Cut the Mustard

The trees along the river near my house had bulging leaf buds. I said, “Any day now, those old, gray branches are going to be clothed in beautiful green!”

Home for a visit, my daughter Tammie scoffed, “You said they’d be leafed out by the time I came home for this visit. I’m here, but the leaves aren’t. What’s the hold-up?”

Sighing, I said apologetically, “Spring is a naughty tease. One week she makes me think full summer is just a minute away, then the following week, I’d swear that winter had returned. To make it more difficult to know when things will turn green, she never puts her leafy skirts on at the same time each year.”

After my daughter had returned home, Dame Spring dealt us a week of May thunderstorms and tornados. It wasn’t until the weather became frigid again, that leaves burst forth from tree branches, bushes and vines. Suddenly, lilacs, flowering crabapples and honey suckle competed for attention.

Holding my spring jacket shut against the chill one morning as I scurried out to the garage, I noticed how beautiful the yard was now that everything had turned green.  I thought even the weeds were pretty. All across my farmyard lawn were yellow dandelions and purple creeping Charlie. As I drove out of my driveway, I spotted a bright yellow weed flowering in what was once a flower bed, but is now would more accurately a weed bed. “That’s mustard!” I thought to myself.

For the rest of the day, the word “mustard” rolled around in my mind. Every once in awhile, another word would pop up in place of “mustard”. That word was “yellow rocket”. These were very old words that took me back to my early grade school years. When I had time, I allowed myself to recall when I was eight.

Getting out of bed at the crack of dawn was never my strong suit, but seven in the morning hardly qualifies for sunrise during the spring months on a farm. “Get up and get dressed.” My big sister commanded me one morning. I frowned and turned over. She said, “Get dressed. We’re going to pick rocks today.”

An hour later everyone in the family was out in the field. Daddy had his small John Deere hitched to a hay wagon. Everyone was directed to look around, pick up the rocks we saw and pitch them up onto the wagon bed. If a rock was too big, Daddy lifted it for us. When the area around the wagon was picked clean, someone drove the tractor further down the field where we continued to pick rock.

Until this year, I had been considered too young for this work.

Halfway through the morning one of my sisters grumbled, “Didn’t we pick this field last year?”

Daddy chuckled, but also sounded disgusted when he answered, “We did, but every year the frost heaves more stones to the surface.”

Being eight years old, I was now also on the work crew the following month when it came to pulling weeds in the oat field. The oat plants were only tall enough to cover my ankles, while the weeds had grown faster and were up at least to my knees. These yellow blossoming plants dotted the field. I quickly learned to walk through the oats by placing my footsteps between the rows, so as to not crush the crop plants.

When I asked what the weeds were called, some of my brothers and sisters called them “mustard” and others called them, “yellow rocket.” I didn’t question the double name, because after all, I had a double name, too. I was Kathleen in school records, but at home everyone called me Kathy.

As an adult, I have more curiosity about the weed than as a child. That evening I sat down at the desk and looked up mustard and yellow rocket in my computer. What I found was that the two plant varieties are related, but so similar I’m still not sure what my family and I were pulling all those years ago in Daddy’s oat fields.

As I searched for information about these two plants, I kept coming across explanations for the phrase, “to cut the mustard,” which means to work up to expectations. I thought, “That phrase should be, ‘to PULL the mustard’. We wouldn’t have been working up to Daddy’s expectations if we had merely CUT the mustard!”


Li’l Miss Kettlehead

The backdoor slammed and I heard my big brother talking to Mom in the kitchen. “The wind has died down, so it would be a good time for me to burn the garbage. We were out of matches the other day. Did you buy some when you were in town?”

Dropping the comic book that I’d been looking at, I ran into the kitchen and exclaimed, “I want to watch you burn things!”

Mom reached into the drawer where the matches were kept and handed the box to my brother. She said, “Watch Kathy so she doesn’t get too close to the fire.”

By the time small flames were beginning to lick at the contents of the bathroom wastepaper basket, two big sisters and another brother joined us for the entertaining spectacle.

Having found a nice, big, sturdy stick so I could poke at things as they burned, I patiently waited for the fire to grow. Empty toilet paper cardboard rolls turned black when the flame touched them. Small orange flames above the blackened areas chewed hungrily until the roll was reduced to nothing but a pile of white ash. Wads of toilet paper that we’d used to blow our noses burst up into flames before disappearing just as quickly. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a wad of toilet paper, wiped my nose, then threw it into the fire. Poof! Continue reading

Story Portrait

Leftover snow from winter lined fences and ditches that Sunday afternoon. During the previous week, fickle spring weather see-sawed back and forth between snow and rain. Today, Dame March was treating Wisconsin to warm sunshine and gentle breezes. Sighing contentedly, I signaled to turn at the next cross road. I’d decided to drop in on my sister and her husband for a short afternoon visit.

