark currants all mixed up together in a cakey goop that smelled like our dad’s Old Spice shaving lotion, into cereal bowls. Because we didn’t own any fruit nappies. On top of each serving she poured a ladle full of what looked like gravy although we knew it couldn’t be. Could it? That would be even more ridiculous. “It’s Scottish tradition. It’s bad luck not to eat it all.”  Aunt Betty, Dad’s other sister said.  Our mother couldn’t bear to see the terrified look in our eyes, I think, so she began clearing the table ( In reality it was probably just a ruse to escape eating any of it herself— especially after Aunt Irene said she liked to use “lots of suet in the recipe to keep it moist.”)

Thinking that Mom apparently had abandoned us to our own devices we were hopeful that Keith would come up with a plan. He had always been very good at sneaking unwanted bread crusts outside to the dog in his pockets…Maybe if we could just find enough paper napkins…

My mother had not factored in one very crucial thing. Some of her kids might actually like this stuff enough to eat it all up (especially the rum sauce), and on top of all the huge portions of their favourite things that her kids had already gorged themselves on… well the consequences just might not be too pretty…

Ever since that day when my siblings and I have sung the carol We Wish You a Merry Christmas, when we get to the second verse we usually sing “Oh bring us a pity pudding!” instead of “a figgy pudding.” The last time that we sang it that way my son–in-law Phil turned to me and said “You know it’s actually a “figgy pudding”, not a “pity pudding” don’t you?” All I could say was “You had to be there!” On that day and for all Christmases that followed thereafter, I have certainly gained no luck from, and definitely felt no joy whatsoever in the consumption of Christmas pudding.

Well, another tale or two is told and I have not yet finished my Christmas collage, so I’ll be back with more tomorrow.

Until then, enjoy your rum sauce if you must, but in my opinion anyway “Hold the pudding!”

Loco Locomotion

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Jimmy and Donny Stephenson on the move.

Jimmy and Donny Stephenson on the move.

If it moved we were on it! Not each and every one of the eight of us together of course, but whoever happened to be present when we came upon it, and whatever number of us could be simultaneously accommodated at any one time. If it had wheels, or runners, or legs, if it had gyrating parts, or pulleys, if it had any amount of bounce or potential to be launched from, swung from, or dropped from we were on it!

Watch nothing but the most terrifying thrills and spills type of action movie excerpts for an entire afternoon, hunkered down with a stack of DVDs and your remote control on fast forward! It might approximate the tiniest semblance of the excitement that Keith and I, Marsha and Jeannie, Kathy and Janice, Jimmy and Donny or any other combination of the kids in my family felt when we were all on the move—on the move with no hands on the wheel, or on the handlebars, or even the  horse’s mane. The less control we had over the ultimate outcome of a particular adventure the better we all seemed to like it.

Sometimes we chose to ignore the wise counsel of our elders to “Hang on for crying out loud!” but more often than not there wasn’t anything to hang on to anyway. And in any case, is it really wise to tightly clench the sides of a big silver serving tray just as your sister launches you on your luge ride from the landing on the stairs, down towards the front door leading out to the veranda anyway? Isn’t that just inviting rug-burned knuckles? Is that any less painful than crashing into the front door? Perhaps Marsha might know the answer.

And is it less painful to ride bareback at high-speed around the pasture on a geriatric bony–backed horse with your cousin, or to get a swat on the behind from your father afterwards? The tingling in one area just might alleviate the pain in another, if it’s anything like that electric shock therapy you can get at the chiropractor’s office or the physiotherapist’s. Keith would surely be able to answer that one.

What is it like to ride the rusting skeletal remains of an old partly dismantled hay rake down a hill, with nothing more to sit on than an axle between two huge iron hoop wheels? How does it feel to share such a wild ride with your brother as you shriek and giggle in ever lengthier rides each time you push it back up the hill, until finally you have landed at the edge of the run-off pond surrounding the manure pile after a heavy rain? Well, it is unlike anything else I have ever experienced in my life, or anything I expect to experience ever again, especially now that I am a  paranoid germaphobe! But Keith, being far more of a thrill seeker than I ever was, might answer otherwise.

