Tag Archives: farm memories

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

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Mom's sister Aunt Wilma, Janice, Kathy,Donny and Jimmy the youngest four of us eight kids

Mom’s sister Aunt Wilma, Janice, Kathy,Donny and Jimmy the youngest four of us eight kids

Some people may have memories as neatly organized or carefully catalogued as the treasures of the Smithsonian Institute but those individuals are few and far between. That would be something akin to the real Rain man, Kim Peek, who by the time of his death in 2009 had memorized word for word twelve thousand books— including the Bible, and the Book of Mormon. His memory was truly astounding especially to those like me who struggle to remember where we put the car keys.

My memories are like that huge messy stack of art work that every kindergarten kid brings home at the end of the year— my best stuff, colourful and full of emotion, but leaning a bit towards abstract most of the time. Today I’ve decided to put together a few of the bluer pieces that I’ve pulled out from the stack to make a kind of story collage.

Christmas Turkey

I was four years old and our family was still living in our first little white house. Dad had not yet taken over the family farm from his father and he was for the moment out of work. The turkey was a little smaller than Mummy was used to preparing. She had put it into the oven the night before Christmas, but far too early. When it finished roasting —in the middle of the night— she asked Daddy to put it out on the porch to cool. He snitched a piece of the delicious golden brown skin first and pronounced it absolutely “Delicious!” He then placed it just outside the kitchen door on the porch to cool in the snow, and immediately crawled back into bed and was soon fast asleep.
When out on the porch there arose such a clatter,

He sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

When what to his wondering eyes should appear,

But our bird heading south, on that night cold and clear.

Bobbing up and down and weaving back and forth, it was on its way to someone else’s family dinner! Another mother was obviously struggling hard to keep her family fed too, and as Daddy threw on the porch light he saw her. A wily red Mama fox was trotting off across the new fallen snow with our beautiful golden brown turkey clenched tightly in her happy grinning mouth— leaving behind for us only a pan full of drippings! The next day we ate a meat loaf festively garnished with green and red olive slices. That year Christmas joy was not to be found around a golden brown turkey—at least not at our house.

Christmas Gifts

I remember the Christmas that every kid wanted Silly Putty, the latest fad promoted in TV ads— a little plastic egg full of “the most incredibly flexible fun-filled substance known to man!” At this particular Christmas, Mom had warned each of us older kids quietly beforehand that Santa could bring us only one gift, so we should try to be sure of what we wanted. I remember anticipating the fun that I would have when I was the owner of such an amazing thing as Silly Putty. You could even use it to make copies of the colour comics!

Imagine that! I would be able to copy Little Lulu and then stretch her out to be tall and skinny, or I could make Veronica fat if I stretched her side to side. Betty would like that, I thought, and Veronica surely deserved it. I could hardly wait! A day or two after the initial bulletin that Santa was bringing one gift and one gift only, an even more shocking dispatch was issued. Santa might be all out of Silly Putty after packing the orders for kids who got their Christmas letters to him first! What? How was it my fault that we were fresh out of letter writing paper when Mom had told us to get our letters written? It sure would have been an insult to Santa to write it out on a piece of scratchy toilet paper, wouldn’t it? Mom suggested that maybe I should try to think of something else I wanted, but I persisted in my request. I was a little sceptical about the whole Santa business by that point anyway and I felt that Mom and Dad were likely the more direct route to me acquiring my desperately coveted treasure, so I persisted in my obstinacy at each new suggestion by my mother that I pick something else.

Imagine the thrill I felt on that long ago Christmas morning as I tore open my bow bedecked Christmas package and found my heart’s desire. It was as if the goose had truly laid a golden egg! I twisted the two halves of the egg open and pried out the glop of peachy beige goop inside. Actually goop is entirely the wrong word. When I opened up the egg container what was inside was somehow hopelessly hard and solid! It could not be softened! It could not be rolled! It could not even be flattened into any kind of image-copying tool for Veronica or Betty. How could I ever hope to give that vain Veronica the anatomical alteration I felt she deserved for constantly stealing the limelight from Betty? It was not actually a “Come uppance” I had planned for her but more aptly a “Come downance”. But what a bust! The Silly Putty was more like Pity Putty!  Instead of there being soft moldable stretchable comic-copying fun inside, it all broke up into a handful of dry chunky bits when it was stretched apart! They wouldn’t stick back together into any kind of shape no matter how hard I tried.