Better than a doorbell, Susie the one-year-old black pug announced my arrival before I even reached their door. Agnes cheerfully greeted me and said, “I was just making blueberry pancakes for Jim. Would you like a cup of tea?” I nodded with a smile and sat down at the table.

Placing a steaming cup in front of me, Agnes asked, “Would you like pancakes, too?” The pancakes she’d made were beautiful; filled with plump, fresh berries.

Breathing in the aroma of black tea, I answered with contented satisfaction, “No thanks. The tea is all I want.” Jim sat down across the table from me and buttered the pancakes on his plate. Continue reading

Where it Drains

Sun was shining into the kitchen when I stepped in to make my breakfast. My heart lifted. After so many dreary, cold winter days, I felt more than ready to enjoy spring. My instant plan for the day was to change the bedding, wash a load of laundry and then go outside to tidy the yard by picking up broken branches.

Spring days are unreliable. By the time I had finished stripping the bed and starting the laundry, it had clouded over again. Disappointed, I bundled up to go outside anyway. It didn’t take long for me to appreciate my jacket and scarf after stepping out of the house. Although the thermometer said it was a pleasant forty degrees, wind blowing over snowbanks in the fields around the house picked up a tremendous amount of chilly dampness.

Trying to decide where to start my clean-up, I glanced around the bleak, winter-ravaged yard. Melted snow puddled here and there on the gravel driveway. None of the puddles were very large, though. The natural, gentle slope of the yard made the water slowly trickle downhill toward the river south of my house. Water from the spring runoff already filled the normally trickling, Little Eau Pleine River to a raging current. The gushing, rushing torrent of water could easily be heard from my back door. Continue reading

Mama Cat’s Hiss-Story

Mom slipped a sun bonnet on my head and reached down to tie its ribbon under my chin. She said, “It’s windy today. This’ll keep you warm.” My eldest sister helped me put on a red sweater. First, she put one of my arms in a sleeve and then helped me put the other arm into the second sleeve. She knelt in front of me to button it shut. My white, ankle-high leather shoes needed to be tied and then I was ready to venture outdoors.

Going outside to explore the backyard was a big deal for the first few years of my life. On this early spring day, my sister was taking me to the barn to see a litter of kittens. When we stepped out the back door of the farmhouse, two barn cats were stretched out on the sun-warmed cement sidewalk. They jumped to their feet when they saw us and began to rub against our legs. Their fur felt silky and softer than any of my special blankets.

It was so warm and still next to the house that I wanted my sweater and hat off, but by the time we crossed the driveway and started up the barn hill, a surprisingly strong, chill wind buffeted me, making it hard to walk.

The large haymow barn doors were standing open. Sunshine slanted in, lighting half of the threshing floor. My sister led me to a pile of hay alongside the stairway that led down to the lower part of the barn. The sweet scent of dried summer grasses filled the air. Downstairs, a calf bellowed and its mother lowed in return. In the stillness of the haymow I heard tiny mews. Then I saw the source. Burrowed in the hay was a nest with five nursing kittens and a gray tabby cat. Continue reading

13th Child

Warm, happy waves of excitement and cold, shivery chills of nervousness washed over me in turns. Daddy was driving me into town on a Saturday afternoon for a birthday party. I alternately fiddled with the wrapped present on my lap and the hem of my Sunday dress. My friend, Karen had invited me and more than a dozen other classmates. The party was at her house in Stratford. Along the road, we passed homes that I recognized. We were getting closer to where Karen lived.

I was used to birthdays celebrated in class rooms. Usually the birthday person’s Mom would send a pan of brownies or a jar of chocolate chip cookies to school to be passed around when Sister said it was okay. Many birthday parties that I’d been to, were for my nuclear family or for one of my neighborhood cousins. Those parties were limited to cake and ice cream after supper. Today was different. Today I was going to a real birthday party with games and many other children! Continue reading

Farm Friendly

I peeked into the entryway when I heard the back door open. My three younger grandsons had finished playing in the snow and were coming in to warm up. Remembering how frost-nipped their cheeks and fingers were after sledding in my backyard last month, I went to the kitchen to pour them cups of hot sweet tea. As I buttered toast for them, I could hear them stamping snow off their boots. Since they rolled around in the snow when they played, I knew there would also be snow clinging to their clothing.

Eleven-year-old Ben was the first to step into the kitchen. I said, “I’ve made tea and toast for you.” He grinned his appreciation and sat down at the table. Nine-year-old Luke came in next and eagerly accepted a cup from me. Jacob, who will be seven in May straggled in last. After placing the buttered toast on the table, I checked the entryway to see if I needed to hang wet snowsuits over the registers. What I saw was the inner house door hanging wide open. Since my wood pellet thermostat is in the entryway, I don’t like it when that room gets chilled. The rest of the house would soon be roasting!

I opened my mouth, but it was my mother’s voice that came out of it. She said, “Who was the last person into the house? Were you born in a barn? You left the door hanging open!” Continue reading