Grandparents – Part 1

Grandparents – if you are lucky, you have grandparents in your life as you grow up.  They are there to love you unconditionally, teach you life lessons and are your biggest cheerleader.

My paternal grandparents were born at the end of the 19th century.  Grandpa met Grandma when his sister married a widower with children.  Grandma was one of the children.  Grandpa was the youngest in his family, with all five of his sisters quite a few years older than him and Aunt Elinor waited until later in life to marry and then married an older man who already had children.  The union between Grandpa and Grandma made for some unusual family ties.  Aunt Elinor became Grandma Elinor to my father and his sisters.  My Grandpa’s brother-in-law was also his father-in-law.  Oh, the confusion.

Grandpa and Grandma were an excellent match.  Grandma came from hardy stock and worked hard on the farm to not only take care of the house and their children, but to also help Grandpa where she could in the barns and fields.  Alas, their union and life together was cut short when Grandma developed cancer.  My father, the youngest, was only four when she passed.  Her absence left a void in the family and changed the course of everyone’s life.

Grandpa did his best to be both mother and father and to also keep the farm going.  His oldest sister Nina, who had been a teacher and never married, came back to the farm to assist Grandpa, both with the children and with owning and  running the farm.  She could be quite bossy and opinionated and often Grandpa went along with her to keep the peace.

Grandpa raised my father and his three older sisters and saw all of them married.  Grandchildren soon started arriving and time moved on.  Generations exchanged places, with Grandpa being the oldest generation and the grandchildren replacing my father and his siblings as the “youngest” on the farm.  My generation would be the last to be born and raised on the land that had been a source of family pride and subsistence for close to 150 years.

With Grandpa living in the same house with us, we were very close and I felt privileged to tell my friends that I spent time with my Grandpa every day.  He was an extraordinary influence on how I view my childhood and of the experiences I had.  I still miss him every day and wish just one more time, I could hear him sing the old church hymns or recite a funny lyric.  But sometimes when it is quiet and I am listening closely, I can.

Orchard

My great-aunt Nina was a spinster school teacher who owned the farm along with my grandfather.  One year she came up with the grand idea to plant an orchard of apple and cherry trees south of the barns.  She was sure that the trees would mature and bring extra income to the farm.

The trees did mature but they required a lot of care – spraying for bugs and pruning.  This took away from the daily farm chores – milking cows, harvesting the land – and the orchard was soon left to its own devices.  It never did realize the profit she was expecting but as the trees aged, the orchard was the perfect place for the children who came after her to have grand adventures.

In the spring, the trees would come alive with blossoms – pink and white.  The bees would soon follow and but ignored me as they flitted from blossom to blossom.  The heady scent of all of the blooms was intoxicating and I would spend time just laying on my back under the trees as the wind and sun worked with the branches to create a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes.  Soon the blossoms would fade and start to fall, leaving a carpet of petals to walk on.  I would pretend it was an aisle I was walking down to meet my groom on the other end.

The leaves and small fruit would arrive in the summer, again changing the landscape as I climbed the trees to see how high I could get before the branches began to sway under my weight.  Birds would make nests in the trees and chatter in disagreement when I came too close to glimpse a view of the nest.

Late summer and fall would bring the fruit to maturity but only brave souls would dare eat the fruit.  The cherries and apples were tart and unless you wanted to spend the day in bed with a tummy ache, only one or two was all you would risk consuming.  The birds and squirrels were anxious though to capitalize on the harvest and even into the winter could count on finding a missed piece of fruit here or there scattered on the ground.

The dead of winter would leave the trees bare with their gnarly branches reaching out to the overcast sky, as if they were praying for spring to come again.  And spring would come again, for the cycle to start anew.

It is said in our family that the orchard was a failure, since it didn’t produce the income as was expected.  But I view it as a success.  It was a sanctuary on the sprawling farm – a place where all could come to find some peace and tranquility – a home and food.  It certainly fed my soul and imagination as a child.

Christmas on the Farm

Christmas on the farm – the mere words conjure up visions of snow gentling falling while the animals stay warm in the barn quietly eating their hay.  Sleigh rides with bells rhythmically jingling as the horses prance along.  Warm nights around the fire after working outside in the cold to take care of the animals needs.   At our farm, all of the images above are true (well except for the sleigh rides, but we did go sledding) along with a treasure trove of other memories growing up in a multi generational home.