What is it like to take a ride in a unique kind of trolley car—one that is attached to an overhead line with two trolleys wheels, one that runs straight from the barn to its outside destination? What if that destination happens to be the top of a big, dry-crusted, old manure pile where you are unceremoniously dumped out, when the car hits a trip lock on the line? Would you run back to your original launching point just as speedily as  the car magically rolling back in overhead?

Would you giggle and squeal as you and your brother climb up on the milking stool to get in again, just before he pushes his bare foot against a beam to get the car moving for another ride or two? You bet! If you were a child growing up in a big family on a small general farm in Ontario more than 50 years ago, you very well might have done the same thing on a day when your mother was off having a baby and your dad had brought in a neighbour girl to baby-sit who didn’t have “eyes in the back of her head” like your mom did.

When your eyes, and your younger brother’s eyes are burning like fire, from whatever the trolley bucket you were riding in had been cleaned with, would you own up to what you had been doing? Or would you just let your Dad think that two of his children were really missing their mother and crying so hard all day that their eyes were red and their eye lids puffy?

Yes, if it moved we were on it! But after that day we decided we would never take that particular trolley line again!

A Creative Bent or Just Plain Warped?

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DocImage000000481All the siblings in my family are a creative lot. There are story tellers whose verbal skills in amusing us over and over again with the same tales we’ve heard a hundred times before are such that they will gather a captive audience in two minutes flat if word passes around room to room, or front yard to back yard, that they are at it again. Keith and Jim are famous for this. They are truly able to see the humour in the situation, whether it is Keith’s ladder flying off the roof of his truck in the middle of the 401, or Jim getting snagged by his undies in a pre-dawn fall off his deck, while holding a running chainsaw. (Supposedly there were these annoying tree branches rubbing up against the bedroom window…)

There is nothing I love more than a long phone call from Keith, on his occasional quiet Saturday mornings, to tell me what crazy escapades he has been up to in his house-renovating, barn-painting, overly busy life. Keith is also a really great writer whose reflections on life on his face book page are poignant and publisher ready, despite his protests to the contrary.

My youngest brother, Don, is more serious than either of his brothers, but he is a very prolific journaler. His very small hand-written script, tightly travelling in a regimented way across stacks of note-book pages, reminded me of what I had seen of soldiers’ war-time letters, on precious air mail paper, in military museums. Those pages at the end of Don’s kitchen counter one particular day, when Rolly and I had travelled to Sarnia to pick him up, sorely tempted me to read them, while he was busy gathering his things together. But I would not invade his privacy in that way.

Don is fighting a battle of his own on a daily basis as he continues his struggle with Multiple Sclerosis, which he has had since he was 25. Often, on the rides to or from his home, he will reminisce with us about childhood days, or tell us stories of the experiences he remembers from working on a Great Lake freighter, or reflect poignantly on his personal joy in life. Being a decade younger than I am, he had a totally different perspective on things while growing up, and it is fun to hear his take on things. I am determined to have him share some of his writings with me at his discretion some day if he is willing. I’m sure I would be blessed, but not surprised.

My older sister Marsha is a very well-respected retired teacher. She has the gift of being able to explain things to small children in simple ways that enable them to learn new things very quickly— such things as how to tell which shoe to put on which foot. “Just put your shoes together so that they make a boat. If the front part of your shoes where your toes go are close together and look like a boat then they will be on the right feet when you put them on.” I just would never have thought of that, but a kid certainly gets it. Marsha is also a gifted photographer. When she comes back from any trip she has taken, with her photos all clearly captioned and the interesting facts about her destinations highlighted, whether it be a jaunt down a local side road in autumn, or a trip to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, you feel almost as if you have been there with her. The most difficult journey she has taken to date, has been a journey through grief following the loss of her husband John, whom we all loved dearly and miss more than I can adequately express.

Jeannie, likewise, has been on the same type of journey, in the loss of her husband Steve, but she has travelled a little further along. Living in Vancouver for many years, she has always been the family’s most prolific letter writer. She is someone who can even make a cup of tea and a tangerine sound so amazing in the written account of an afternoon break that I would almost swear off Diet Coke and chocolate for life to join her in such delightfully fulfilling repose. I said “almost”. The reality of the situation is that her enthralling way of being able to capture the steaming essence of green tea, and citrus excitement, seems almost supernaturally inspired. But just as the spell is broken in a darkened movie theatre as soon as the credits stop rolling up the screen and the lights go on, and you know you are never going to be anything like that gold-medal-winning-marathon-runner for world peace, it’s the same. Tea is only tea, and a tangerine is no better than a close second to a Toblerone bar any day in my books!  (Love you Jeannie, but that’s why you are the string bean and I am not!)

