A to Z Family Stories: U for Upset and Unhappy

One of my aunts made a comment about me when I was young, about 5 years old. It was something on the order of “she is like a little old lady” – trying to describe a rather unchildlike, serious nature. I could have let that scar me for life, could have spent my days trying to prove her wrong but I decided I would keep on being myself and just grow into my nature. I have however, gone back into my childhood pictures looking for clues as to why someone would say something like that about me. What I’ve found is that I’ve been the victim of a conspiracy to present me, pictorially, in nothing by upset and unhappy moods. I’m still working on the motive…

They send me out to the barn to do chores... IN A DRESS... and are expecting me not to look upset?!
They send me out to the barn to do chores… IN A DRESS… and are expecting me not to look upset?!
Whatever it is, I don't want to hear it. I'll stand here but you can't make me smile.
Whatever it is, I don’t want to hear it. I’ll stand here but you can’t make me smile.
What? Am I supposed to be happy? I'm a year older, a year closer to the grave.  But I will face it bravely....
What? Am I supposed to be happy? I’m a year older, a year closer to the grave. But I will face it bravely….
Oh please, another birthday? Can't you take a picture of me when I feel like smiling? Nice cake though.
Oh please, another birthday? Can’t you take a picture of me when I feel like smiling? Nice cake though.

All this proves is that pictures capture very brief moments when we don’t even realize how we look.  You would not know from what you’ve seen that I am a overwhelmingly optimistic person, to the point of probably irritating some people with my “Pollyanna” viewpoint. Ok, I complain once in a while too but I try not to let my picture be taken when I’m doing it…  just sayin’, it makes for bad press.

A to Z Family Stories: T for Tractor

The symbol of power and efficiency on the farm – the tractor. We grew up watching our dad and the hired hands use farm machinery, and probably even more time watching them fix farm machinery, so it was natural that we longed for the day when we’d get to drive the tractor. Driving the tractor meant you were old enough to really help out. A mixed bag, according to my brother Ron (Stubby, at that time) since after he learned to drive the tractor, he had to drive the tractor, even when everyone else was doing things that were more fun.

One of our chores, before the days when hay was baled and shot into a wagon by the baler, was to go out in the field and turn the bales. They were round bales and if the grass was a bit green when baled, or if it had been rained on, the turning allowed more exposure to the sun for drying. Our first tractor driving lessons were always in the open field, pulling a wagon while “big people” walked alongside and hoisted the dry bales up in stacks. All we had to know how to do was push in the clutch and steer, and pay attention. Dad usually put it in the right gear until we learned how to shift. Since that season required all hands on deck, I got to help make hay. Other seasons, like plowing, planting and cultivating didn’t involve as many people so I didn’t get much of those experiences, but my brothers did.

I like all colors of tractors.
I like all colors of tractors.

I probably inherited a partial tractor gene from birth. Dad had it for sure. His idea of shopping, according to my mom (who would know) was spending several hours in an implement yard looking at machinery. At first it was tractors, but as he got into the excavating business it was bulldozers, front end loaders and dump trucks. Unlike Dad, my version of tractor love involves less grease and gasoline smell. I appreciate the lifestyle behind the tractor, and the clean, solid feel of a well engineered toy. Don’t get me near a John Deere store. (Yes, I collect.)

Ready to gas up...
Ready to gas up…

Even now, I am in awe of the work that can be done by a man on a tractor, whether it be plowing a garden or pulling a car out of the ditch. And every time the Smith men get together there will probably be some talk of “the Alice”, or the old “Massey-Ferguson” or the “A” or whatever letter-name tractor they liked best. Me, I stick to coffee table books, just sayin’…

My idea of a coffee table book. Call me "farm girl".
My idea of a coffee table book. Call me “farm girl”.

