Part five in a series of essays by guest Gero-punk
The Barn and the Cottonwood Tree
Across the shallow spill of the puddle, the lane sloped gently down beside the barn and up a little rise again to cross the bridge over the big stream that irrigated the cherry orchard and pasture before passing under the fence and continuing on to the neighbors. We didn’t play inside the barn much – Daddy didn’t like us romping on his hay and there was nothing to climb on to jump off on its soft hill. There was no ceiling; the inside was open to the soaring roof where one could occasionally see a chink of sky through a missing shingle. Sometimes we found kittens there, hidden in the hay; Sarfa was a bad mother and we’d have to feed her babies and teach them to be tame. The barn stood near enough to an ancient cottonwood tree that I could clamber up, hiding myself in the leafy mass, climbing the roof’s incline to sit serenely on the high ridge. I thought this activity perfectly safe for a child – but it was one I didn’t mention to my parents or share with my cousins. Daddy eventually noticed me sitting on the roof and although I had not felt the slightest twinge of danger, he made me promise solemnly that I would never climb the roof again. Then they cut down the old cottonwood tree, leaving a tall double stump where I sat and mourned until the orange heartwood and spires from where the tree broke in falling turned into a fairy city.
Hierarchy in the Henhouse
The chicken house stood in front of the small irrigation ditch where it branched off from the large one. There was no fence surrounding the henhouse so the chickens pecked around any place they pleased. They went all over the farm, eating worms in newly plowed ground, grasshoppers, beetles, and green growing plants as well. In the morning and at night we called them, “Chickie, chick-chick-chick” in a chickeny tune, scattering corn – dried maize chucked from the cob – out of a bent tin bucket. The top hen was more conscious of her rank than the Queen of England (Queen Mary at the time, before Edward and Mrs. Simpson and King George, father of the present Queen Elizabeth). The top hen could peck any hen in the flock and not be pecked back, and so it ran down the line with the high status birds preceding the others into the same henhouse. There was plenty of space for the hen with lowest rating to run away and squat under the bushes to avoid being pecked by all. Feeding chickens was fun but gathering eggs was my job and I often collected more ire from my father than eggs from the nests.
I’d start out to the henhouse skipping and thinking hopefully, “I’m older today – bigger today – and maybe braver, Oh, I hope braver!” but even an added month of age did not increase my courage and I didn’t have enough to argue with a broody hen. She wanted to make a family and didn’t want to give up her eggs; she’d peck any hand that ventured under her soft feathers. I’d go back for Daddy’s leather coat and his hat, and try to keep his leather gloves on my hands. Daddy’s coat and gloves did not delude the hens; often I’d have to go back for him. “Judas Priest!” Daddy would say and throw his newspaper down. When Daddy came to the chicken house, those fearsome hens would fly off with a squawk and leave their prospective progeny without a protest!
The Mean Rooster
One of Grandpa Gray’s roosters had a naturally feisty nature – not helped by the hired man pelting him with the little green apples he was thinning. The bird became a mean cock and would chase little girls; Marjy, Donna, and I were afraid of him and often waited in the outhouse for a grown-up to come. The cock patrolled in front, back and forth, eyes alert for his prey. Grown-ups were inclined to laugh but Mama became the first grown-up believer in the meanness of the rooster. She didn’t laugh because once the rooster knocked Barbara down. She was smaller than the rooster and remained unhurt kicking and yelling with the rooster pulling on the hem of her dress. Mama kicked the rooster – I still remember the amazement I felt when that bird sailed over the icehouse! Finally, everybody except Grandpa realized that the rooster was a danger but he just chuckled and shook his head. Then one day when Grandpa was carrying two full buckets of fresh milk up from the barn, the rooster ran full into the back of Grandpa’s knees. He fell down, spilled the milk, and the family had chicken fricassee the next Sunday.
Eldon and His Family
What my cousin Eldon Hoover had done by the age of three to deserve nearly universal disapproval I could never figure out, but grown-ups were always tightening their lips about him; I do not remember when he was not looked down on. It could have been because of his mother – she’d lost a baby girl before Eldon was born – and maybe she wanted a girl instead of a boy when he came. Aunt Gertie used to sniff and wipe her eyes when she told what her neighbor had said when that the baby had died without being baptized. “Too bad!” the neighbor volunteered, “the poor child will have to spend eternity in purgatory!” Methodists didn’t believe this, but it hurt Aunt Gertie’s feelings, the pain lingering on. Eldon’s older brother, Graydon, was older even than Lauriel – we thought of him distantly as a grown-up. He even had a girl friend and named his kitten MO, the initials of his sweetheart.
Eldon was about four years older than I. His Mama, Aunt Gertrude, thought he was wonderful but his Daddy was almost always cross at him. Uncle Ray was cross a lot. I thought this was because he had to work with things that smelled bad. He was a master plumber and no new houses were being built in the depression; people called a plumber only when pipes got so desperately bad that they couldn’t manage repair themselves. Uncle Ray made a doll bed for Barbara and called her “my girl” and she didn’t notice that he didn’t laugh much. I thought he was just mean one Christmas Eve when he wrapped up blocks of wood in a pretty Christmas package and gave them to Aunt Gertrude as a joke. She was so disappointed she cried; whether she got a real present in addition, I don’t remember as conflict made my stomach hurt and I left the room. I never knew why grown-ups didn’t like Eldon, they just didn’t.