My present was a dud! But knowing that Mom and Dad had probably been searching far and wide to find it— which might have been Mom’s reason for trying to get me to suggest another gift idea in my Santa letter— I was too humiliated to even complain. I pictured them both exhausted, finally finding it in the last place they went to, after a long hard day of searching. Maybe it was in some dusty old country store where the silly putty had sat in some basement storeroom, crushed at the bottom of a pile, stacked up against the old coal furnace or something. That’s about as logical an explanation as I could come up with on my own to explain the Silly Putty’s failure to deliver as promised. So it was just a socks and underwear Christmas for me that year— the mundane stuff  from Mom and Dad that Santa was obviously too proud to carry around in his sleigh— and I was just going to have to be content with that.

Amid all the hubbub and excitement of Christmas day in the midst of a very large family there was so much going on that my parents thankfully never even noticed that I wasn’t playing with my gift that morning. And when things quieted down there were siblings’ gifts to share in the enjoyment of, so it wasn’t in any way a terrible Christmas. It was just that Christmas joy was not to be found in a gift meant especially for me that year.

Of course it takes more than just two colourful memories to make a Christmas collage and I do have plenty more of them to assemble shortly— twinkling stars, Christmas pudding, fancy buttons and bows, mistletoe kisses, Christmas trees and more. Tomorrow is another day and I will be adding more for you then. Meanwhile,why not try assembling a Christmas memory collage of your own? I’d love to hear about it too.

Sweet sugarplum dreams tonight,

Love Yvonne

Aah! The Smell Of Actinomycetes In The Morning

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It was faster to take a bike from the house to the barn past the long greenhouse.

Biking from house to barn past the 150 foot green house saved a lot of time

More and more people have no connection to, or pleasant sensory memories associated with the farming experience at all. The smell of soil, with its inherent potential for abundant and luxurious growth, may only have been experienced, if at all, if they opened a bag of top soil for their patio planter out on their apartment balcony on the twenty-fifth floor. If a person has never left the confines of the city, the smell of soil may be at best unfamiliar, and at worst unpleasant.

The smell of a green house in the spring, right after you water it— is a memory that I treasure from my childhood, from the hours and hours of taking my turn behind a hand held water sprinkler. The heavy brass sprinkler head was at the end of a seventy five foot hose that could be dragged in either direction from the tap in the middle of the centre aisle of the green house. When we were available in the spring, either before or after school and on weekends, one of my siblings or I would take turns swishing it back and forth, back and forth over one and then the other of the two 150 foot by ten foot beds of growing tobacco seedlings on either side of us. The plants would later be yanked gently out by women Dad had hired or by members of our family for planting out in the fields.The task was usually done while resting the butt on one board and the feet on another as one moved along a foot above the damp planting beds.I never minded the job of watering the greenhouse very much. It was always warm and bright under all that glass, and it was never too hot or too cold either, as we were always raising or lowering the glass windows at the greenhouse peak throughout the day to keep the temperature as close to tropical as possible.

My Aunt Wilma, my Grandma "Mum" and me at age 9

Aunt Wilma, my Grandma , & me

Unless plant pulling was going on the greenhouse was very quiet too—a place where I could get away from all the noise and hubbub that living in a busy household with seven siblings generated. The only sound in the green house when watering was the gentle “Swish, Swish, Swish” of the water which had to be carefully applied until the beginnings of a puddle were visible on the surface of the black muck in the band being watered before moving on.

The relative silence was so different from inside the house where the sounds of doing laundry, cooking, and vacuuming, and various motors and fans on fridges and freezers emitted their constant hums. Add to this the sounds of the latest baby crying in the earlier years, or siblings occasionally arguing, and there was never a quiet moment. That is, of course, until an hour or so after curfew in my late teen years when it was as deathly still as that moment before a judge’s gavel drops. That was how I perceived it anyhow whenever I tried to sneak past my parents open bedroom door and up the squeaky stairs to my room. (But that’s another story.)