A to Z Family Stories: S for Summer Swims

Summer is very short in Wisconsin, but often there are a few day of blistering heat and few are prepared with air conditioning. The only good way we had to cool off was to go swimming and our summer life was defined almost as much by the swimming and the lake as it was by the farm. Because of the beautiful area lakes there was an active tourist trade. Summer meant the resorts were full, there were summer jobs of cleaning cabins and babysitting to be had, interesting people to meet, water skiing challenges, and weekend picnics at the beach with friends.

We claimed Round Lake as our own playground. The sandy beach called the Narrows was within walking distance and when we were young it was unregulated and frequented mostly by us locals. Situated on the narrowest part of a peninsula, there was water on both sides of the road, one side being better for swimming and the other side a little more rocky was mostly for boating. The water filling this fairly large lake was clean enough to drink, and very cold. It was our goal to try to go swimming or skiing by Memorial Day but most years, it required a wet suit to be comfortable.

a crude drawing of The Narrows and our Peninsula
a crude drawing of The Narrows and our Peninsula

Our usual swimming time during the busiest part of summer was evening, right after the last bale of hay went up into the loft – when everyone was still hot, sweaty and dying to get cooled off. Everyone would get into their suits quickly, often neighbor families would stop in on their way, we would load up inner tubes and truck ourselves down to the beach. Ritual dictated that each person run into the water until it got too deep and then dive in quickly. There was no other way to get used to the icy chill. After being in the water a few minutes we all seemed to “get used to” it and didn’t mind. As it got dark, the crayfish in the water and the mosquitoes in the air would get thicker until common sense dictated that we all go home.

There were always a few weeks when visiting relatives were around. My aunt, uncle and cousins from the city would bring their boat up and those were great times when we got to spend hours at the beach with them. My uncle would pull us water skiing behind the boat, always trying to scare us by going over big waves or turning tight circles. We all learned to ski slalom and some of the brothers even went on to kick off the skis and go barefoot. We all have stories about falling, losing our swimsuits as we tumbled in the water, or being dragged and nearly drowned as we tried to “get up”. Skiing is not for the faint of heart.

We would often follow the road to the end of the peninsula, where it curves around and almost forms a complete circle around a small bay. At “the point” as we called it, we would walk the sandbar and swim the channel to the other side. The trees on “the point” have initials carved in them and many memories were made there. I especially remember sitting there looking out at the lake and talking to my mom as we planned my wedding. I wanted to be married at the lake (however it was in January and there was NO SWIMMING.)

Years later my parents moved to a house on the lake. My brothers and I were able to take our families there often and my children have developed their own attachment to Round Lake. That house has been sold again several times but whenever I visit home we take a ride out Peninsula Road and dad makes me drive in to it so he can walk around and look out at the lake (don’t tell the owners please).

Oh yeah, lots of fun at the lake
Oh yeah, lots of fun at the lake
My girls and their dad enjoying a moment on the dock after a swim.
My girls and their dad enjoying a moment on the dock after a swim.

Everyone in our family has been to some fantastic beaches in the years since childhood but I think we all put Round Lake and our memories of summer swims right up at the top of the list of special places. We all go back and visit, and remember, and maybe you should too. Just sayin’…

The beach at The Narrows,
The beach at The Narrows, “our swimming hole”

A to Z Family Stories: Q for Quiet of a Different Kind

Everyone thinks of the country as such a quiet, peaceful place especially when compared to the sounds of a city with traffic, construction, sirens, and other man made noises. But the quiet in the country is not really the absence of noise at all. The noises are different but they are there, and they are often surrounded by softness, and quiet space that makes them stand out with a clarity that burns them into one’s memory. I want to tell you about some of my favorite noises and the quiet that makes them special.

I start with spring because all things kind of start there. There has been only one year when I actually witnessed a very brief moment – it happens every year but so quickly that one can never predict and catch it. I happened to be on the bank looking out on the ice covering Round Lake. There had been warm days already and the ice was rotten, weak and shot through with melting holes. There was open water around the edges of the lake. A breeze came up and the most marvelous sound began as the ice moved and began to disintegrate. It was a musical, tinkling sound like many small pieces of glass hitting each other and swirling in the water. Shards of ice piled up on the shore and the rest sank into the lake until nothing but open water remained. I watched and listened for about five minutes and it was over. I was in awe.