Eldon didn’t do anything bad I knew of except pick his nose; I thought that rather entertaining – much more than Mama did. He was scared to sleep upstairs alone at Grandma’s and cried so they had to make a place for him to sleep downstairs and that earned Grandpa’s disapproval. Marjy remembers Grandpa holding her until she was very sleepy and then being carried off to bed; she didn’t like sleeping upstairs alone, either. None of us grandchildren were allowed to sleep in the grand, high bed with the pink taffeta cover in Grandma’s downstairs guest room. In fact, the two parlors, hall, and guest room were far too fine for ordinary use. On Christmas or Thanksgiving, Grandpa built a roaring fire in a black and silver shiny stove with circulating heat and all the inside doors were opened. That part of the house and the whole upper floor with four bedrooms opening off a central hall were not heated in the winter unless there were grown-up guests to accommodate. Grandma piled her beds with “feather beds” both under and on top making it impossible to be cold. It was awesomely quiet upstairs, I would have been scared, too, to sleep up there alone, but Grandma made up a bed of 3 chairs and featherbeds “out of the cold” for me in front of the fireplace and I never had to mention being scared. I suppose it was a disgrace for a boy to be afraid but was all right for a girl, if they even knew of my shameful fears.
Grandma’s bedrooms upstairs were painted white and she had white bedspreads and quilts made of woolen pieces from old clothes – Grandpa’s coats and things nobody could wear anymore but still had good wool in them. They were tied with thick red thread and were heavy as iron. There was a picture of a sad, blonde lady with long hair and bare feet lying on a slippery-looking rock and hanging on to a big brown cross in a terrible storm. The sky was dark, the waves were huge, and it wasn’t a very big rock. The name of the picture was “Hope” but I could never see any hope in it.
I Push Eldon off the Wagon
Eldon was the only one who believed me – the grown-ups wouldn’t listen and Mama said not to make a fuss about it – when the hired girl’s son took my pure silver rock and got away with saying it was his and it was while that injustice still rankled that Eldon and his Mama visited us. The day they came the hired girl and her boy were out for the day and the hay wagon was parked in the back yard. This wagon had big yellow wheels and a green colored wooden seat high above the ground. We climbed up there with considerable effort – it was before my brother was born so my legs were short – and sat there until the thought occurred to me that I should push my cousin off, not because of any personal feelings, but I thought my parents would approve because they didn’t like Eldon. I pushed, he fell off; he cried and Aunt Gertrude said I needed an immediate spanking. I tried to explain but Mama silenced me with a look and said that I was never to push anybody off a wagon seat again; and I never did.
Learning to Swim
I was going-on-five and Grandma Gray was fifty-five the day we both learned to swim. Our family was vacationing at Bingham Springs, a natural, warm, sulphur-smelling-tasting spring piped into large swimming pools with canvas covering. My swimming was more dog paddle than any kind of a stroke but I could stay afloat and was allowed to swim all over the pool, even in the deep end. Grandma could swim only on her back and was so buoyant she had trouble getting her legs down and would call, “Papa, Papa!” until he came and set her on her feet. She always stayed in the shallow part. She and Grandpa didn’t like to stay in the pools – there was a cooler pool, too – as long as we did. This vacation spot was a highlight of the summer; we rented a cabin that was like a regular little house and spent most of the afternoons in the water. Mama was standing at one side of the warm pool and beckoned me over. She said, “See Daddy talking to the lady over there?” I did, of course; he was laughing and joking, having a high old time. Mama told me to swim over there and say hello to Daddy and I asked, “Why?” She smiled in a kind of funny way and said, “Just because”. I was proud of being able to swim so far and paddled over the pool to the other side where I stuck my head up and called out, “Hi! Daddy!” His big smile vanished, his breath went out in a big blowing sigh and he fell splashing back into the water before he came up and said “Hello” to me. He must have been impressed I could swim so well.
Neither Grandpa nor Daddy wanted their hay tromped on but Grandpa Gray’s barn was a different matter. It was so enticing with its lofts and jumping places that even Marjy couldn’t resist slipping in with us to jump gingerly on the fragrant hay and examine antiques that Grandma stored there. A breathless sense of wrongdoing heightened our appreciation of a gold velour love seat trimmed with braid, inlaid wood, and brass beading. Its matching chair collected dust along with an old ivory clock, rejected kitchen implements, and a discarded wooden churn. Grandma’s present churn was made of glass with visible wooden paddles and one could see the butter beginning to clump and swish into a mass. From the haymow, we could look straight down on the cows’ stanchions; inadvisable if the cows were in the barn because Grandpa would be there, and it was wiser to let ourselves out silently before anyone took notice. Marjy would begin to complain that we should get out of there. If grownups did notice us, then there were endless tasks to do, especially dishes to wash and dry for the girls but Grandpa’s disapproval would have been the worst.
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 autumn.