Jimmy, Janice, Donny and Kathy, the little helpers

Jimmy, Janice, Donny and Kathy, the youngest four

Watering the greenhouse was my mother’s job when we were in school. She relied a great deal upon our grandfather, who lived next door to us then, to come over and look after the little ones while they were napping, or when it was raining and Mom couldn’t take them outside with her. There was nowhere for them to play inside the greenhouse but in the nice weather Jimmy and Donny from toddlers on up, spent a lot of time playing with their shovels and buckets, and their trucks and bulldozers forming muddy motes and “lakes” just under the water tower beside the greenhouse door. That was when they weren’t off making mud pies with Kathy and Janice, before they too were old enough to help with the outside work.We older ones— Marsha and I, and Keith and Jeannie also had our own soul satisfying exposure to the smell of good damp earth. A heavy rain always granted us a day off from hoeing tobacco, a day to do our own thing.

After doing some investigation to try to better understand better what it is about soil that makes it smell so great, frankly, I was a little surprised. Apparently we owe a lot to Actinomycetes, a type of soil bacteria which grow in soil when it is warm and damp. When the soil dries out it produces spores, and when the wetness and force of rainfall hit them (or water from water sprinklers or crazy kids at taps) the tiny spores are kicked up into the air, the moist spore-laden air acting as an aerosol— the antithesis of a can of Lysol, actually.

It is ironic that a bacteria and spores are, in fact, the cause of that sweet after-the-rain smell of newly watered earth. I suppose it is ironic only to this generation, in our sanitized, germ exterminating, spore abhorring society. Who knew germs and spores were our friends? I wonder if there is a conspiracy between the makers of Lysol which promises to kills 99.9 per cent of them and the makers of Glade which promises that “After the Rain” scent in so many of its products? Supply and demand folks! Supply and demand!

How I Learned My Sister Loved Me

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imgresWith a high-pitched scream I doubled up in agony, clutched at my belly with heavily gloved hands and then fell forward onto the grassy strip of ground that ran the length of the greenhouse. My sixteen year old sister Marsha was perched about twelve feet above me on the weathered wooden framework of the green house from where she had been launching panes of glass down hill to me, one row of glass at a time.

My job was to catch them and stack them into empty wooden tobacco seedling boxes which were then carried by my Dad or my brother Keith to my mother and her sister my Aunt Wilma. They were scrubbing them in two big washtubs of hot sudsy water to remove the mold and algae from the panes edges, and standing them up to dry on the tobacco grading table in the barn. Dad had nailed down strips of wood to form a makeshift drying rack. The dry panes were stacked and stored in boxes waiting for the day when a few months later my Uncle Fred Stephenson, my grandfather’s brother would finish scraping, sanding and repainting the entire 150 foot length of the greenhouse and they would be repositioned.

Farm buildings, including the 150 foot glass greenhouse we were working on.

Farm buildings, including the 150 foot glass greenhouse we were working on.

My father was a fastidious man and he had a very strong work ethic which came from his own family background. It was something he encouraged in all of his eight kids. That’s why Marsha and I were working so hard in the heat of the day, doing such a mindlessly boring task. We were cogs in the wheel of never-ending farm work and we kept our minds occupied by teasing, challenging, joking and competing with one another in any way we could think of just to keep from feeling trapped by it. I was cranky that day— I had spent the whole morning complaining to Marsha about her slowness in launching the glass panes down towards me. I just wanted to get that day’s assigned section done and take off to the pond for a swim, or sit under a tree and read. When algae or mould had clogged up the grooves that the panes were resting in they would stick, and in those places Marsha just needed to gently tap the edge of the pane nearest her with a rubber mallet to get them all moving slowly downward again to the bottom where the wooden moulding had been removed and I could catch them as they slid out.  Annoyed with my constant nagging she kicked it up a notch (or maybe she kicked it down a notch) by nudging the pane forward, forcefully, with her foot. All at once it came flying down at me with lightning speed!