The earliest bird sound in northern Wisconsin is made by the Red-winged Blackbird as it returns to its nesting area in the marshes. We had several small marshy ponds near our driveway where we would wait each morning for the school bus. The blackbirds would sit on the power lines, and the cattails and sing. They have a rather long and complicated call that is unmistakeable and ends in a high trill. It was always the hallmark of spring for me. About the same time the marshes also became alive with small frogs, spring peepers we called them. There were times when the combination of thousands of high pitched voices would drown out most other noises. This is April and I have just returned from visiting my hometown. We drove around in the country and every time we passed a wet hollow we heard the swell of sound from the peepers.

A couple of years we tapped maple trees in the nearby woods and there were times the sap ran so fast you could hear it dripping into the pails. And of course, there was always the snow melt in the fields. Streams would appear where none were other times of the year and water would rush down the hillsides into the pond. The driveway would become a maze of mud and rivulets to be avoided.

Summer brings sounds of bees buzzing, lazy flies, and breezes through the poplar trees. There is the sound of the waves slapping the rocks on the shores of the spring fed lakes and rivers, and a few man made noises as boats and jet skis skim the waters. On a windy day the woods are full of sounds of leaves turning and branches rubbing. There is a biblical reference to the trees of the field clapping hands and I always thought that was exactly what seemed to be happening.

Autumn sounds are so distinct – lonely sounds. The dry leaves are falling and crunching underfoot. The wind sounds different when it blows through the bare branches. Sometimes corn in the field that didn’t get cut is also brown and dry, rustling in the wind. Geese in large V’s honk their way south, and the crows call to each other.

And finally winter comes. The first heavy snowfall seems to suck up every noise in the woods, and the whole white world becomes insulated. There is a quietness that is tangible, it can be felt. Stepping out on the frozen lake can sometimes create loud booming sounds as the ice cracks. It doesn’t break but the long lines in the ice are dangerous when skates get stuck in them. Many times I remember the sound of the wind during the drama of blizzards – a time when it is a blessing to have shelter and warmth from which to view the storm.

it gets very quiet when snow blankets everything
it gets very quiet when snow blankets everything

These are the sounds that I remember from life in the country – the peaceful, quiet country.

A to Z Family Stories: N for Nona, Storybook Grandma

Nona, her name, or at least the name she was willing to tell us. Her “real” name had something to do with Rosa or Rosabelle but she was not going let us call her that and never explained why to our satisfaction. She was my grandmother.

Three of my brothers and I were born in succession, two years apart, to a young mom who was thrust into childrearing almost before she was done being a child herself. We also lived in semi-isolation in the country. We desperately needed a good grandmother and fortunately, my dad’s mother, Nona, was that person. She and grandpa lived fairly close to town so it was a grateful mother who would drop us kids off to play in safety while she did grocery shopping or errands.

Grandma was always glad to see us come, always had a smile for us, gave us freedom to play and explore outside and seemed to be waiting for us to come in and have story time. She commonly sat at the kitchen table for letter writing and other work but come story time she would move to her recliner. We would grab a handful of books from the shelf in the stairwell and pile on top of her and the chair and listen as long as she would read. Peter Rabbit, Elmer Fudd, and other Little Golden Books were our well-worn favorites.

Grandma Nona wore an apron, the kind that goes over the head and covers the front of the dress, because she wore dresses all the time and they needed to be kept stain free. The apron only came off when she left the house to go to town or when pictures were being taken. It was a functional piece of clothing, used to carry everything from eggs gathered in the coop, to asparagus picked along the fence row. Besides the apron, her “grandma uniform” was pretty consistent – the same kind of dress, thick flesh-colored stockings, the same type of shoes. Once my aunts got her to wear a polyester pantsuit which she liked and acknowledged as comfortable, but I never saw her wear it again. She was probably saving it for “good” like all the other new things given to her as gifts.

