As my family sat down at the kitchen table to eat dinner Daddy announced, “We’re picking rock this afternoon.” All my siblings, each one older than me by several years, groaned loudly.
I eagerly asked, “Daddy, am I old enough this year to pick rock, too?” He looked at Mom and she nodded. I excitedly clapped my hands. As the baby of the family I often felt excluded from activities because of my age. Today was a big day. I would work with my brothers and sisters.
That afternoon Daddy hitched the teeter-totter wagon to his Model M John Deere tractor. On foot, we followed it out to the field behind the machine shed. My older brothers and sisters picked up the larger rocks and put them on the bed of the wagon. I picked up many smaller ones. The novelty of working with the family quickly wore off. The job was not fun. I asked my brother Billy, “You picked rocks last year. Why didn’t you pick up these while you were at it?”
He chuckled and explained, “Because they were too deep in the soil last spring. The freezing and thawing of the ground during the winter pushed them up to the surface.” I looked at the heap of stone on the wagon. They were ugly and dirty.
Something magical happened to the stones after Daddy unloaded the wagon onto a stone pile beside the crick. Washed off by the rain and baked by the sun, they became beautiful and fascinating. Whenever I followed my siblings down to the crick to look at minnows and tadpoles, I insisted on climbing around on the rock pile to study the beautiful multicolored stones. Some stones even sparkled in the sun. My sisters threatened to go home without me. They weren’t having fun, but I was.
No one wanted me on the rock pile. That evening my sisters told Mom and Daddy how I wouldn’t come down when they told me to.
Daddy warned, “You shouldn’t go on the pile. When sick calves die during the winter, I bury them under the stones.” That explained the bleached white bits of bone I sometimes saw.
Mom scolded, “You’ll get hurt. How would you get home if you twisted your ankle?” Then she unloaded her ace card, “There’re snakes living under the pile!” But dead calves or even the threat of snakes didn’t discourage me.
By age ten I was able to roam around the farm and neighborhood on my own. I managed to talk my neighborhood cousins into visiting a rock pile with me only once. After that they, too, weren’t interested.
One day while standing on the pile, I looked down at the crick and remembered my teacher, Sister Florence insisting we say ‘creek’ instead of crick. That seemed like silly nonsense. Looking up hill, all I could see of the farmyard was the top of our barn. Sister Florence popped back into my mind again. She’d instructed, “You aren’t supposed to say ‘ruf’. The proper pronunciation is, ‘roof’.”
Sister also insisted that we were to say ‘aunt’ instead of ‘ant’. I shook my head. Saying it the way she said we should made me feel foolish. I thought to myself, “Talking that way makes me feel like a hoity-toity lady who drinks her tea with pinky finger extended.” I was a little, wild farm-girl and saw no reason to change.
Change comes with the passing of time. I eventually realized Sister Florence was right on the mark with her teaching. One thing that passing time didn’t change for me though, is how much I like looking at stones.
Schoolhouse Beach on Washington Island, Wisconsin has lovely, round, smooth rocks, but if you vacation there, don’t take any home! You could face paying a huge fine. You don’t need to load your suitcases with heavy stones. In Wisconsin’s four-season climate, if you don’t like the rocks in your back yard, just wait until next spring. The frost will heave up a new selection.