Suddenly, I was on the ground screaming,  apparently having stopped the sharp-edged projectile— not with my leather gloved hands but with my  gingham covered belly! Marsha went directly into panic mode. “Oooh noooh! Ooooh noooh! Ooooh noooooh!” she wailed, throwing herself forward in an acrobatic inclined descent. I watched for a few seconds, grimacing through half-closed eyes, as she performed a series of unchoreographed prize-winning break-dance moves— kind of a crab walking, foot sliding combination—down the slippery sliver-laden boards, with one gloved hand clinging to the narrow board to the right of her and the other gloved hand grasping the board to the left! She had just accomplished an unprecedented feat— a nearly seated, feet forward,  45* angle descent without bum-sliding assistance!

Using the ladder inside the greenhouse, running 75 feet to one of the  doors at either end and then running outside 75 feet more back to where I lay was out of the question, but Marsha didn’t even take the time to turn around and face towards the framework for a safe descent! Now I was writhing on the ground, shoulders rising and falling in what appeared to be sobs, (or maybe even death spasms!) A flying pane could lead to a perfectly straight 12 inch incision across the abdomen—like the one that had me rolling on the ground… the one that I was faking.

Anything to relieve the boredom of a panefully repetitive job!

People will often pay a lot of money for the thrill of being scared out of their wits. The more screams a certain scare house or amusement park ride can evoke, the more people like it. Marsha didn’t quite see it that way when she hit the ground like a heli-dropped Marine medic and threw herself in my general direction with a near perfect barrel roll. “Roll over!” she screamed in her older sister voice of hysteria and concern. When I refused, she threw all that she had learned about first aid in grade 10 health class out the window and forcefully grabbed me on either side of my  torso (which had as yet undetermined injuries in its frontal area) and threw me over onto my back with the force of a WWF wrestler.

As she yanked my gloved hands away from my stomach I couldn’t maintain the ruse any longer. The involuntary shuddering of my shoulders, in my attempts to conceal my mirth, while lying curled up in a ball, gave way to loud and audible laughter once I was rolled over. Marsha became truly unprofessional in her medical attention at this point. ”You Jerk!” she yelled, as she pulled off her sweaty grime covered gloves and pitched them in my face. “You big jerk!” Tears were rolling down my face at this point and they began to roll down her face too. For me it was sheer comedy. For her it was sheer relief.

In a moment or two her arm was over my shoulder as we both lay on the grass together. There were lots more panes of glass to remove before we were through, and dangerous moments when panes of glass shattered or shards of glass stayed embedded in the wooden grooves in the boards we were taking turns climbing— a person could sever an artery or a digit if they weren’t careful. As I think back on that day that has remained so vivid in my memory for almost fifty years I am so very thankful. I am thankful for that sisterly embrace from the one who has always been there for me since the day I was born, the one whose bond of love can never be severed, because she is my sister and because she loves me.

Screaming In The Shower!

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psychoshowerscene-1288540077There are shower scenes that are so blood curdlingly terrifying that they can never be erased from the mind. They are usually experienced by mature adults in darkened movie theatres, not by the delicate psyches of innocent and impressionable young girls who, up to that moment, would have had nothing more in their minds than the fun they had experienced baking cookies together to impress their daddies with after their suppers.

It was a scorching hot day in July in the early Sixties, in Caradoc Township, on our family’s 100 acre tobacco farm. I remember being at that uncomfortable age of being acutely body conscious. Even so, showering together with my sister Marsha, if it was necessary, was something I was able to cope with. That was because, as kids, Marsha and I had already established our own set of rules to ensure personal privacy whenever we had to share a bath. Having to limit the use of household water by our family’s ten members, due to an over-taxed septic system was always an issue with our Dad. When he tacked together a shower for our summer use, in the recently emptied green house, out of four sheets of silver painted plywood— three for the walls, and one for the floor, Marsha’s and my privacy ensuring rules were adapted to the situation. In the bath tub it was simply a matter of always facing away from one another, back to back, and then one of us closing our eyes when the other asked us to. That way either of us could enter or exit the tub with a sense of modesty.

Similar rules were quickly worked out for the greenhouse shower, which relied upon the sun heating the water in the elevated tank outside. Inside the greenhouse, the length of pipe near the peak held extremely hot water which actually had to be run out until it became bearable to stand under. In summer this was always followed by wonderful warm water, until the tank water became chilled again by the inflow of freezing cold well water. Still, it was fine for a few people to shower in a row if they hurried, and the water could quickly drain away into the sandy ground, instead of the septic tank. After the tobacco plants were all pulled out and planted in the fields, the green house was usually deserted and private.