Grandma stopped going to church when I was very young. She stayed home and cooked dinner for us, on her wood fired cook stove. We would arrive shortly after noon, to a very warm kitchen, where we sat down to fried chicken, mashed potatoes, garden vegetables, rhubarb sauce or some other dessert. Grandma baked her own bread and was also know for her cookies which were kept in a tightly covered lard can in the cupboard under the sink. All girls, including me, washed dishes after the meal, dried them and put them away. The vegetable trimmings, kept in a “swill pail” under the handwashing sink, would be taken out to the chickens or thrown on the garden. Then a couple of hours of quiet play would ensue while the grownups digested, slept or read.

Even when I went away to college, grandma was one of my strongest supporters. She would write to me regularly, as well as writing to each of her three daughters every week. When I would visit home she would watch out the kitchen window for me to come down her driveway. She would sit at the table with me, smiling, and listen to everything I could tell her about school, home, my life. I remember after I was married, bringing my firstborn daughter to grandma and setting the baby in her lap as she sat in the recliner. “Little sweetie” she called her. Somewhere there is a picture of that.

I miss her now. I think of many things I would ask her if I had the chance to do it, deeper subjects, questions that no one who knew her seems to be able to answer. I’m just sayin’, if you have a grandma, an aunt, a mom, who is close to you, have those conversations while you can. They are precious.

Grandma Nona wearing her apron, sitting in her recliner, maybe waiting to read a story...
Grandma Nona wearing her apron (a rare picture!), sitting in her recliner, maybe waiting to read a story…

A to Z Family Stories: M for Milk Route

MDuring part of my father’s farming days he supplemented his dairy business with a milk route that carried milk from neighboring farms to a creamery in a nearby town. In those days dairy farmers put all of their cows in the barn at once and milked them with a vacuum system, one or two at a time.
The milk was poured from the milking machine into 10 gallon cans, covered tightly with a lid and cooled in a water tank. Full, the cans weighed 100 lbs. The cows were milked two times a day, which meant a farmer might have five to ten cans or more to be picked up every day. My dad’s job was to drive a truck to all the farms on his route, load the cans in his large truck and drive it to the creamery. Think back breaking work, seven days a week.

We didn’t see dad a lot when we were little – we weren’t usually awake when he went out in the morning and we were in bed already when he came home at night. For this reason, it was a real treat when we got invited to go along on the milk route. Probably because we were prone to bicker with each other, only one of us could go with him at a time.

I remember standing with my mom one morning as we watched dad walk to the truck. I was not happy that I wasn’t getting to go with him and was probably showing some attitude. Suddenly my dad changed direction and was running back toward us and I knew I was not in for anything good. I don’t remember the spanking – just the moment of terror when I realized I had pushed the limit and there was no going back and no hiding. Oddly enough, both parents now say that we were very good kids and they can hardly remember giving spankings at all.

The milk truck was the biggest machine on the farm and when I sat on the wide bench seat with dad it seemed REALLY high, probably because I was really little. One of the best things about the trip was lunch. There were no McDonalds or fast food places. Lunch was made at home by mom, was often egg salad sandwiches (my favorite) wrapped in wax paper, and they always smelled delicious. Mom has always been a food genius when it comes to packing food for people. There would be a little jar of pickles, some fruit, and homemade cookies, always cookies. We usually ate lunch in the truck and it was gone by the time we reached the creamery.

After all the milk cans were unloaded, emptied, washed and reloaded into the truck there was another ritual treat. This particular dairy had a cooler near the entry that was always full of packages of butter, and small cartons of chocolate milk. If we had been good, we got the chocolate milk to drink on the way home and it was the best!

My grandfather also worked delivering milk at one time and my father remembers the same kind of treat would be given to him – it was a family tradition. It was country life. Not many kids get to live the country life, but I did and it was pretty good.

