Coming of Age

When Mom said to my brother Casper, “They’re going to live in the top floor apartment of the old convent,” I suddenly became aware of the conversation at the table. Putting down the huge hamburger I’d been about to bite into, I waited to hear more.

When nothing more was said, I frowned and blurted, “What? Who’s going to live there?” Self-absorbed at fourteen-years of age, I often missed a lot of what was going on around me.

Mom prompted, “Riet and her two boys…” Seeing my puzzled expression she explained, “Fritz and Riet are friends of Agnes and Jim. They met when Jim and Fritz were stationed together in Germany.”

I nodded. When the Berlin wall crisis began five years before, my brother-in-law Jim joined the army and was deployed to Augsburg, Germany. My sister Agnes and one-year-old nephew went with him. Although both Fritz and his wife Riet were born in the Netherlands, Fritz was in the US army with Jim. Riet and Agnes became good friends.

Once I realized who we were talking about, I questioned with surprise, “Just Riet and her two boys? Where will Fritz be?”

My brother Billy said grimly, “In Vietnam. There’s a war being fought there, you know. Riet and their children can’t go with him because of that.” Continue reading

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Stratford Convent

I loved the smell of coffee. To my seven-year-old nose it smelled rich and exotic. I’d come to recognize that when the scent of coffee was in the air, it meant that Mom and Daddy were in the kitchen having breakfast, or that company was visiting. Tasting it was out of the question, though, so I never tried. Mom said coffee was for grownups and, “Besides, it’s bitter and you wouldn’t like it.”

Daddy had milked our herd of cows before I’d even slid out of bed that morning, so he needed a good breakfast. Why he drank bitter coffee with it, I just wasn’t sure. There had to be something wonderful about it other than its great smell.

After having his breakfast, Daddy backed the family car out of the garage and patiently waited for us children to get in so he could drive us to school. I was in first grade that spring.

Our school and church were together in one big brick building. Next to it, looking for all the world like a very large farmhouse, was a three-story convent where the sisters who taught us lived. Continue reading

Harvest Gold

After slathering a slice of Mom’s homemade bread with butter, I lifted a freshly poached egg out of its pan and dropped it in the middle of the bread’s buttery field. Poking the egg made thick, yellow yolk ooze out. Sighing with satisfaction at having such a delicious breakfast, I lifted the bread and took a bite.

Some of the yellow yolk dribbled down my chin and landed on my top. Trying to scoop-up the runaway drop with my fingertip made it smear. I guiltily wondered where Mom was, then as I passed the basement door on my way out of the farmhouse’s back door, I remembered. I heard the chug-chug of the wringer washing machine. It was Monday, so Mom was washing clothes, of course.

Popping the last of the egg and bread into my mouth, I headed toward the barn. During my summer vacation from school, my daily routine was visiting several spots on the farm, riding my bike, visiting my neighborhood cousins and reading or re-reading our extensive collection of Dell Comic books. While a boring routine, I preferred it over attending school. I stopped at the well pump to run cold water over my arms. Although early, the day was already hot.

Adolph the milk man had parked his truck next to the milk house. I heard him talking to Daddy. Walking around to the back of the large vehicle, I watched as Adolph lifted a full milk can up into the truck as if it was light as air. He closed the cargo door and said, “I better get going.” Continue reading

Whip Poor Will

I sat back on my heels to rest for a moment while weeding my lawn-turned-garden. Gazing at the stand of oats behind our farmhouse, I noticed shimmers of heat rising from the field. Each plant was busy forming beautiful, small grains. A breeze swept past, cooling my skin. The invisible force gently teased and tussled the crop, making the blue-green plants dip and sway like waves in an ocean.

Eight-year-old Niki and four-year-old Tammie sat nearby on the grass in the cool shade of our farmhouse. Thankful they were happily playing together, I went back to weeding the ground cherries, tomatoes and cabbage. As I worked, I thought about my childhood growing up on a farm.

Having a campfire in the woods was one of the summer highlights for me as a child. Once my neighborhood cousins and I reached a certain age, we were allowed to occasionally go to the woods in the evening by ourselves to have a campfire picnic. We brought foil-wrapped potatoes to bake in the fire, butter, salt and pepper. Other goodies, if there were some in our kitchens, included hot dogs and marshmallows.

When the cows were milked and let out of the barn, they came to the woods. The nosey beasts stood in a semi-circle around the gully where we had a campfire ring next to a boulder. Snorting, mooing, making waterfall and plop-plop sounds, they watched us as the sky grew dark and their eyes glowed iridescent blue-silver in the firelight. Continue reading

Stilted Friendship

During the hot, dry days of late July, the circus bug bit me and my neighborhood cousins the year I was eleven-years-old. We had no interest in the lions, elephants or clowns. What fascinated us were the intriguingly dangerous skills of the tight-rope walkers, fire eaters and stilt acrobats.

Our interest in circus acts wasn’t prompted by a visit to a big tent show, but through the relatively new form of entertainment; a television special. My cousins had had a television for several years. My family only got one when my brother-in-law gave us theirs because he and my sister were moving to Germany for a military assignment.