Janet Leigh, in that terrifying scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho, had a much better shower as a backdrop when she met her tragic end—all nice white tiles and a shower curtain to block the movie goer’s view of her womanly bits. My father wasn’t a mean man, or stingy, but it was his busy cultivating season when he constructed the shower. He had painted it at least, with the same silver paint that he had used on the plywood tobacco boats, sled-runnered boxes that the leaves of the rapidly growing plants would be hauled in at harvest time.

The shower’s silver paint may have been applied to prevent splinters, or even warping, but it simply served to highlight the three-sided box— like a window show-place, the likes of which hookers in Amsterdam are notorious for standing in to show off their wares, on certain famous streets that curious tourists are known to flock to. The protection from slivers that the paint provided was fairly successful, but as far as the silver backdrop ensuring protection from warping — that, only God and one particular family member can say.

Too busy to get to town to buy a shower curtain, or even to hammer up a four foot length of any kind of board for us to throw a sheet over, my Dad had dismissed our protests a few days before when he said “You older ones need to use that shower I put up in the green house now! No more baths!!” and then “Nobody is going to see you! For crying out loud, it’s a big open field on that side! I’ll get the rod and the curtain when I go to town on Saturday.”

We would have to put icing sugar and eggs and chocolate chips and other things on the list for Saturday too, after Marsha and I and our friend Christine, from the farm next door, finished baking cookies all afternoon in the sweltering kitchen. It was an interlude in our farm work, and hers too— not planting, or hoeing or harvest season on our farm, and not apple picking or haying season on hers, so we were free just to be girly girls that day—sweaty, chocolate-covered girly girls, who thought it would be a good idea to cool off in the shower when we were done baking.

If Marsha and I had always managed to navigate the privacy boundary lines without hitting any booby traps thus far, then none of the three of us should have an issue if Christine, after two or three sentences of instruction in “The Rules” was to join us. The advantage was that the warm water would then last long enough for all of us to have a much longer shower instead of each of us having a very short one. So it was off to the silver box for cooling off and removal of sweat and chocolate. We grabbed a clean outfit for ourselves and loaned a few items to Christine, who could give them back the following day, plus three towels, soap, and shampoo. Then we headed out of the house.

None of us was thinking about the math, obviously, when the rules were explained or we would have realized that it is easy to have two girls back to back, but not three. The only way to do this is to form a rather loose circle with all butts facing inward like a reverse dance move in the Russian Troika and to look skyward at all times when our eyes were open, as if the dance was exhausting us to the point of petitioning for divine assistance. As the water poured down on our heads with high pressure from the sprinkler head attached to the hose which was suspended from the pipe above, we were dancing about blindly, but enjoying ourselves immensely. Nobody had a pool anywhere nearby for us to head to and we were now too big to run under the sprinkler in the yard with the little kids to cool off.

Just as the water running down over us was starting to chill us to the bone we heard the loud “put- put” of a tractor, far too close to be on the driveway on the other side of the greenhouse!  We all disobeyed the rules simultaneously! Out in the open field, the one that our father had assured Marsha and I that no one would ever see us from, only a few brief feet away from the wall of glass between them and us, my father was driving his John Deere! He was looking straight ahead, thankfully, but he was pulling behind him my brother Keith who was sitting on the seat of the cultivator! Despite my father’s strict rules about cultivating, “Always keep your eyes down! Those plants are valuable you know! Pay attention or you’ll get off track! If you cut one out then you’ll have the dickens of a time getting back before you cut out a whole bunch. Each of them is money in the bank!.”

Grinning from ear to ear, my brother got a glimpse at full frontal female nudity for the very first time and (What a windfall! ) one of them was not his sister!  We were instantaneously shrieking, panicking and jamming ourselves into the corner, like rats raised in total darkness when the lights finally go on. Pitiful, terror-stricken rats, cowering together backside to backside with nowhere to escape! Finally, when it seemed safe to grab for our towels, from their makeshift shelf on an upended wooden tobacco plant box just outside the shower, we wrapped ourselves up in our bedraggled soap-covered humiliation and headed to the house to protest to Mom.