Baking Christmas cookies every year was a key activity and a major operation.  Extended family was brought in for the extra hands and we quickly formed an assembly line – baking, frosting, decorating – we did it all.  My mother had a large collection of cookie cutters and everyone had their favorite.  When favorites were duplicated among family members, we always ended up with quite a few bells, or Santa’s or whatever shape was popular.  Mom also had a cookie press, which I was never strong enough or adept enough to use and would just end up with a glop of misshapen cookie dough.  Large trays held the cookies for packing up at the end of the night and sharing with all.

Christmas Eve brought a trip to my maternal grandparents house.  My mother’s two sisters and their families would arrive and I would dart in and out underneath the maze of people as they arrived, coats flying about and presents being brought in to place under the tree.  My grandmother would prepare “stockings” for the grandchildren.  Each grandchild had a personalized stocking hung on the mantel, but the presents were not placed in them, but in a ziploc bag – no need to stretch out and potentially harm the treasured stocking.  I would rip into the bag and pull out candy, an orange, perhaps a small toy.  These were exciting presents, because they were rare the rest of the year.  But the best part was the nut bowl – my grandmother always had mixed nuts in their shell out for everyone to enjoy.  I would hog the bowl and would spend most of the night trying to get the filberts, hazelnuts and walnuts to give up their meaty fruits inside of the hard shells.

Most years, I would fall asleep on the ride home and was carried in to bed.  Awakening in the morning, would bring the realization that Santa had been there.  Tearing down the stairs and through the house to the living room, I would see the gentle glow of the lights on the tree and the presents that had appeared overnight, thanks to Santa.  I would start making piles of the gifts for each family member, even before they had joined me.  Then there I would sit on the floor, waiting for everyone else to get up.

My stocking always held a Lifesaver candy book – it had every flavor of Lifesaver there was.  I would savor each roll and it was well into winter before I would finally run out of candy.  I would always ask for a Barbie doll, but each year I would get something else (though equally exciting).  Until one year, as we sat opening gifts, I tore back the paper and there she was, a ballerina Barbie with a beautiful dress and a crown on her head.  I sat stunned and disbelieving,  Santa had even left extra beautiful outfits for her.  I sat there all day, dressing her and changing her outfits.

The joys of Christmas know no bounds when you are a child – enthralled with all of the magic and wonder.  As adults, we should capture and hang on to that innocence and remember that it is the simple things that bring the most happiness.  Every once in a while, I still get out my Barbie doll, who is tucked away in my closet, along with all of her clothes and remember…Christmas as a child.

Charm

Charm was our resident pony on the farm.  She pre-dated my arrival, so she was a part of my memories from the beginning.  The old chicken coop, which was really a smaller barn, was divided in half.  Charm lived in one side and Silver, an Alaskan Malamute who had adopted us, lived in the other.  They each had their own large fenced area outside of the barn in the grass, providing them with ability to traverse inside and outside whenever they wanted.

Charm was a Shetland pony, a beautiful blond color.  She came from my other grandfather’s farm not far away.  I don’t ever recall riding on her, but she was trained to pull a buggy.  Grandpa would help us hitch her up and we would direct her back and forth thru the freshly cut fields and then around the barns and up and down the driveway.  She was sometimes a reluctant participant in these escapades and would contribute to the action by stopping suddenly to eat some grass or taking off fast leaving us bumping and jumping in the seat until we could get her to slow down.   None of the trips lasted too long as either she or the passengers would get tired.  She was most content just grazing in her pasture and greedily accepting treats when offered.

When we sold the farm and moved to the Upper Peninsula, Charm made the trip.  Though she was old, she was a part of the farm and of our family, we would not leave her behind or find her a new home.  My dad had a large Ford truck with a topper and Charm was just small enough to fit in and still stand up.  With a heavily bedded area for her, she was loaded up early one morning and bravely made the hours long journey to the north.  Upon arriving at the new farm, she found a different farm but with similarities, like a warm barn and green grass.  There she ruled as the queen pony until she was well into her 20’s.  As one of the animals we had the longest, she was laid to rest in a place of honor on the farm and whenever I see a horse and buggy, I think of Charm and those wild rides with her at the helm.

Snake in the Hay Bale

My mother had an extreme phobia of snakes.  The story I always heard was that someone threw one on her when she was little and this caused her lifelong fear.  However, she was never one to shy away from a job that needed to be done and always pitched in around the farm when the need arose, even if there was the potential for a snake to rear it’s ugly head.

