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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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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Remembering Grammie

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.”

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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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(I’m) The Beast

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.”

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Backyard Philosopher

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.”

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