Just as we exited we saw the tractor make a turn where the field ended very nearby and head back in our direction. At that moment Dad cranked his head back for a split second to have a look at Keith following on the cultivator behind him. Our father was totally disregarding his own advice about cultivating just then, and he was risking the possible decapitation of several plants in doing so! Whether it was a smirk on Dad’s face or not was hard to tell at that point but as soon as Keith passed by again, with an even wider smile on his face, it was fairly certain. That afternoon, Dad, as busy as he was, made an unplanned-for run into town. He returned with a shower curtain and rod. He was, after all a very understanding person, despite the fact that he was nevertheless a man!

None of us was scarred for life, if anyone got any slivers they didn’t say so, and in the end all three of us felt totally invigorated! With our eyes wide open we had each seen each other’s nakedness for the first time. I have to admit that the most surprising thing ever for all of us, when we emerged from the green house, still chilled by the freezing water, was that it was still possible to blush— even with blue lips!

Brain Protector Failure At 7:00 A.M.

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Marsha, and Donny in a baby hat, being dressed for outside. Our Mom was a firm believer in the”hats in cold weather / health connection.

It is 7:00 in the morning and already I am the cause of an hysterical six year-old’s screaming! “Ohhh! Nooo! Her brains are gonna fall out! Her brains are gonna fall out! That thing is on my toe! Aaaaah! That thing is on my toe!  Aaaaaaaah!”

As he crab walks backwards at lightening speed, the red, green, and gold anodized aluminum cups and several of the pastel- coloured melmac plates go flying ! As he scoots his butt across the huge arborite table top of the kitchen table that my Dad had made for us his frantic foot- kicking frenzy continues, in a fruitless attempt to fling off the offensive item! It is snagged like an errant mousetrap on the toe of his nylon sock! His screaming seems to indicate that it is just as painful too, although I know that it can not be.

Meantime, I am doubled over in laughter , and tears begin to stream down my face. Donny somehow construes my contorted features and inability to speak as an empathetic   pain reaction to what he has done, and begins sobbing. Still, I am so totally overcome with laughter at the ridiculousness of the moment, that I am too incapacitated to relieve his distress. My mother puts an end to my little brother’s anguish when she grabs him up from the middle of the table and gives me a quick slap to the back of the head. In truth I really deserve it.I had previously told my little brother that the pink and silver thing  on the roof of my mouth, with the little silver hooks attached to it holding the elastic band in place over my front teeth, was there to keep my brains from falling out.

In those days, in the rural  Caradoc Township, there weren’t any people in our circle of acquaintances wearing any kind of dental appliance. Our old dentist was attempting to straighten my teeth by having me turn a tiny screw in something called a palate expander. As the dental appliance widened, my mouth was supposed to widen also—in theory anyway— so that the teeth might have room to straighten out. All this was a great mystery to Donny. Especially, since I hadn’t told him the truth in the first place. Story telling was what I enjoyed doing most with the little ones in our family. How was I to know that they would actually believed that so much of what I told them was the truth?

That morning was just like so many others in our family when I was growing up. A lot needed to be done in order to get eight kids out the door on time to meet one or other of the two big yellow school buses which stopped at the end of the driveway. Our mother had to delegate. While she stirred oatmeal porridge, and fried up eggs, either “dippy” or scrambled, no other options, someone would butter the toast as it popped out of the big four slice toaster. Someone else would be making sandwiches for lunches. A couple of us older girls would help get the younger kids dressed. The younger girls each learned to dress themselves  fairly early (and undress themselves too.) When Norma Jean (Jeannie) first started school she tried to avoid going at all, by stripping to her underwear and hiding under the bed just before the bus came.

