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Going Home

Seeing the movie, Wizard of Oz for the first time, the flying monkeys scared me and when the hot air balloon lifted off without Dorothy in it, my stomach tied itself in knots. Glenda, the good witch of the north’s cure for the change in plans was to made Dorothy to click the heels of her ruby slippers together three times and repeat, “There’s no place like home…there’s no place like home.”

There really is no place like the home where we first begin to record memories. The feeling of safety, the fascinating newness we found there and all the first experiences of our lives are filed in a nostalgia bin that we carry with us for the rest of our days.

Few people spend their entire lives in the same house they were brought up in. Some families move frequently and most people move when they reach adulthood. Fanciful memories of our first home makes us remember the rooms as larger, stairway banisters as longer, closets as doorways to Narnian adventures and all food served as gourmet quality.

My daughter moved her big family to a bigger home three years after she was widowed. The house came with several acres of land and was in a more convenient location. None of that mattered to the children.

My grandchildren were not happy about having to move. In their eyes, the small home they lived in, sitting on only one acre of land, was a beautiful, desirable place to live, far beyond anything a new house could offer.

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Secondhand Memories

Grandpa Jacob Altmann Senior with Mary and Betty and Casper in the background.

One of my sisters reminisced, “Grandpa kept a pint jar filled with hard candies on a shelf by the door. Whenever we visited him, he’d give us a candy.”

Another sister chimed-in, “I remember going to his apartment in the garage that summer after he died. I took one of the candies from the jar and it was chewy!”

Younger than my sisters by more than a decade, I volunteered, “I remember Grandpa falling when he came into our house. I was standing in the kitchen watching Daddy hold the door open for him.”

“You couldn’t possibly remember that!” scoffed one of my older brothers. “You were just barely two-years-old, too little to remember. What you do remember, is what we’ve told you.”

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Hand-Me-Downs

When I saw the garage sale sign, I pulled over to the curb. Children’s toys littered the lawn around the open garage door. In the yard behind the house, I spotted a swing-set. I thought to myself, “This place looks like the perfect place for me to shop.” Inside the garage I spotted several tables heaped with household items and clothing. Across the back of the garage was a rack of children’s clothing.

After a few minutes of looking through the sale items, I realized that the family putting on the sale had daughters just a year or two older than mine. I picked out several items of clothing that my growing daughters needed. Everything was in good condition and clean. Feeling like I’d found a buried treasure, I rushed to pay for them. If I had bought the same items in a store, I wouldn’t have been able to afford them. The woman took the money from me with a big smile. It was a win-win situation. She needed the money and I needed the clothes.

Being the youngest child of my family, I grew up familiar with the concept of secondhand clothing, otherwise known as hand-me-downs. When I became a mother, I quickly realized that with children constantly changing size until their teenaged years, it makes sense to reuse clothing. The minute I take my garage sale purchases home, I put them in the washer and add soap. That instantly makes the secondhand clothing stop belonging to someone else.

One of the small dresses I took over with my “soap and water ownership” method that afternoon was so cute, I put it on my youngest daughter while it was still warm from the dryer. My husband happened to come home just then and suggested, “Let’s take the girls out for a fish fry.”

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Please Don’t

My sister Mary laid on the bed we shared, reading a book. She giggled as she read and turned the pages. I snuggled close to her on the mattress and looked at the page she was reading. To my disgust, there were no pictures of Donald Duck or any other cartoon character on it. Annoyed that I was breathing in her face, Mary sat up and threw down her book. I glanced at the book’s name. It was, “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” by Jean Kerr. My opinion of Mary’s cartoonless book skyrocketed as I thought, “What a funny title! Who would try eating Daisies? They smell like they’d taste bitter.”

Agnes and Rosie, my two older sisters had moved out of the house and were recently married. Their old bedroom, with its blue ceiling dotted with silver stars, was now my bedroom to share with Mary. She was sixteen-years to my nine years of age, so I annoyed her on a regular basis. Despite that, she was mostly patient with me.

