Friday, August 17, 2012

Michigan Stories, Fini

Never this pretty at our house, though
I've written about Mom's cooking before, so I won't go into it here. There is one funny story, though, and it has to do with the milk we got from Aunt Nora. Mom often let the cream separate and then scooped it off the top before she watered it all down. We would occasionally be allowed to have some cream on our berries as dessert, and it was lovely. One time Mom decided she was going to do something special and make whipped cream, from real cream. She added the sugar to the cream and beat it. Then she had me beat it for a while. She was looking for that smooth, fluffy appearance, but wasn't getting it. So she beat it some more. I actually remember the look of puzzlement on her face when she stopped beating that bowl of sweetened cream. We now had butter. Mom invented sweetened butter.
We loved it.
She never tried to make whipped cream again.
Mom was always canning food. We had a pretty good garden and Mom canned a lot of home-grown vegetables. She tried pickles, and we loved the taste, but they were never crispy. She canned fruits too. We had a pear tree near the fence on the right side of the driveway and it gave her enough pears to pack quite a few quarts. We boys thought eating those was a special treat. We often went on short, local journeys in the summer and fall and we'd pick fruits and berries. Mom arranged with the owners of the orchards and berry patches to pick some for them and then keep some of what we picked for us. She canned a lot of apple sauce, almost as many quarts as she did the year we lived in Washington State. Though she made the same arrangement with berries (especially in Washington State, where we spent many, many long days in the strawberry field) we often found wild berry bushes along the side of the road in Michigan and it became Mom's mission to strip them of their freely provided produce.
She'd occasionally pull over and send us off into a corn field to gather a few ears of yellow corn for dinner, too. We weren't allowed to gather many of them, and I'm guessing the fields belonged to people she knew. She'd boil the corn on the cob and we'd feast on those ears for dinner! What a grand time that was! I didn't understand the difference between field corn and sweet corn until I was grown and out on my own. Doesn't matter. I still love corn, regardless of field or sweet (though I prefer sweet!).
At the end of the season we had a great abundance of squash. Yellow summer squash and green zucchini squash were at every meal. She would have fed them to us for breakfast if she could've figured out how. Mom even found a recipe for zucchini chocolate cake, which was delicious - and full of zucchini. We knew it was there, even if we couldn't taste it. Sure didn't stop us from eating the cake, though. We had so many summer squash that she couldn't even give them away, though she tried to barter with neighbors and the grocer in Brown City. I guess everyone had a bumper crop of squash that year. Dozens of the yellow squash ended up in a heap near the pear tree as the season drew to a close and Mom couldn't figure out what to do with them all. The next year that pear tree was surrounded by squash vines, but we moved before they ripened. The pear tree seemed to like the squash, though - it was covered with blossoms.
Mom did her best and we managed quite well. I don't think any of us ever suffered potential starvation. It was fantastic that we lived in an area surrounded by her family, but she sure missed Dad. We all did.