My sister Kathy is another of the family’s story tellers. Yes, I realize that my constantly referring to my parent’s, and siblings, their spouses and all of our children as “The Family” does sound a little like a tribute to the movie The Godfather but it just can’t be helped. We have a history together, and moments too close to the extremes of emotions for them not to have affected us in a way that bound us together as an enduring unit. Besides that, our mother for some unknown reason, being “supposedly” of German descent could always makes one mean spaghetti sauce.…( Sorry Mom)

Now—back to Kathy. Kathy would never have to take a back seat to anyone when it comes to story telling. But judging from the many pratfalls, and every other kind of falls, that seem to have been thrown into her path, on a more or less daily basis, according to her hilarious accounts, she likely fell into a back seat on more than one occasion (And only in a good way of course— The driver of the Fair Queen parade’s car suddenly slamming on the brakes, or a wobbly highheel tripping her up while entering a Taxi, and the like). Fate seems to have thrown Kathy into a Dorothy-like heel clicking life. This hopeful heel clicking can be heard as she hurries down city sidewalks from one to another of the establishments of clients of her and her husband Jody’s printing business. In her stylish pumps and matching suits, Dorothy–like, she faces some very strange situations— like unknowingly parking her brand new car beside a spray-paint application to a nearby building’s exterior on a windy day, or ending up in an Ontario whirlpool rather than a Kansas whirlwind when she toppled into a hot tub at a pool- side party. All very story-worthy material, given the right delivery…. and delivery, with perfect timing is what Kathy is good at.

Janice is the one who keeps everyone smiling, with her jokes and her stories, and her reflections on days gone by. She somehow seems able to find the bright side of things in her observations on modern farming, both the catastrophic and the mundane that occur in the cycle that she and Al her husband experience in large acreage cash crop farming, near the farm where we all grew up. Good days, bad days and all days in between, Janice is able to patiently smile, add another plate or three to the dinner table, at a moment’s notice, and still keep up a running dialogue of humorous remarks and exchanges.

She is the youngest of the girls in our family, and was a silent observer to most of the goings-on of her older sisters, as we behaved in ways that swung wildly at times between the valiant and the violent, in our loving but hot-tempered exchanges with one another. She tells stories about all of us at times, but they are always gilded carefully around the edges with a beautiful application of love. “Remember that hair-cut you gave me Vonnie, where you kept on cutting the bangs higher and higher because you couldn’t get them even? In the end I looked like a boy. And you thought you could really cut hair! Oh well you really tried…” Only when I  teased her about the end result and how much she actually did look like a boy did she let slip with what she really felt. She snuggled in closer to me on the couch, threw an arm around me in a close hug and whispered loudly in my ear “You Jerk!”

The truth will tell. And then again, maybe it won’t!

Just Batty!

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imagesBats! Love ’em or hate ’em. When I was 9 or ten years old my sister Marsha and I were on our way to Pittsburgh to stay with my cousin Philip for a week or two. My Aunt Betty and Uncle Bud had been up to Canada for a short stay with us, and now we were going back with them. We jumped out of the car at the gas station where my Uncle Bud had pulled in to fill up with gas for 31 cents a gallon, and my Aunt Betty went into the junky little store attached to the station to buy us all some treats.

The hand-painted sign at the road side said “See Our Giant Red Bats!” Another sign beside the gravel area just outside the rest rooms, which were attached to the left side of the station, said “Giant Red Bats Just Ahead!” At the end of a dusty path running across a scruffy lawn was a big blue rust-pocked steel drum. On the side of it was painted in drippy red lettering, “Giant Red Bats” Marsha and I, and our cousin Philip were panting by the time we reached it and I remember having to go to the bathroom really bad, but running down the path anyway, because I didn’t want anyone else to see them before I did.