Mary suggested, “Let’s go for a bike ride.” I jumped to accept her invitation. Who knew how long would it be before she was the next sister to move out of the house and get married? As it was, she already didn’t want to ride bike very often any more.

When Mary and I pedaled back into the yard, she wanted to go back to reading. Finding a shady spot for a lawn chair, my sister opened the book and disappeared into it.  

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Sore Leaf

My sister Agnes followed me around the side of my house. Stopping and pointing dramatically at a towering bush beside the living room window, I exclaimed, “Look how big my Pinky-Winky hydrangea bush has grown. I’m glad I didn’t plant it right below the picture window. We wouldn’t be able to see out!”

Each time my sister and I visit each other, we walk through our respective yards showing how the flowers and bushes are doing. Moments before my big hydrangea reveal, we had examined double pink hollyhocks growing beneath the kitchen windows. As we inspect, we discuss what we see and like.

While walking through Agnes’ yard once, I remembered following my mother and her sister Theresa, who was home for her yearly visit, from flowerbed to flowerbed in our backyard on the farm during my childhood. Each year Mom and Daddy made a one weekend visit to visit Theresa, where they did the same thing at her home.

I’m not sure if all families talk and look at plants as much as my family has and still does. Our botanical interest goes beyond common backyard flowering plants. Even the weeds growing in the fields and along the road fascinate us. Most of my family members know many of them by their common names if not by their Latin genus and designation.

I remember walking through the yard with Agnes when I spotted a broadleaf-plantain growing alongside my driveway. My sister Agnes glanced down at it and commented, “When Casper, Rosie and I were little, we called that a sore leaf plant.”

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What’s It?

There’s always room for Jell-O!

My big family crowded around the kitchen table to eat supper, enjoying a chance to rest after a long afternoon of hayfield work. As we were cleaning our plates, Mom rose from her chair. Taking a few steps to the cupboard next to the sink, she picked up a 9 X13 cake pan and carried it to the table. It was time for the dessert I had watched her make earlier in the day!

Like watching a science experiment, first Mom dissolved strawberry Jell-O powder into a measured amount of boiling water. Then she chilled the red liquid with ice cubes. After slicing bananas into the liquid, Mom put the pan into the refrigerator. Before calling the family to eat, Mom had whipped sugar and cream from our cows into a thick, white cloud to frost the now jiggly dessert!

After cutting the Jell-O as she would cut a cake, Mom used a spatula to lift out squares for each member of the family. The portion set on my plate, quivered. Remembering a Jell-O commercial on our recently acquired television, I sang, “J-E-L-L-O!”

Mom smiled and reminisced, “I made Jell-O for the first time when Casper was a toddler.” I glanced over at my eldest brother sitting at the end of the table and tried to picture my adult brother as a toddler.

Continuing, Mom described his surprise and reaction. “When I set the Jell-O in front of Casper, he noticed it jiggling. Alarmed, he kept his eyes on it as he stood up in his highchair and frantically questioned, “What’s it? What’s it?”

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Secondhand Embarrassment

One evening after school, I walked into my family’s living room and to my great astonishment, found Jim, my brother-in-law, setting up his television for us to watch. He informed me that he and my sister Agnes and their baby, David, were moving away so they wouldn’t be needing it. “Moving?” I questioned.

Jim kept working on the backside of the second-hand television he was giving us. “Yep,” he answered absent-mindedly, “I’ve reenlisted in the army.”

Being a typical ten-year-old, I never read the front page of the newspaper, or listened to radio news. But that didn’t stop me from knowing something bad was going on. I had heard grownups talk in quiet tones about something called “the Berlin wall crisis.” Being an intelligent kid, I knew that Berlin was a European city located in Germany, the homeland of my grandparents. Just what was going on, I didn’t know.

Trying not to think about my sister moving away, I made a point to learn what shows were available, what days they were on and whether Mom would let me watch them or not. We had only one channel and I wasn’t allowed to turn the television on before 6:30 in the evening. One thing I discovered about watching television was that I needed to turn some knobs to make the picture stop rolling.

