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A Bit Longer

Mom stirred the contents of a kettle on the stove, then turning to face me, she scolded reproachfully, “You should get up earlier in the morning. It’s ten o’clock.”

Clumsily cutting myself a thick slice of freshly baked homemade bread, I protested, “I was awake earlier. I just didn’t come downstairs right away.” As a small child I had never liked taking naps or going to bed at night. Now, at age ten, nothing had changed. Every night I put off going to bed for as long as Mom’s patience held out. Predictably, in the mornings I never wanted to get up when everyone else did.

Watching me slather a generous smear of butter onto the soft, slightly warm bread, she advised, “I know you’re hungry, but don’t ruin your appetite. In an hour and a half Daddy will be done with his mid-morning chores and we’ll be having dinner.”

My mouth was full, so I nodded and turned to leave. When I stepped out the back door of the farmhouse, sunshine blinded me. Chewing the last bite of bread, I listened to a red winged black bird’s distinctive call and the bawl of a calf in the barn.  

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Rock Hound

Schoolhouse beach on Washington Island, Wisconsin.

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.

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Birdies Sing

Instead of going into the barn immediately after supper, I zoomed around the farmyard on my half-sized bike. Fast as I could pedal, I toured the main circle driveway and the back circle driveway between the machine shed and old house. Around and around I went. The minute I heard the the Surge vacuum pump in the barn turn on, I dropped my bike on the lawn and trotted across the yard to the milk house. 

I loved being in the barn; the sound of the cows mooing, slurping water, sighing, the creak of their hooves as they shifted their weight. During milking chores, the barn cats came out looking for spilled milk. I liked sitting on the haymow stairway near the milk cans, playing with the mother cats and listening to the radio.

As far as I know, no one has taken credit for being the first person to install a radio in their cow barn. On our farm, it was my brother who placed a radio on one of the large overhead beams and plugged it in. Having music while doing chores made the work more pleasant. We joked about how the cows probably enjoyed listening to the music, too.

We weren’t wrong about that assumption. Since then, studies have found that cows listening to music with a slower tempo have a greater milk production than cows exposed to fast-tempo music. Most of the music that WDLB, our local radio station provided in the late 1950’s and early 1960, was perfect for that. Researchers think fast-tempo music stimulates adrenaline secretion which interferes with milk letdown.

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Easter Baskets

While we were eating our noon meal, Mom asked Daddy when she would be able to go shopping in Marshfield. I perked up because Easter was three weeks away. Mom was sure to buy candy for my Easter basket. Mom said, “I want to buy material so I can make the girls’ dresses and I want to look at spring jackets and hats.”

Daddy took a bite of buttered homemade bread and thought a moment. He said, “We can go in right after we’re done eating today. That’ll give you about four hours to shop since I have to get back in time to start the evening milking chores.”

Although our farm was only 12 miles from the city of Marshfield, Wisconsin, my family very infrequently went there on shopping trips. Most of the everyday things we needed could be bought from one of the stores in the closer but smaller town of Stratford. Excited about the rare treat of going on a shopping trip, I went to find and put on my coat.

Mom fluttered around clearing the dishes from our kitchen table. In her mind it was unthinkable that we would go anywhere and leave the house in disorder. When she glanced up and saw me standing at the entrance wearing my mud-spattered school coat, she exclaimed, “You can’t wear that to Marshfield! You’ll have to put on your Sunday coat. We’ll clean that tonight!”

Clean snow dotted the farm fields along the muddy gravel farm roads. Dirty banks of snow lined the clean, dry highway. In Marshfield, all traces of snow were gone from the paved streets. The spring sunshine even felt warmer there than at home on the farm. Mom’s first stop was a fabric store. I sighed with resignation. Trying to be patient while she spent long periods of time looking at pattern books was hard. I wanted to go to interesting stores and buy fun things.

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April Showers

I peered out of our family car’s mud-splashed backseat window. A passing milk truck had showered our car with a gritty mixture of mud, water, gravel and ice crystals shortly after we’d pulled out of our farmyard. Dirty snowbanks slumped in the roadside ditches. Brilliant sunshine and 40-degree springtime air was making them melt. I was amazed at how much the huge banks had already shrunk. Their sodden mess filled the ditches, so the melt water had nowhere to go but on the road, making it look like a mucky cow yard.

Arriving at my school, Daddy drove into the parking lot where dozens of other parents were dropping their children off. The blacktop lot, covered with a thick layer of hard ice all winter, was now covered with slush. I stomped my way to the school door, taking delight in the way my footsteps splashed. It didn’t matter to me that my brown stockings were getting drenched.

I had noticed that there were times when I arrived at school and found the building filled with the air of excitement and happy expectations. This especially was felt on snowy winter mornings. The halls buzzed with quiet murmurs of, “Do you think they’ll call off school and send us home early?” Hope, happiness and exhilaration could almost be smelled, touched, tasted.  Today, the excitement was due to the sudden arrival of spring weather during the weekend.

Sister Florence had put up a new bulletin board in my classroom over the weekend. Amid clouds of colorful flowers cut-out from construction paper, it proclaimed, “April showers bring May flowers!”  One of my classmates proudly offered Sister a bouquet of pussy willow twigs. Her wrinkled face was transformed by a big smile as she accepted the gift with genuine delight. Everyone was ready for spring.

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Midwestern Proverbs

Opening the large paperback Bible to Proverbs, I settled into the chair next to my bedroom window. Small print densely covered both pages. Having recently finished reading the Psalms, I knew that reading too much at a time would make my brain lose focus. In order to get as much as possible out of my daily reading, I gave myself permission to only read 14 proverbs at a time if that was all I could handle.