Jimmy and Donny usually counted on our help getting dressed. In the dining room next to the kitchen was a long chestnut buffet which once had been my Grandma  Mum’s. In it a less practical mother than mine, or one with a lot less children, would have kept a chest of antique silverware and fancy table linens in one drawer, as well as a set of matching crystal and perhaps even a set of Nippon plates in the other. This was not at all reasonable to a mother like mine, who seemed quite happy with her melmac dishes and aluminum cups, and an extra set of glasses for company. Nevertheless, Dad’s china wear intervention one  Christmas a few years later improved our family’s status immensely  in our own eyes. Whenever we set the dining room table for Sunday dinner guests, with those  red- rose patterned dishes with gold trim, which we kept stacked in the matching china cabinet, we felt positively wealthy! Nobody would ever suspect that the buffet was not completely filled with a bounty of equally beautiful pieces!

The buffet was, in fact, full of underpants and other equally unglamorous items. The two massive drawers held Jimmy and Donny’s socks, underwear, pants and shirts. The two little “cubbies” at either end, where the shelves had been removed, held all the “nighties” of the youngest four. Due to some language blip of my German Grandma, my Mom learned to call all nightwear “nighties”, leading to a few very un-macho embarrassments for the boys when they did likewise when they were older .

The dining room was the place nearest to the laundry room, through which clothing was always moving back and forth anyway. It was also a place where a pajama clad boy could be speedily dressed in school clothes by an older sister, or a towel- clad freshly bathed boy could be brought, to be helped into pajamas again before bed. Then his bath towel could be hung on a line in the laundry room or out on the clothes line if it was still clean, or put into the dirty laundry basket if it wasn’t. Efficiency was what my mother ran her household on— a lot like high-test gas. We had that too, but usually only after having chili for supper.

And now for the rest of the story… (I’ll bet you read that in your Paul Harvey voice didn’t you?)

Why was the retainer, stuck on the poor kid’s toe anyway? In all likelihood, Marsha was doing her homework at the dining room table that morning, because she hadn’t finished it the night before. She was quite a perfectionist and a night owl too, but when it got late Mom probably told her to go to bed. Mom and Dad always stayed up until after the 11 o’clock news, but until Marsha turned out the light in the dining room  it wouldn’t be dark enough for them to get to sleep if they opened the door. When they opened the door they could at least get a nice cross breeze going between their downstairs bedroom and dining room windows on a hot summer night.

Probably on that morning I was causing too much commotion teasing Donny in the dining room for Marsha to concentrate, so he and I moved into the kitchen. Then he climbed up onto the edge of the kitchen table and stuck his foot out at me to help him get his socks on.( Super Nanny wouldn’t have liked that much— a five-year old who couldn’t put  his own socks on, Donny, but let’s assume that the socks were just a little too small.) So, who could resist tickling those little bare toes that were so soft and cute and vulnerable, the toes of the most ticklish boy in the world? And who could blame the little boy for kicking his big sister right in her aching mouth and yanking out her “Brain Protector”? And who could blame her for having told him that it was a Brain Protector in the first place?

Obviously, with a creative brain like that, it would only make sense that it should be protected from any possible loss of contents. And obviously, considering the nightmare- inducing trauma that she had inflicted upon a little boy’s psyche, the Brain Protector had failed to do its job at some earlier point. What else could possibly explain her total lack of judgement?

Wow! After all these years I can finally unburden myself of that heavy load of guilt! Just look what a little creative writing can do!

Back Seat Sex Education

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Back Seat Sex Education

I got my earliest sex education out in the middle of a field of daisies, in the back seat of a car, on a hot August afternoon. It was definitely the true and honest facts about what would happen to me if I were to do certain unmentionable things. Things that must be so bad that they could not even be mentioned in the book. The slim worn hard cover book that we were all wrestling for and groping over, as the perspiration trickled down our overheated faces and into our eyes. Eyes wide open, in a stunned silence at the graphic explicitness! The total horror of it all… Child Birth!

If the pictures in the manual on how to deliver a baby had been in colour and not black and white, all four of us girls, Christine, Patsy, Marsha and I, would surely have upchucked. We would have tossed our cookies onto the decrepit interior of the old abandoned car we were huddled in, with its rusty springs popping out of the seats, and its distinctive odour of field mouse droppings mingled with mould, emanating from the ravaged upholstery batting.