My only experience with televisions to that point was occasionally being able to watch cartoons on Saturday mornings while visiting my neighborhood cousins. One memorable afternoon after ice skating on their pond, we watched ‘Zorro’, the masked man with a swift blade who avenged all wrongs.

I loved watching television shows but something weird happened to me very often when they were on. No one else watching with me ever seemed to have the same problem. One evening while watching Mr. Ed the talking horse, the weird thing happened. The show was about Wilbur doing something really stupid because of his horse. Wilbur didn’t want his wife or neighbors to find out what he was doing. As an inevitable confrontation approached, intense anxiety and embarrassment filled me. Feeling like I was going to explode, and not wanting to see the end of the show, I jumped to my feet and raced out of the house.

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Screamed Windows

When Daddy finished the evening milking chores, he went straight to the bathroom to wash up and shave as he always did. During the summer when Daddy was done milking, the sun was still high in the sky. But not today. The house felt unusually dark and shadowed. The air was heavy and humid, as if the world was waiting for something to happen.

I felt restless and uneasy, so I followed Daddy into the bathroom and sat on the edge of the bathtub to watch him lather his face. I chattered to him about my day. He listened with a nod and smile, then wet his special whisker brush and energetically dabbed it on the disk of shaving soap on the bottom of a coffee mug. After spreading the resulting white foam on his whisker stubble, he turned and grinned at me.

There was a flash of lightning. The bathroom light momentarily dimmed. I startled to my feet. Seconds later, a crash of thunder made me press against Daddy. He said, “It’s okay, just a little thunder and lightning.”

Mom nodded, sat forward in her chair, and called, “Kids, it’s time to pray the rosary.” To Daddy she said, “We’ll pray that the storm doesn’t do damage.”

When Daddy’s whiskers were gone and the smell of cows washed away, we went to join Mom in the living room. As he sat down in his favorite chair, he said to Mom, “The storm is moving in fast. I hope it doesn’t bring wind that flattens the oat fields.”

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Dancing in the Moonlight

My sister Mary sat on one end of the davenport reading a thick book. I sat at the other end, twiddling my thumbs. We hadn’t had a new comic book in the house for over a week and I was sick of rereading our collection of old ones. The heat and humidity of the day had zapped all my energy.

Taking a break from household chores, Mom walked into the living room and sat down in her upholstered rocking chair. Picking up a crochet pattern book from the table next to her chair, she fanned her sweat-glistened face and requested, “Kathy, open the windows wider.”

I went to the first window. As I leaned over to slide the aluminum frame up a blast of backyard heat, smelling like cooked lawn, hit me in the face. I gasped, “I don’t think having the windows open wider is going to cool us off. It’s hotter outside than in the house!”

Mom sighed, “I hope it cools off tonight so we can sleep.” She shrugged and picked up her crochet hook, pulled string from a spool on the floor and checked directions in the book. Then she began to make the small, hooked needle in her hand dart rapidly in and out of loops. Before long, a lacy doily began to take shape.

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Walking in the Dark

I wanted to play in the barn where Daddy and my brother were milking cows, but nighttime darkness held our farmyard in its grip. Closing the backdoor of our farmhouse, I found my sister Betty and demanded, “I want you to take me to the barn.”

My thirteen-year-old sister looked up from a comic book and answered in a huff, “You’re eight years old. Go to the barn by yourself and quit being such a big baby!”

I returned to the backdoor again. The yard was very dark, even with the yard light turned on, a single light bulb on top of a pole between the barn and house. Freshly fallen snowflakes sparkled in its light. A shadow moved. Panic made me freeze in place and wonder, “Is that a wild animal? Will it attack and kill me if I go out there?”

Common sense made me reason, there weren’t wild animals in our yard during the day. Then I realized the moving shadow was just a tree branch swaying in the wind. I really, really wanted to be in the barn! Throwing all caution to the wind, I ran as fast as I could, screaming all the way to the barn’s entryway, the milk house.

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