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A to Z Family Stories: K for Kitchen Play

Mothers work in kitchens a good deal of the time even if they work outside the home as well.  Long, long ago, before nintendo or play station, or remote control toys children also played in the kitchen while their mothers worked.  This was especially true as my brothers and I were growing up.  We played in the kitchen while mom cooked, baked, washed dishes and ironed clothes.  The radio played, it was warm and cozy since there was always an old-fashioned cook stove or later, a Franklin fireplace to keep us warm.  We emptied drawers, pulled chairs up to the sink to play in the dishwater, and generally got underfoot.  It was very much where we belonged.

Do Moms still work in kitchens?  Do kids still play in kitchens?  Do people still have kitchens?
Do Moms still work in kitchens? Do kids still play in kitchens? Do people still have kitchens?

But my favorite play was “pretend store”.  What better place to do it than the pantry cupboard?  Ours was a double cupboard under the kitchen counter. Two large doors opened up to a joined space with a narrower shelf in the back, and it was not a large space.  Looking at similar spaces now I can’t imagine being small enough to enjoy being in there – but I often have that reaction looking at the places I remember playing.  Crazy, but I know we children did it.

The first step, of course, was to empty the cupboard of all the canned goods and utensils that might be stored there. The next step was to crawl in and set up shop.  The things I wanted to sell would go back in, arranged as the storekeeper wanted them this time. Canned goods, cereal boxes, pots and pans, spoons, measuring cups – ready for business.  This was always a general store so it also sold toys for children (no problem there), clothing for the family (knew where to get that) and ready to eat food which mom would supply.  Paper and pencils for lists and a telephone (toy) for orders that  might be phoned in would always be within reach.  When all was done the final step would be to hang a kitchen towel as a curtain – just shut it in the overhead drawer.

It was such an inviting type of cubby hole that pillow and blanket would eventually find their way in for nap time.  I could have lived there, except I do remember that the shelf was a bit of a problem and I often bumped my head.  When I think about this pastime I have a renewed sense of appreciation for my mom’s patience.  She was probably glad that I was occupying myself with anything that kept me happy.

My children played in the kitchen too, and if I was at home, I would upload a way too cute picture of Esther in a plastic dish pan, boating around the kitchen floor.  I might add that for moms on a budget, don’t tell yourself that kids can’t be entertained with simple, inexpensive things.  They were and they can. Try it.  Just sayin’…

Where did the time go?

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The town of Hayward, Wisconsin where my family lives is about four hours from a major airport so I have become  familiar with the shuttle service, Northwest Travel. This morning at 6 am, I climbed into the van with Dave, the driver, for the ride to Minneapolis. It was dark dark. Dave had just made it home at 10 pm the night before, having made the same run.

We talk from time to time about the area were driving through. Most of the drivers are retired people with a history in Hayward and we usually find we have people and places in common.

I’m grateful my mom packed cheese and crackers and apple slices which she thought would make a good snack on the plane. They are breakfast for me and are gone in the first half hour. The flavor of the smoked Gouda mixed with the sweetness of apple is so right for fall and the quiet darkness of the trip.

It was a busy time, this last ten days. The routines and tasks were different from my usual so in that sense it was a vacation, and a refreshment, not my usual work.

I got along fine with the one outfit of clothing that I wore. Mom and I made a trip to the thrift shops and at $4 a bag I was able to put together a nearly awesome northern wardrobe. I recommend the no pack method to anyone brave enough to try it.

I enjoyed spending time getting to know my neice and nephew as teenagers. I stayed with them a couple of times when they were much littler. Now they are homeschooling, driving, babysitting others and doing their own cooking and shopping. Times change. Missed my brother and his wife but so glad they were able to take a much deserved anniversary outing.

And of course the precious (can’t really think of another word for it) time with mom and dad, sharing some of their routines, talking. We laughed over lots of things, got stocked up on jigsaw puzzles for the coming thanksgiving holiday, and last night we cried over a sad movie. More memories, and hopefully we will be able to remember them, although you never can count on that.

Thankful for life, for the ability to travel, for the opportunity to share simple things. Thank you, once again.