Yvonne,Philip, Marsha  front. Keith and Jeannie in back a few years before

Yvonne,Philip, Marsha front. Keith and Jeannie in back a few years before

We were all just about the same height— just tall enough so that we would be able to get a good look without anyone’s help to boost us up. On top of the barrel someone had bolted on an old discarded barbecue grill to keep the bats in. We shoved one another to try to position ourselves to get in closer, for the first look, but pulled back in fear a little at the same time. This went on for a few seconds of hesitation until Philip said, “It’s OK, Giant Red Bats are too big to get through the wire!”

We were all used to the bats on the farm, even Philip, who had stayed with us for holidays before. They were small and brown, and seemed to be able to squeeze themselves into impossibly tiny spaces to hide in the daytime, like behind the turquoise shutters that flanked all the windows. The bats, of course, chose only the shutters outside the upstairs bedroom windows to do their sleeping behind— close to us when we were sleeping. We had never thought much about the reason for this until Philip told us. His Mom and Dad owned a grocery store and they gave him a big allowance every week just to buy fun stuff. He had read a lot more comic books than we had ever seen in our entire lives, though probably some of them were his older brother Clifford’s, or ones he had traded for with his friends. Our Mom would only have let us have Little Lulu or Donald Duck ones if we had saved enough money to buy them with anyway, but Philip had seen lots of scary ones. He knew all about vampires, and blood-sucking bats, and what happens to your body after you die, and other gross stuff like that.

I knew Philip had to be right. Giant bats would be too big to be able to get out through the narrow spaces between the barbecue grill wires, so we all leaned in together to get a closer look. Then we each said our own version of a swear. “Stink pot!” Dang-it-all!” “Crap!” We cussed as best as each could muster. Marsha and I looked around fearfully to see if anyone else had heard. Yes, the bats were giant! Yes, the bats were red too. The bats were giant red plastic baseball bats! You could even have given one to a baby to let him try to hit a ball around the yard with it. What a rip!

Uncle Bud, Aunt Betty, Mom and Dad heading out for the evening.

Uncle Bud, Aunt Betty, Mom and Dad heading out for the evening.

Aunt Betty was still inside the store, trying to pick out something for us to snack on from a candy bar shelf. She was standing right underneath a yucky plastered fly sticker hanging from the ceiling really close to her head, when we ran in. She moved away from the heavy fly sticker, before it got stuck in her blonde hair. She had just dyed our Mummy’s hair to match with hers the day before. Aunt Betty grabbed the wooden sticks with the keys to the Ladies’ and Men’s rooms off their hooks by the door for us and told us to hurry up. That advice was hardly necessary; we had been riding for hours since the last stop, and who wanted to hang around in there anyway? It smelled like a gasoline-soaked ash tray and pee!

I hoped Aunt Betty would buy us each a Baby Ruth, or a Mounds bar, or some kind of candy that they didn’t sell at home in Canada. I hoped all the chocolate bars she picked would be the same, so that we wouldn’t have to choose one of them back in the car. Then somebody might be unhappy because they changed their mind after they picked, or maybe somebody else would pick the one they really wanted before they did.

In summer, the garden gave us a bounty of veggies versus the garden's bounty of veggies. We stayed slim anyway,

In summer, the garden gave us a bounty of veggies versus the relative’s bounty of  candy. We stayed slim anyway, because we were active kids.

When company from Pittsburgh came the biggest thrill was the candy. They always brought a lot of it because there were ten of us— eleven counting Granddad— and so many aunts and uncles would come all summer long with bags of Hershey’s Kisses, and Tootsie Rolls and caramels. Then we would miss it all so much in the fall, and the winter and the spring until they came back again.

Well, we would miss them too of course, but the candy was always nice and predictable and never made anybody unhappy like some of the aunts and uncles sometimes did when they were mad at the other ones who had just left, or the ones who were coming right after them.

It was “like Grand Central Station” Daddy would sometimes say behind their backs, but never with very much impatience in his voice. Maybe it was more surprise, or even curiosity about why all these city people wanted to swelter in the upstairs bedrooms of our big old farm-house instead of staying home in their air-conditioned houses. Maybe they just came to see the bats. The ones around our house—the real ones! Or maybe they were just batty! Ha Ha!