Patsy came from a large Dutch family,the Verheys, and somehow she had sneaked the contraband out of her house, past her mother, under her cropped shirt—or perhaps she had simply rolled the shirt up and tied it in a bow in the front—that girl had a precocious sense of style even in her adolescent years! She came running out like a navy seal, dodging behind bushes and farm implements for cover, in a zig-zag pattern until she reached that unmowed area between the house and the barn that every farm seemed to have in those years— the place of Promise and Hope.

“Yes, Myrtle, I promise, I’ll fix that old washer up as good as new for ya’ as soon as I get around to it” “Well Mother, I sure do hope I can get a new axle for that old Buick. I’m jest gonna drag ’er out behind the shed ‘til I get Jed to have a look at ’er.”  Promise and hope were a lot more popular in those days before easy credit came along. Nobody threw out very much when the likelihood of ever having the money to replace it was remote, at best.

Finally Patsy arrived to rendezvous with us, where we were waiting on the side of the car furthest from the house. To avoid anyone in her family seeing us, we jumped in by way of the back door of the car which, despite all odds, was not yet rusted shut. We frantically flipped from page to page in the book, trying to figure out what was going on in the pictures. For the life of me, I had no idea. Although I was an extremely good reader, and Marsha was too— in all likelihood all four of us were— none of us could decipher a word. I know it was all Greek to me.

Actually, when I think about it really hard, and try to force myself to remember what I can…. perhaps… yes …perhaps…I can see it again… Of course, by forcing myself back there in my mind, for the sake of sharing this story with you now, I may risk a return to what very likely could have been post traumatic stress disorder, because of  the repeated nightmare that I have experienced off and on since that fateful day.

Perhaps…If I try harder still to recall the words by using a special self-hypnosis technique I invented myself, it may help. If I hum Auld Lang Syne… and visualize floating soap bubbles on a calm sunny day… rising slowly…ever so slowly… upwards… towards a cloud in the shape of an enormous powdered sugar doughnut.. I can actually see the words before me… Yes!…Yes!…I see them now… I can type them as I see them before me. Oh! I am so glad I finally memorized the keyboard!

  Hoe Maak Je Een Baby Te Leveren

1. Blijf kalm.

2. De moeder comfortable maken

3. Vertellen de man aan de kook water

4. Raak niet in paniek

5. Geef niet de moeder koffie

6. Hoeft pizza niet te bestellen

7. De baby geen druppel.

8. Gefeliciteerd!

Now it finally makes sense that none of it made sense to me before! Obviously it was in Dutch! Despite the difficulty of doing so at my age, I have managed to learn a little of that foreign language from one of my friends at Writers’ Group. Now that I realize that the book was most definitely written in Dutch I don’t need to have that nightmare about not being able to read, ever again!

Because of my surprising talent for language acquisition, I quickly learned what my friend Coby meant when she once accidentally used her Dutch words to tell me that she would  1.“kook”   2.“water” for our instant  3.“koffie” and that I should stay   4.“kalm” and   5.“niet”  6.“paniek” because anyone can  7.”druppel”  a piece of   8.“pizza” on the floor. My friend is tolerant of the kind of mess that only a  9. “baby” would usually  10. “maken”. Because she is a  11.”moedder”. She makes everyone feel  12.”comfortable“. Did you notice how I just showed you twelve of the Dutch words I have already learned? Did you learn any of them yourself? Gefeliceteerd! You must be gifted too!

Even though I did not understand a single printed word of my Dutch sex education lesson from that book, I still think it was, as Martha Stewart would have said,  “A Good Thing”. Although I still did not know  how babies happened to get in there in the first place, it seemed to be a very good idea at the time, to try to avoid whatever was the cause of it FOREVER! And I understood that it surely must have something to do with boys, because boys grow up, and then they are men, and men are the ones who are Dads.

Well, “forever” is kind of a long time, and then there was just that one birthday party where we all played spin the bottle. I ended up with that boy who had the runny nose. I was so upset by it all that I had nightmares for weeks, and to this day I still can’t remember who “Runny Nose” was. Maybe I didn’t even know him at all, and he was just somebody’s visiting cousin from Saskatoon.

I do remember that afterwards it was the one and only time I smoked a cigarette, or at least tried to, and then I vowed that I would never again kiss a boy, and never again smoke…..

Well, at least that one stuck!