At the time, baling square bales required a minimum of two people in the field.  One to drive and one to stack.   The stacker would ride on the hay wagon as the tractor, baler and wagon slowly plodded along picking up the recently raked hay and transforming it into tidy and tied rectangular bales.  Their job was to pick the bales off of the baler as they came out and stack them up on the wagon.  This job required balance and dexterity as you had to walk back and forth the length of the wagon to stack and then reach out over the front of the flat bed wagon to pick the bale off of the baler as it came out, all while the wagon kept moving with forward momentum.   If the tractor driver was not steady and smooth, or if the wagon fell into a dreaded woodchuck hole, both the load and the soul on the wagon could go tumbling.

So on this bright summer day, mother was diligently pulling and stacking the bales.   Pull, stack, pull, stack…along she went with her routine, making sure to keep up to the baler.   She pulled a bale and went to stack it.   As she lifted it up and it came to eye level, she realized that something odd was sticking out of the top of the bale.  Within those split seconds of realizing that something was not right, she recognized that it was a snake, or what was left of the snake after it had traveled through the baler and became a part of the tightly packed hay bale.  She let out the scream of all screams and even over the din of the tractor and baler, my father heard it and quickly stomped on the brakes.   As dad jumped off the tractor, ran back and saw what the commotion was about, mom quickly departed her post on the wagon and declared that her stacking days were over.  No amount of convincing was going to change her mind that day.  They finished the load with dad stacking and mom doing the driving, a safe distance from the snake infested bale.  She did eventually get back on the saddle so to speak, but she was much more discerning before picking up a hay bale.

 

 

Tornado!

I can remember watching the Wizard of Oz when I was little.  The witch didn’t scare me, it was the beginning scenes of the tornado.  Unpredictable, unrelenting, they can come out of nowhere and pick and choose what they destroy and what they leave intact.

Though the lower part of Michigan is not in tornado alley, we saw our fair share of twisters.  As a child, I heard the adults talking about the large tornadoes that had ripped through the area in years past.  Listening to the tales of people huddled in shelters as the twisting wind ripped through their houses and barns made me acutely aware (and petrified) of the raging winds that can come down out of the sky.

One particular day on the farm started out sunny, but suddenly it became black as night, so much that the automatic yard lights came on.  The rain and hail began, door were slamming open and shut in the wind.  Then suddenly it was quiet, not a whisper of wind.  We quickly realized that it would be best to go to the basement.  Once we emerged and checked things out, we discovered that the tornado had passed just south of us.

From then on, any time there was a storm of any kind, I had my survival stuff packed – battery operated radio, blanket, water, snacks.  I would be sitting in the basement, while the rest of my family went on about their business above me.  No amount of convincing could bring me out of my shelter.  I figured that at least one person in the family would survive to tell the tale if the big one hit us.

My fear has lessened over time, but I still have a healthy amount of cautiousness.  Now I keep my emergency kit already in the basement, ready to go.

 

 

 

Root Cellar

The farm had a decades old root cellar across the driveway from the house.  A root cellar is a hole dug in the ground deep enough to go below the frost line.  The temperature at this depth stays steady and cool, providing the perfect place to store vegetables.

The cellar had a lid,  a wood frame covered in tin and when removed a ladder disappeared into the darkness below.  The lucky person who had to either take down or bring back up the vegetables had to step down into the unknown.  Would there be spiders or other bugs?  Only when the darkness had completely enveloped you, would you reach the point where the light could be turned on, pushing the darkness back.  The light would reveal the shelves dug into the dirt walls, waiting for the bushels and baskets full of potatoes, apples and other root vegetables.

If we were squirreling them away in the fall , someone up above would carefully lower down the full baskets and the lucky person who had already traversed the ladder would receive and find a place for them on the shelves.  Then the rest of the fall and into winter, they would be retrieved as we needed them to make pies, stews and soups.  Eventually the cellar would be emptied, to lay fallow until the next fall harvest.

Winter on the Farm

Winter on the farm meant that the tree house sat empty until the apple blossoms and spring bulbs showed their faces in the warm air.  But before then, winter must be endured.  As a child, winter is captivating – full of joy – a change of pace from summer activities.

