I enjoy reading a lot. Fantastic novels with heroes or heroines defeating their enemies through clever shifts in movement, and the defeated all being of lesser moral fiber. This is fiction, printed and distributed. Devoured by the reader wishing to be entertained.
As a child everything was black or white, good or bad, fair or unfair. You didn’t get the subtle necessity of the grey areas. In real life heroes are dirty. Sometimes they can also be the villain of another unrelated tale. Real people have bumps and loose threads in their life tapestry. As I tell this tale I see it all, without judgement. My memories now live within that grey zone.
It’s was a small town for sure, microscopic to many. It’s movements slow but precise. Stores closing early in the evening and never open on holidays or Sundays. Early up to do chores, even the kids. Children were an asset to the community for the work load was heavy. Mucking stalls, planting seeds, hoeing out weeds, chipping ice. These were the tasks that pulled you from the warm bubble of sleep before light. Time enough to work, wash the stink off and eat before walking nearly a mile to the bus stop.
Between chores there were great adventures for a child. Jumping in water so cold the air in your lungs expelled upon contact. Every yard hard a junk pile. A great cemetery of things collected they may someday have potential. In among the rusty appliances, electrical boxes and dead lawn equipment the metallic grave yard gave room for imagination and ingenuity to take root.
We repaired tools. We sewed and fixed our clothing. Grandmothers still wore curlers at night, not wanting to loose the body given from getting their hair set earlier in the week.
Small lake, mostly dirt side roads. Farmland and forest in equal measure. One-stop shops that sold yarn and luncheon meats. Everyone somehow related to everyone else.
Teenagers driving a tractor to high school as a primary source of transportation and convenience. Till in spring on the way home and make a few bucks. The young boys with chainsaws and a good maul made money by selling firewood in their sparse free time. No time is free when you live this way, make way gotta survive.
Women at home with aprons donned like knightly armour. These children of the depression would busily toil in the kitchen, inventing feasts from the carcass of a leftover chicken already reused twice. The farmer’s wife was a warrior of gas flame and steel blade. A true domestic goddess worthy of tribute never received. They seemed to know ahead exactly when it was time to be ready to feed the hungry horde. Coffee in their linoleum temple ready for a drop by guest. Always insisting on reusing the husbands Lipton tea bag, after they were done with it of course.
On your knees woman! Call to prayer in the temple of the divine house. Scrubbing and cleaning on a regular schedule. Sheets dancing on the line daily. Floor waxed and polished. If they were lucky and married a courteous man they would have a washer and dryer set on the first floor, a thing of envy for other housewives. They ate last and served all.
The men. They had a role of importance as well. Fixing and keeping all in moderately good repair. Toe the line and no beer before 5 (though a whiskey now and then was acceptable if served with ice on a hot day). Veterans of a bloody war who never spoke of those dark days. From driving tanks and running men through with a make-shift bayonette in foreign countries, where they would never stay long enough to learn the language. They are now onto keeping the Farm-all lubricated and building a few picnic tables to put beside the road for Christmas money. They were busy in a slow constant way.
The in-betweens. Where the two paths crossed. He tilling and hilling and she watering and weeding. Jacking deer by spotlight in the summer. The meat red and fresh, smell of tinny blood. Cutting and wrapping. She’s already thinking of the many ways to use the edible parts, stiff neck muscles roasted all day with apples and spices for sweet mincemeats. He’s going to stretch the hide and let it bake in the sun, the stiff skin is a great waterproof tarp in winter. Bites taken raw and choice cuts immediately sizzling in a pan of onions and hot butter. Organs soaked in a pan of salted water. That smell! Kids mouth’s watering while the men relived the slaughter. So much better than that old horse roast the butchers in Biddeford would pass off as beef.
He built the coop, she tended the flock. He caught the fish, she cooked them. Smelts fried to a crispy flakiness. White perch in stews. There was a balance, a great dance played out between harvest and eating. It sounds idyllic, but it still was a struggle to find time between work and gathering. And winter, winter was always a question. Would you make it on something besides thin broths re-cooked over and over. Potatoes or carrots added to hide the fact the meat that it began with was finished off days ago.
Yeah, its a lot about food. Gettin’ food, shootin’ food, growing food, preserving food, eating food. In between you sewed on button or read a book. When you don’t exactly know where your next meal will come from next month it does tend to be the center or your orbit.
These were times where every house had a rifle rack in the living room for practicality, not decoration. By the time you were 7 or 8 you were already proficient with a .22 rifle or lightweight compound bow. No one shot up a school, accidentally killed themselves or grabbed it in anger. It was a tool like a tiller. Expensive as all get out. To be oiled and put away until necessity called.
The winter was the worst time of all. The two parties, so used to their own temples, now both huddled inside near the woodstove. Racks of wet woolen mittens, pipe smoke thick in the air. Maybe not enough money to fill the oil tank, but always enough for some Canadian whisky or sixer of beer. Tempers flared. No domestic bliss here. Talk box chattering away, nails on a chalkboard. Cringing. On the edge, someone will snap. Will anyone get hurt? Best to go to bed early. Turn in, looks like someone’s gonna get hot tonight, they’ve been drinking for hours. All the visitors have left but you can hear the clink of half melted ice. One jigger too many in their glass. Yup, turn in. Tuck down under quilts made from scrap clothing. Best to get a good night’s sleep anyways because the animals are due for a cleaning tomorrow.