Our cat was a good mouser (and we needed a couple of those) and stayed on friendly terms with some of the stray male cats in the area. Mice (and probably rats) considered our house a safe refuge from the harsh elements. I suspect the dilapidated and crumbling barns and outbuildings served as similar housing developments to both mice and rats. I don't recall that we ever fed our cat, except an occasional small bowl of milk (without oatmeal!), but she thrived living with us. We strategically placed mouse traps through the house, and especially in the basement, which simply enhanced the frightening atmosphere of that dank cellar. We considered the mice non-paying renters, evicting their dead bodies when we caught them and listening to the others scamper through the walls as we dozed off to sleep at night. Occasionally we'd see a mouse scurry from a dark corner to the cover of furniture, and sometimes we'd give chase, but often we simply changed the location of a trap and hoped for the best.
Our cat had a litter of four or five kittens, so each of us four boys could pick one and give it a name. I don't recall any of the names except the one chosen by my brother D. He called his kitten "Froggy" and though we laughed about it, we all agreed he had the right to name him whatever he wanted.
Our landlord's dog took a liking to us boys and came to visit almost every day in the summer. The owner came to get him and Mom would apologize and we'd pet him and off they'd go, our landlord taking his dog back to his own farmhouse down the road. Then the dog came back the next day. We called him "Tramp" though I don't know if he had another name. Covered in shaggy fur and about the size of a Saint Bernard, that dog played with us for hours at a time, then disappeared back home.
Tramp found the kittens and Mom had to explain to us that he was just playing with them, but they were so small that he accidentally mauled them to death. The little bodies had no teeth marks, but they were all covered with dog slobber.
Shortly thereafter the owner took the dog to someone else far away from us. We had another dog after that, a gift from Uncle Dwight, who named the dog Hubert Horatio Humphrey because he said you couldn't keep him chained up; he was an escape artist.
This proved to be true, and our yard often contained lots of toys each morning that the neighbors across the street left in their yard the previous night. We returned them all, of course. (Okay, maybe we played with some of them first.) Mom tried a dozen different collars for that dog, and he slipped them all, including that choke chain one. I think he delighted in his nightly forays. He was some sort of reddish Irish setter mutt with a perpetual grin on his face.
He disappeared one night and we four young boys were baffled and saddened. Years later Mom told me what really happened. During one of his pillaging trips across the road a truck hit him and broke his back. Mom heard the commotion and went out to the road. She made the young driver of the truck shoot him. I don't know what she did with Hubert's body.
I think Mom got a little dog after that, a nervous little thing that piddled on the floor every time we petted it and shivered whenever we walked near it. That's actually all I remember about that dog. Maybe it's just my imagination.
The television displayed the Viet Nam war most of the time. I'm not even sure we watched any other shows on it. Occasionally a letter arrived from Dad and he even sent me one, answering my request for money to buy a pair of Hercules wrist bands (an advertisement in the back of one of my few comic books) with a polite "We'll see when I get home." I really wanted to be strong. Eventually I saved enough money on my own to order a pair. They didn't help, and they looked goofy on my skinny wrists.
We prayed the rosary at least once a week, sometimes more depending on the news reports and how Mom felt. There is something comforting about saying a rosary. A sense of peace descends on you after the first few prayers. I'm pretty sure Mom prayed one every night. Raised Baptist (I think), Mom became a Catholic to marry Dad. She took it seriously.
Snow Moose
He knows what I'm talking about
We went to church in Capac, a few miles down the road in the opposite direction of Peck (where my Aunt Nora and Uncle Dwight had their farm). I don't recall much about the church, except that we were late one Sunday because of the time change. Funny thing to remember, isn't it? The only other thing I recall is that the priest that we all liked (who was a young man) left the church and married a nun. That was quite the scandal, and I only heard it in whispers when the adults got together.
The winter of the heavy snows delighted us boys for the most part. I recall shoveling the driveway from where we parked the car by the house out to the road. I couldn't tell you how far that was, but it seemed like a mile, though it was most likely simply a few dozen feet. Before shoveling the entire driveway I walked out to the road to find the path for the car.
Stepping into the country ditch by the road was the first time I ever remember being stuck in waist deep snow. As I struggled with it I just sunk deeper into the white stuff. You'd think I could just reverse my course and step out, but somehow it didn't work that way. Eventually I managed to wiggle and crawl out of the ditch, which I had to do on my own because nobody heard my frantic cries for help. By the time I got into the house I was pretty cold. I did eventually finish shoveling the driveway, though it took days.
We all wore bread bags on our feet that winter. I know that sounds odd, doesn't it? We each had a set of plastic bags from loaves of Wonder Bread that we put on after we put on our socks and before we put on our shoes and boots. It might have been to help us keep our feet warm, but it might also have been because we had holes in our shoes and our boots. I don't think we wore them to school, thank goodness.
Mom kept the house cold, too. As a child I never really understood why, but looking back she probably had to ration the fuel oil for the furnace. There were many mornings we would wake up and break ice out of the sinks to brush our teeth. We all got in the habit of wearing our clothes into bed, waiting for the bed to warm, then taking them off and putting our pajamas on while under the relatively warm coverings. I'm pretty sure that all four of us shared the big bedroom upstairs, but I honestly don't recall.
When the power lines went down that winter we got on the road and went to visit Uncle Floyd and Aunt Ida and their son Jim. A few years older than I am, Jim introduced me to The Lord of the Rings by loaning me the second book. I read that one first, then went back and read the first, then the last. In any order, that was a great read. Jim also let me read a book that he wrote, and he was probably still in Junior High School. It was just as good as many detective novels I had read up to that point. I still remember that the hero died at the end, a fan (or something electric) dropping into his tub while he took a bath. He had a rejection letter from a publisher that said they couldn't publish the book since he was too young.
There was a family reunion in the summer and we all met in a park not far from where we lived. I don't recall much of it; a sweet time near a cool, clear flowing brook and tons of people we didn't know but are related to. Lots of good food, I'm sure.
Our times in Michigan are mostly just sweet, vague memories. I have some recollections of my school year, but those are a different set of stories that I'll publish soon in another series, My Abbreviated Life or something.
I will say this. We learned to love all our relatives and were baffled by the number of them we had. I don't know of any of them that didn't love my Mom. I wish I'd asked more questions, learned more stories, listened more intently and remembered better. Some stories are now gone forever.
Hopefully, this isn't one of them.



  2. I, too, wish I had payed better attention when stories were being told! If only I knew then what I know now! Kath