Sledding was a main source of fresh air fun.  As a family we would go sledding and tobogganing across the road in the local park which had hills that provided a few seconds of swiftly drifting over the snow but a long walk back up to do it all over again.   On my own, I would sled up and down our driveway, which had a perfect slope, though sometimes dangerous end with a cement wall and cattle guard at the bottom.  I had a wooden sled with metal rails that with the right snow pack would send me flying.  On one such trip, as I picked up speed, a cat decided to cross the driveway right in front of me.  I tried leaning right and then left in an effort to dodge the feline, but quickly overtook her and SWOOP – she disappeared under the sled.  She went between the rails and she was tumbling in the snow as I looked behind me.  She stood up, shook off the snow and went on her way.  Roadkill had been avoided.

Snow angel impressions in the snow, the building of snow forts and good old snowball fights kept me occupied until my feet and hands were wet and numb.  Then it was back into the house to thaw out and hopefully scrounge up some new mittens and socks so I could back outside and do it all over again.

 

 

 

 

Barn Cats

Cats are an essential part of any farm.  They conduct pest control within the buildings and surrounding land and only require some affection each day and a bowl of cat food in case their hunt was not successful.

Barn cats are resourceful, clever and truly do have nine lives.  Having to live around and among the much larger farm animals, they become adept at dodging stomping hooves, swinging tails and the ever moving farm equipment.  Those that catch on quickly will usually live a long and carefree life on the farm.

One such cat that we had was Charcoal.  She was a solid black momma cat.  She had several litters of kittens and was a very attentive and loving mother, making sure to have her kittens in the safest of places on the farm.  One of her favorites was the basement window well.  She preferred the east side of the house, where it was most protected, and if any bad weather did occur, we could open up the window from inside the basement and bring her and the kittens inside.  However, Charcoal didn’t need any help obtaining access to the inside of the house.  She had somehow found a way in to the basement from outside and would then go up the stairs to the first floor kitchen.  She could often be found helping herself to whatever had been left on the counter until she was discovered and I would hear a scream and a command to come and get my cat.

She and I were the best of friends and we would traipse around the farm, up into my tree house for an afternoon nap and would hang out on my swing set while I played.  One time, I was eating a bologna sandwich on the top of the slide and Charcoal reached out for a bite.  She got not only the sandwich but my finger as well.  I had never seen so much blood as I went running up to the house.  Mom grabbed a towel and stopped the bleeding, swabbed it with the trusty Mercurochrome and sent me back outside.

Charcoal made the move with us to the new farm in the Upper Peninsula and made the adjustment to a new barn and new land, living a good life and leaving a few descendants behind that went on to be just as good mommas and mousers as she was.

Grandpa

Multiple generations  had lived under the same roof since the homestead had been built.  As each generation aged and another grew, the living arrangements shifted from one part of the house to the other.

By the time my generation came along, my paternal grandfather had moved into the “old folks” part of the house.  He had a living room, bedroom and bathroom of his own.   He would join us for meals and would spend a good portion of his day, tending the large vegetable and flower gardens on the property.   Every day when I returned from school, he was there – to listen, to advise and to teach.

Every Sunday, he would join us in the main living room and we would make a huge pot of popcorn (this was when you made it the old fashioned way on the stove, not in the microwave).  Apples and milk would round out our evening treat and we would sit as a family and watch the Lawrence Welk show.  If you wanted more than one bowl of popcorn you couldn’t dawdle.

We would spend hours on the weekends and during the summer playing games in his living room.  Hide and seek was a favorite one, except we modified it a bit.  He had trouble getting around, so I would go and hide somewhere in his living area and he would shout out where he thought I was.  I would either answer yes or no and he would keep guessing if necessary.  He had a large trunk that I could hide in, but I always needed to keep the lid slightly open so I could hear him.

Sometimes I would just sit in a chair across from him and we would toss a ball back and forth, until the dog caught on and stole the ball.  Other times he would read to me or I would sit on the couch and pull books off of the shelves behind it and look at the pictures, pretending to read the words.

The best times were when he would pull out a narrow table and we would sit at opposite ends and play cards – like Flinch, Old Maid, War or sometimes checkers.  We would lose track of the time until Mom called us for supper.   When he passed, I found the table among his things and even though it was in disrepair, I kept it with the hope that someday, I could restore it.  Several years after I married, my husband secretly took the pieces of the table and lovingly put them back together and varnished the wood.  I arrived home to find the table whole again, ready for another generation (best present ever!).

When Grandpa and I were done playing, I was allowed to take a lemon drop from the bag he kept in the top drawer of his dresser, as long as I brought him one as well.  I could just reach them, if I stood on my tippy toes.

The dresser and table now adorn my house and help keep the memories alive of the time Grandpa and I used to spend together.