There is an anomaly to this rhythm of the fabric of my past. A much bigger snarl in the weft and warp than I realized at the time. My great grandmother Alice. Assimilated into society, but clearly Native American. People called her the old squaw. It was acceptable then, in s non-conscious way. I mean I had cousins who lived on Nigger Hill Road. It wasn’t until Emergency 911 came to town and all roads had to be re-labeled that the folk decided to relabel it Star Hill Road. It was what it was and I’ll not make excuses.
Her low lineage gave her landlord the right to neglect her little house, forgotten and tucked away. That was okay though. It has a roof and four walls. Comfy and warm. Big cookstove fire cranking. Not a lot of visitors but that was okay by her. No time to waste anyways.
Her first husband left in the middle of the night with the 5 kids. She doesn’t really have rights if pressed, being a dirty indian and all. Eventually they come back in young adulthood and reacquaint themselves, though inside a bit embarrassed. They were tossed into homes in Hollywood when their father tired of hauling them from seminary to bible institute. He was a man of many religions, modified by convenience, and in the future many marriages as well. The young ones were unofficially adopted by families, the older used as household workers. Once they came of age and discovered she was still alive they flocked back to Maine and family. Problem was Alice had a patina of a well worn copper vessel. California was warm and full of sparkling shiny people. She was utilitarian, durable…but in no way fancy. It took time and not all of them ever came to really appreciate her earthy solidness.
She outlived her second husband, whom she had another two children with. She had no partner to run a tractor, shovel or do the heavy work. She had only herself and her Henry level action rifle. Venison was on the table, fresh eggs from a dilapidated coop made from automobile hoods were served at every morning meal. Hens stop laying then she would wring their neck and pluck ‘em.
Bread rising, yeasty sweet smells from the top shelf above the stove. More often then not they came out of the oven full of holes where bubbles grew from it over-rising. No time to monitor that. The big blue hubbard squash needed to be brought in and potatoes cribbed. No luxury vegetables in her garden. If it cannot be stored in the dirt cellar in sand or sawdust it was a novelty.
Tiled floor swept, but dirty. Why waste time with the Murphy’s only to muss it up again? Ain’t like it’s Christmas or anything, plus that’s what the parlour room is for. No one goes in there EXCEPT during the holidays. The piano and divan covered. Best leave it be, plenty to do!
Her eldest daughter, my grandmother Audrey, probably became the closest. She joined the Marines at 17 after Pearl Harbor while in Hawaii where she discovered her father was once again married and not exactly willing to rediscover fatherhood. While enlisted she got engaged then discovered that not only did her mother still live, but she was in the house they had all been told burned down. She returned home and quickly reunited. Being the oldest her Hollywood home was one of abuse and despair. To find a mother, a real mother, filled her heart with joy! Bliss!
Audrey broke off her engagement, unwilling to move. She went on to marry a local boy, to establish roots. Not a match made of love by far, but one that kept here near Alice. She never judged Alice’s unkempt hair, unlaced tattered bean boots, high water pants or predilection for slathering herself in Oil of Olay, still hoping for a youthful and much more white complexion well into her seventies. Audrey never left, even after her husband’s drinking teetered and he began to get a bit physical. When he stopped her from getting a driver’s license she just hitched a ride to see Alice. She had a steel grip, determined not to lose her again whatever the cost.
Audrey herself had not exactly assimilated well either. She ate foods unusual to people around her. Though they still had stewed Jacobs cattle beans on Saturday night she also liked to steam the pineapple top looking artichokes or mash up avocado in the summer with cucumber on bread. She never was able to complete knitting a full set of mittens and rarely touched a sewing machine if she could help it. Her quilts were not of a complicated pattern as you saw on many clothelines. Nope, all just squares. Patchwork with a scrap blanket in the middle and sheet backing. Audrey never went much of anywhere. When she wasn’t with her mother or close sibling she preferred to stay home and work on puzzles and read, all the while a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray and small drink at her side. A picture of both misery and happiness.
She could cook, but didn’t garden much. She favored lots of perennials due to a lack of interest in finicky garden tasks. The greenhouse was her husband’s idea and she let him keep it. As a matter of fact she was good at keeping him busy. Busy meant less drinking, less drinking meant less hollarin’ and hitting. They hadn’t shared a bedroom in years and this made her happy as well. Simple things.
Another fact that mattered was that he wasn’t aware of another skill she picked up from her mother. Divining the future and unravelling the past with various oracle methods. The townsfolk weren’t exactly church-going people but just superstitious enough to definitely not approve. Best not share with many.
Secrets want to wriggle out, like a butterfly trying to ripple and squirm from it’s casing inside the holder. Once let out the insidious beast will then be swallowed by the listener and the incubation process would begin again. Nothing was so true than in this town. The best secrets were never kept, they were passed along like great-grandmothers soup tourine. Nobody “talked” about subjects like out of wedlock pregnancies and adultery, but they all whispered it. My grandmother would hear these whispers and try to divine the truth, sometimes even subtly interceding.