Part-one of an essay by guest Gero-Punk
Mama said rattlesnakes are always blind in August when they shed so until they get their heads out of their old skins they’d strike at anything. She told me to carry a stick, drag it along the ground, and make a lot of noise when I went to get the mail. She said snakes are more scared of us than we are of them and will rustle out of sight when they hear us coming.
Mama wasn’t always right but she did not admit to being wrong and it was never helpful to point out to her when I thought she was. I learned to chalk up those rather rare events silently in my mind. Very early when she spanked me I made the mistake of telling her, “It didn’t even hurt!” She took my hand and snapped, “Well, it will this time!” I learned a valuable lesson that day: always cry loudly and quickly when you’re spanked. I don’t remember what virtue she was trying to teach me that long ago day but what I did learn was valuable.
Mama Was Right
Mama was certainly right the day I stepped on a bee! A hive of honeybees made their home in a wall of our house, in the built-on extension that would someday be a bathroom. There was a tin tub in that room that could be filled with bath water and a drain for the dirty water to run out. We didn’t use it much – I was bathed in a tin tub by the kitchen stove – until the electricity came when I was seven and a real bathroom was installed. With bees sharing part of our dwelling, live or dead ones were often seen in the connecting kitchen. One morning while still the only child in the family and was walking around in my robe and slippers, I saw a dead bee in a shaft of sunlight coming through the kitchen window. I poked it with the toe of my slipper; it didn’t move’ I poked it again. It was dead, all right. I took off my slipper.
“I want to step on it,” I told Mama.
“If you do, it will sting you.”
I didn’t believe her. ”But it’s dead, Mama; it can’t sting! I want to step on it.”
Mama was calm and certain, “If you do, it will sting you,” she repeated twice. No matter what Mama said, it seemed impossible to me that any creature could harm me when it was dead. Mama had been wrong before, so, intent on my own purpose, I stepped on the lifeless bee. It stung me! I cried – Mama soothed me – and put a paste of baking soda on my foot. Perhaps that helped, but the foot swelled until I couldn’t wear my shoes for three days. I felt very sorry for myself, but brave, too.
Mama and Daddy Get Engaged
One story we loved to hear was about the time that Mama and Daddy were young and unmarried. They had gone to school together in Milton and remained friends with fellow students during my childhood and after. The City Hall in Milton is a big building that sits in a whole square block with lawn around it. This building used to be a school, Columbia College that the Methodists ran with strict standards for chastity and sobriety. Daddy and Mama went there and so did Mama’s sister, Lida, and Daddy’s best friend Cecil Hicks. Lida’s real name was Eliza Jane but nobody called her that.
The story was that Daddy admired Lida and took her out. Cecil asked Daddy if he was serious about her because if he wasn’t Cecil thought Lida was the very girl he wanted to marry. Daddy told Cecil that Lida wasn’t important to him and he could just as well ask out Winona, Lida’s younger sister. Mama said they went for rides and sometimes Daddy hugged her and the talcum powder she wore puffed out. When school was out the girls went back to Eagle Valley in Baker Co. Not many people lived in Richland, Oregon where Grandpa Saunders had a general store that sold everything from plows to pickles with a gas pump out front and farm machinery in a big room at the back and the pickles in a big wooden barrel by the round heating stove in the middle of the store where there were rounded-backed oak chairs where Grandpa sat sometimes with his customers.
The road to Richland from Baker City ran out of pavement at the city limits and the rest was graveled but it had enough room that two cars could pass. In places, that road ran beside the Powder River where we watched for cranes standing on one leg to fish in the green slimy water. The road ended in Richland with a side road to New Bridge. Cecil was desperate to see Lida again so he borrowed his stepfather’s Reo touring car and he and Daddy drove to Richland to see the Saunders sisters. They also knew a young man who’d gone to Columbia College with them and whose name they could use as the person they’d really come to see when they telephoned the girls to let them know they were “passing through town”. When they phoned, Winona told Harold that it would be easy to see their friend as he was working for her Aunt Mary and Uncle Elmer Holman. The girls laughed because they knew it wasn’t possible to pass through Richland and go anyplace without doubling back to a connecting road. Daddy later recounted how surprised he was when he bought 10 gallons of gas at Grandpa’s general store expecting change from the $5.00 bill he’d handed over. But Grandpa just said, “Thank you.” Gas cost twice as much in Eagle Valley as it did in Milton because it all had to be trucked in so far.