Most mornings I stop for a few moments to read a page from the Bible. Consequently I’ve read the Good Book from cover to cover more than twice. With each reading, I notice different things in the familiar stories. Reading the fascinating books of Ruth and Judith, I have a hard time stopping, but with the book of Leviticus, reading it once was enough.

Later that morning, I looked up the definition of ‘proverb’. The dictionary said proverbs were short pithy sayings in general use, stating a truth or general advice. In thinking about it, that seemed true of the biblical proverbs. The ones I’d read that morning had to do with fools versus wise men, and lazy or unscrupulous men versus honest, righteous men. Only one made me wonder if Solomon was prideful when he wrote, “The king’s lips are an oracle; no judgment he pronounces is false.”

         Many secular proverbs exist. Most of them are born of experience. For example, a proverb in my mother’s family was, “For as long as spring peepers sing before Saint George’s Day, that is how long they will be silent after it.” They believed that if the weather warmed up too soon in April, there would be a deep freeze on Saint George’s Day, April 23rd, causing the peepers to burrow back into the mud and be silent.

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What Everyone Likes

With a big smile on my face, I cheerfully informed the patient, “Your doctor wants you to get up to walk four times today. You walked 25 yards with me this morning. Now it’s time for you to get up again. This time we’ll shoot for 50 yards.”

The patient made no move to sit up. He grumped, “I don’t know why you have to be so cheerful. I bet you enjoy torturing people.”

As I pulled the bedside table out of the way, I informed him, “Actually, I don’t!” The patient lifted his head and hunched his shoulders forward as if he was trying to do a sit-up. His face contorted into a grimace. I instructed, “When a person has an abdominal incision like you do, it feels better to roll to your side and push yourself up with your elbow.”

Moments later the patient was plodding down the hall with me helping to steady him. His surely mood was still evident. Wanting to take his mind off the pain and the perceived injustice of having to walk so soon after surgery, I tried to engage him in conversation.

My questions only received monosyllabic answers. As we walked past the kitchenet, the warm smell of freshly-popped buttered popcorn engulfed us. I exclaimed, “Wow, that smells so good! I’ll bet heaven smells like buttered popcorn. What do you think?”

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Pause to Listen

Rain drops pattered overhead and a long, low grumble of thunder followed the sharp crack of a distant lightning strike. As my brother Billy sank down into the chair across from me in the living room, he instructed, “Close your eyes and listen.” I stretched and rested my head on the sofa back.  

Billy questioned, “You know that when it rains on a hot summer afternoon, you can smell a beautiful, earthy scent sometimes?”

I nodded, realizing he had his eyes shut, too, I answered, “Yes, it’s the smell of clean, wet soil, or maybe the chlorophyll in the plants.”

There was another roll of thunder, but the rain on the roof had lessened. We became aware of the sound of water trickling down a rain spout. Somewhere there was a slow, steady drip of water falling into a puddle.

My brother jumped to his feet and took the storm CD out of his new radio compact disk player. He said, “My new Bose has the best sound of any radio I’ve ever had. I almost imagined smelling the rain. Right now, when I looked outside, it seemed like I should have seen gray rain clouds scuttling away.”

Getting to my feet to look closer at my brother’s new toy, I admired its sleek lines before stating, “I’ve been told these are quite expensive.”

Defending his splurge, he maintained, “Yes, they are. But you get top quality for the money.”

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Doll Hospital

Doll Hospital

A shaft of blinding sunshine blazed through our farmhouse’s back-door window and cascaded down the basement steps. The sunlight felt warm and glowed against the shadowed area under the steps. Mom was outside hanging a load of freshly washed sheets. I loved playing in the basement when Mom was doing the laundry, but I didn’t go outside with her when it was as cold as today.

My new bike was in the basement until the weather improved and our muddy yard dried up. I loved my bike. It was half as big as the bikes my older brothers and sisters rode, and had training wheels to keep me upright. Slowly peddling around the perimeter of the basement, I rode past the clothes chute with the bedsprings under it to catch whatever was thrown down, past the furnace and oil tank, under the high windows that let in dim light, beside canning shelves filled with good things to eat, under the steps where bushel baskets of newspaper-wrapped apples were stored during the winter.

Swerving around the small, wooden-walled toilet enclosure, I stopped next to the washing machine. Mom was back in the basement putting in a new load. Noticing that my bike was between her and the stairs. She suggested, “You should park your bike next to the clothes chute so I don’t have to walk around it.” Grasping the bike’s handlebars, I walked it forward a few feet.

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Freezone

Mom handed me one of the penicillin pills we had bought at the pharmacy after seeing the doctor. It was huge! Seeing the expression on my face, Mom scolded, “You’ll be able to swallow it! Just don’t think about it. Put it into your mouth and take a drink of this nice orange juice I bought for you. When you swallow the pill will go down with the juice.”

At age nine, I couldn’t remember Mom ever buying orange juice. I eagerly reached for the small glass. Popping the pill into my mouth, I took a drink. The juice went down my throat, but the pill stayed on my tongue and it tasted horrible! Gagging and retching, I spit the white monster out and Mom caught it.

Refusing to take the pill was not an option. I’d overheard Mom tell Daddy that my strep throat could turn into rheumatic fever if not treated with an antibiotic.

I had barely stopped gagging and drooling when Mom filled a small dish with apple sauce and turned to me with some on a spoon, topped by the soggy pill. Half an hour later, the dish was nearly empty before the pill finally slid down my throat. Feeling shaky from all the gagging and with a belly full of juice and sauce, I wobbled into the living room to lay down on the davenport. The pill not only tasted bad but also smelled nasty.

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