In 1962 there was only one station available. Good old channel 7! I considered it was all we needed and memorized the evening programs for each day of the week. When my friends and I got together, we never had to ask, “What did you watch last night?” We inquired, “Did you see…?”

The day following the circus special, I hopped on my bike and peddled up the hill to my neighbor’s home. The three girls closest to my age were sitting under the shade trees in front of their house. After greeting them I gushed, “Did you see the tightrope walker last night? Wasn’t that neat? I want to try doing that!”

Alice, who was a year younger than me, enthused, “How about when the man swallowed the flaming sword?”

Our responses were, “Oh my gosh! I couldn’t believe it!”, “I wonder how that was done?” and, “It’s so hot today, I don’t even want to think about handling a flaming sword!”

Barb, who was a year older than me, ruminated, “The guy on stilts walked around and did things so normally, you’d never guess he was on them.”

Donna, who was my age suggested, “Flaming swords are out. So are stilts because we don’t have any. Why don’t we try tight-rope walking? I know where there’s a coil of rope in the shed.”

Practicing rope walking under the shade trees sounded like a good idea. Always the practical one, Barb ordered, “Tie the rope close to the ground. That way we won’t get hurt falling off until we get good at doing it.”

With great difficulty we tied the rope to two trees. Our goal was to have the rope tight like the clothes lines. The rope sagged more than we liked. We tried again and again, but couldn’t get past the wobbles. Even with a person on each side of the walker holding them upright, it was impossible to cross the expanse.

One of my older boy cousins came to watch for a while before smiling and pointing out, “It’s called tight-rope for a reason. To be able to walk on a rope, it has to be solid as the ground.”

That evening at the supper table, I told my family about how I had spent the day. My brother Billy said, “I can make you a pair of stilts. They’ll be more fun to play with than a rope tied between two trees.

True to his word, Billy found two five-foot posts that were 3 by 3 inches. He nailed sturdy foot rests on them 18 inches from the end and painted them the same red as our barn. They were heavy, but I was determined. Before long I was walking all over our farm yard.

I let my cousins know that I would visit them the following afternoon, so they would be watching for me. At the appointed time I got up on the red stilts and walked the quarter mile from my yard to their yard. Even the soft gravel on the side of the road wasn’t a problem for me. We had fun that summer taking turns.

Four years ago, when my brothers were no longer able to live on the farm, I cleaned out our family belongings so a new family could move in. When I found the red stilts in the garage, I had a strong urge to step up onto them and walk around. I knew how to do it. Stilt walking is like riding a bike; unforgettable. I placed them in the starting position and prepared to step up onto the foot rest.

Coming to my senses, I put them down. I was 65 years old and my knees didn’t work like they did when I was eleven. I could get hurt! In my mind, I recalled striding up the gravel road to surprise and impress my cousins, feeling totally grand.

 

 

Custard’s Last Stand

I rode through the countryside on the school bus for an hour, mesmerized by the other students who got off the and walked to their houses. At eleven years of age, this was my first experience riding a bus. I lived only three miles from school and this morning I was the last person picked up. That bus ride lasted ten minutes. This afternoon was a different story. Following the morning route, It appeared that I would be the last to get off.

Finally, it was my turn. The bus driver pulled to a stop and opened the door. I plodded down the steps into the fall sunshine. Tree leaves were just beginning to change. Crickets and other bugs were singing a September chorus in stands of tall grass. Summer wasn’t finished with the countryside, but my sixth-grade school year had started anyway.

Stepping into my family’s farmhouse, I gasped in surprise. My brother-in-law was crouched on the living room floor behind a television. We didn’t own a television! My neighborhood cousin’s family did, but I didn’t think my family ever would. As I watched, Bozo the clown flipped across the screen. Jim turned knobs to adjust the picture. After alternately buzzing and more rolling, the image finally settled down and stayed in place. Continue reading

Sunday Afternoon Oasis

I rushed around the kitchen preparing supper. My nerves were strung as tight as guitar strings. I didn’t know when it would begin, but wanted most of the supper prep done before then. Tammie, my two-month-old daughter began wailing before I had the potatoes pealed. Glancing at the wall clock I thought, “She’s starting early tonight.”

The pediatrician told me Tammie suffered from colic. He said eventually she would stop her incessant evening-into-the-night cries; cries that sounded as if she had great pain; cries that nearly drove my husband and me out of our minds.

Tammie had been born missing her fore arms and with a bleeding disorder. I was well past feeling upset about her missing bones. My fear at this point was that all her straining while crying for hours every day would cause an internal bleed. When I examined her in the mornings while she was calm, I noticed that her skin had freckles of broken capillaries from her waist on up. The roof of her mouth was bruised from suckling. Nothing was easy with this baby.

Dumping the unpeeled potatoes into a kettle with some water, I put it on the stove over a medium flame and went to scoop my infant out of the bassinet. I knew from experience cuddling, bouncing, back pats, diaper changes, sips of food or water wouldn’t calm her. Placing Tammie on her stomach on my shoulder, I trudged from one end of the house to the other. Walking reduced her crying a little, but she continued wriggling as though uncomfortable. Continue reading