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.
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.
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.
Instead of getting brighter, as the morning progressed, the sky darkened and thunder growled ominously in the distance. Looking out the kitchen window, the overwhelming greenness worried me. When I was 23 years old, the air had appeared greenish before a tornado picked up one end of my mobile home. Realizing that an earlier rain shower had enhanced the vivid color of the new maple tree leaves and a freshly mowed lawn, I relaxed. Weepy, blue clouds on the horizon suggested more rain was on the way.
My daughter Tammie joined me at the window, commenting, “This would be a good morning to have a sleep-in. I love lying in bed, listening to distant thunder and the patter of rain on the roof.”
Putting my arm around her shoulders, I reminisced, “Grammie Altmann loved nighttime thunder storms and rain. She said lying in bed listening to them made her feel cozy and happy. Do you remember that her birthday was today, the 15th of June?”
Nodding, Tammie acknowledged, “Yes, I know. If she were alive, this would be her 117th birthday. Grandpa Jacob’s birthday in July would have been his 118th.”
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.
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.
The two, peanut butter-loaded mouse traps that I put in the brick farmhouse’s old-fashioned back porch last night were nowhere to be seen. Arnie, my husband was in the house. I yelled, “Honey, did you get rid of the mouse traps I put out here yesterday?”
Arnie’s bellowed answer, “No I didn’t” made me closely examine the green indoor-outdoor carpet. The traps were gone, and there wasn’t even an oily smear left behind on the artificial grass.
Yesterday, I’d noticed chew marks on the outdoor toys stored in a box below one of the porch windows. Today, the toys looked even worse. I assumed mice were doing the damage. Our farmhouse had a long history of rodent visitors.
My husband stepped into the porch with a half-eaten sandwich in his hands. He looked in the toy box and exclaimed, “Mice can’t do that kind of damage! I think a rat has been getting into the porch.”
Clumps of green blades dotted the flowerbed. Some of the leaves obviously belonged to crocus and hyacinths that were soon to blossom. Other clumps belonged to either daffodils or mystery lilies. I wouldn’t know for sure until the daffodils sent up stems and buds.
This flowerbed had looked completely dead when the winter snow melted. Then the first small green shoots pushed their way up through the cold, wet ground. I marveled at this miracle despite having seen it happen each spring of my life. How tenacious the small bulbs were! How badly they wanted to live! How inconceivable it was that they were able to wake up and start growing again after having been frozen solid for months on end!
Flower bulbs were not the only things growing in the yard. Swollen red buds tipped the maple tree branches. Despite a chilly spring, leaves were sure to follow soon. Blades of grass in the lawn were pushing up through last year’s brown thatch. The lawn mowing people were sure to follow soon, too.
I went to sit in a chair on the deck to muse the endlessness of household bills. My daughter Tammie was sitting at the table across from me. She looked up from her phone as I complained, “In the winter I pay for snow to be removed from the driveway and buy fuel for the furnace. In the summer I don’t pay for those things, but then I pay for someone to mow the lawn and have higher electric bills for using the air conditioner.”
The pinball machine in the corner of the bar suddenly began to play a tune and lights flashed in its backglass. Turning slightly on my barstool, I looked at the machine and mused, “That’s pretty cool. No one has been playing with it for a while, so it plays music like the pied-piper to attract customers.” The come-hither tactic worked, I sipped some beer from my glass and slid from my stool at the bar. My scant experience with pinball machines meant a low score, but I decided to try my hand anyway.
My first pull on the spring-loaded ball launcher was so weak that I thought my ball wasn’t going to make it to the playing field. But then it touched a mushroom bumper and sprung to life to bounce rapidly between all the bumpers. The machine’s backglass showed the number score rising quickly. Each point was celebrated with flashing lights and a noisy, “boing, boing, boing!”
As suddenly as the scoring spree started, it ended. The ball slowly began to roll down toward the apron. The only defense I had to prevent losing the ball were the two flippers guarding the drain. Timing was important, but even knowing this, I didn’t wait to properly bat the ball back into play. In my excitement I vigorously and indiscriminately pressed the buttons to make the flippers wildly flap. The entire game table bounced under my hands. Someone watching laughed and said, “Be careful. You’re going to make it go ‘tilt’.” That gave me pause. When a pinball machine goes ‘tilt’, it shuts down. Despite my efforts, the ball slipped between the ineffectual paddles and disappeared.
The second ball managed to stay in play much longer. I even saved it from going down the drain a couple times by delivering well-timed blows with the flippers. When hitting the bumpers, the ball displayed a fascinating amount of energy. It seemed to have a mind of its own, so the resulting score didn’t really feel like mine. A player is just a witness, and my only influence on the game rested entirely on stopping the ball from going down the drain.
Potatoes on the oven rack beside the roasting pan were not soft in the center yet. Poking a fork into the browning chuck roast revealed juicy meat that would melt-in-our-mouths after another hour of slow baking. While closing the oven door, the kitchen light dimmed for a few moments. Tossing the potholders onto a counter next to the stove, I left the kitchen.
My husband Arnie was in our Quonset shed working on one of his special projects. I knew that when he used the welder, the power it drew made the lights in the house dim for a few seconds. Curious to see his work and needing to tell him supper would be ready soon gave me a good reason to leave the house. The chilly morning had turned into a pleasantly warm spring afternoon.
The Quonset shed was one hundred yards from the house, but I took the scenic route that took me around the house, past a flowerbed, a bed of chives and rhubarb. A radio in the shed was tuned to a country western music station could be heard all over the yard.
Arnie had just finished laying down a new bead with the welder and pushed up his eye shield to inspect the work. Spotting me at the door of the shed, he smiled and took off his welding gloves and helmet. He proudly questioned, What do you think?”, motioning to the metal frame he’d made.