Winona and Lida went back to Columbia and got engaged with rings and Lida and Cecil were married. When Mama grew homesick, Grandpa Saunders said no child of his had to suffer being away from home when home was where she wanted to be so Mama finished her formal education at the high school in Richland. Daddy wanted Mama to set a date for the wedding but she kept on not setting a date. After a while when Lida and Cecil were about to have a baby, Mama came to Milton to help out. Daddy wanted to get married and one day he said, “Winona, it’s now or never!” Mama told him in that case it’s “Never” and gave him back the ring.
Daddy told us his heart was broken and Grandma Gray said he even groaned in the night. His parents advised him to take the ring back to the jeweler. The jeweler said it was too bad things hadn’t worked out but he gave Daddy all of his money back. The money from the returned ring became the down payment on the farm where all of us children were born.
Lida’s new baby was Dorothy Hicks and Mama was still there helping out when Daddy planned a trip to take some cows on the train to sell in Chicago. Because he was going so far away Daddy naturally wanted to say goodbye to his best friend so he came by the Hicks’ house to see Cecil. Mama was always a little vague about the story at this point but Daddy said while he was standing in the parlor waiting for Cecil, Mama came softly into the room and put her arms around his waist and said “Harold if you want it to be now it can be.” Neither the cows nor Daddy went to Chicago. Instead he and Grandpa Gray drove to Pendleton to get a marriage license. Grandpa had to sign for him, as Daddy wouldn’t be 21 until December 7. Aunt Lida was still in bed with her new baby but watched through the door as Harold and Winona were married October 13, 1921. Mama was 18.
My parents moved to Portland, Oregon shortly after I was born and lived there for over a year. Daddy thought he would try his hand at something other than farming. Later, Mama was amazed when I asked her where we were living when she lifted me through the kitchen onto a lawn that was as high as that window; she thought I was too young to remember. I recollect playing on the grass and the comfort it was to know that whenever I looked through the window my Mama was there. That is my first memory. Daddy felt he did well at Lipmann Wolfe Department Store but sacrificed his business career to move back to the farm to be near his father who was getting old. Grandpa was approaching 55 years of age, but that seemed old to my young father. I don’t remember moving back to the farm which happened after I was two years old. There are a number of memories of the period in my life when I was the only child before my brother was born.
On the Farm
Mama had a work table set under a window that looked out onto the mountains in the distance at the end of the valley of the North Fork of the Walla Walla River. We could see the blue slopes of those high hills that would be snow clad in the winter. We always called that view the Kitchen Window Mountain. The work table had a tin top where she rolled out biscuits and cookies and thumped the big loaves of bread into smooth white lumps to be set to rise under a dampened tea towel before going into the hot oven of the big black coal and wood range that reigned in our kitchen. Mama put her hand into the oven to check if the temperature was right. Under the tin top of the work table was a wide drawer that held implements used in cooking: potato masher, a round metal cutter with a green handle that she used to cut out biscuits and cookies, a potato ricer that squished cooked potatoes out of its little holes into warm white threads that when butter melted on them tasted almost as good as mashed potatoes – and knives. I liked to push a chair to that table, climb up and open the drawer and the most fascinating pieces of all those interesting objects were the knives – especially the big butcher knife. I could not keep my fingers away from its sharp edge. Mama did not allow me to play with butcher knives but again and again I would pull the chair over, climb up, and open that mesmerizing drawer. I always thought that this time it would be different – I was so much bigger and older than last time – but I don’t remember a single successful exploration of that forbidden drawer. I always cut a finger.
That’s why when I discovered the iris plants in Grandma Gray’s front yard I was glad to see those leaves, shaped like green butcher knives that did not cut my fingers, growing abundantly from the ground. Joyously shouting, “Butcher knives! Butcher knives,” I pulled up those harmless knives and threw them in the air. It was not too long before Grandma investigated my happy cries and explained that those knives, too, must be left alone. They would grow and become flowers – “Flags”, she called them, but since then I’ve never been fond of iris.
Velda Metelmann is a student in the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program at Marylhurst University. She’ll be commencing her thesis work on “a good old age” this fall.