Monday, August 13, 2012

Michigan Stories, Part 3

Elston Organic Farm, LLC - run by Uncle Jerry's son Lee
and Lee's son Garrick
All the relatives cared for Mom while Dad was away. Most notable among them was Uncle Jerry. He dropped by to see Mom a few times each week, quite often leaving an extra can of food, or some small package that he bought too much of. The best story of all happened one Saturday, though. Uncle Jerry came in with a long face. I remember, because he always seemed quite content with life.
"Jerry, what's wrong," said Mom, sitting him down at the old vinyl table and giving him a cup of coffee. She sat in the chair next to him.
"Fran, I have a problem." (He probably called her Earline, a name my Mom hated, but grew up with in Brown City. If anyone called her Fran, though, it would have been Uncle Jerry. Earline is actually the name listed in the 1940 census also. Mom would have hated that.)
"I'll do anything I can to help, Jerry. What can I do?" Mom clasped her hands together and looked at him with those piercing blue-green eyes.
"Well, I bought a side of beef and I don't have room for all of it in my freezer. I was wondering if you would take some of the meat off my hands for me. It would be a big favor."
Mom's eyes widened and tears started to form. "Jerry, I don't have the room in my freezer…" and she started to cry softly.
"It's okay, Fran. The guy in town who owns the meat lockers owes me a favor and can let you use one of his lockers for the meat."
That's the kind of guy my Uncle Jerry was. His oldest son Lee is just like him, and I hear good things about his grandson Garrick as well.
If you don't know what "meat lockers" are here's the best I can explain them. Not everyone had or could afford a freezer, but in small towns like Brown City people often butchered large animals and needed a place to put the meat. There was a guy in Brown City who rented "meat lockers" which were essentially rented freezer space. I suspect most other small towns had one too. Think of a frozen storage locker for meat and you have the right idea.
We visited Uncle Jerry's house pretty often also. My cousin K (she's my age) and my cousin P (he's my brother B's age) were summertime playmates quite often. For part of the summer Mom was the babysitter for all of us and my two youngest siblings. We spent a lot of hours at our house, as well as a lot of hours at Uncle Jerry's house, just a mile away or so.
Uncle Jerry's place was amazing. He had a really old brick two-story house that we were not allowed to go into. Next to that was a willow tree that my Mom told me she planted. When she was a little girl she lived in that brick house with her grandparents. When she was bad they sent her outside to get a switch and they'd use that to swat her backside. She said she put one of those switches into the ground and it grew into the huge willow that now stood sentinel outside the empty house. (I opted not to ask where she got the switch if the tree wasn't there yet, as I did not really want to go after a switch of my own!)
Uncle Jerry and Aunt Marie had a newer home built next to the older one. I'm sure it was a nicer house, but I have to admit that at age eleven I thought the older home was much more interesting. Not that I would go into it, of course, since I was afraid of ghosts (among many other things).
Aunt Marie was from England, so she talked funny. (I'm just kidding.) Uncle Jerry brought her back after WWII. We were all a little bit afraid of her, and she seemed quite proper and very strict. When I got to know her better many, many years later I realized that she was a very nice lady - but definitely with a feel for what was proper and not, and most of what we did as children was not. Conversely Uncle Jerry seemed a huge, smiling barrel of a man who got along with everyone.
My Grandma Minnie, Jerry's Mom was still alive and living with Uncle Jerry. She had startling white hair and she always said what she thought. I wasn't afraid of her exactly, but I certainly was in awe of her. In my mind she probably walked the earth with Moses.
They also had an amazing barn, but if Uncle Jerry had milk cows he must have only had a couple. He wasn't running a milking farm like Uncle Dwight. Uncle Jerry had a job in town at the grain silo; I don't know if I have that right, but that's what comes to mind. Their barn was a gymnastic playground with secret tunnels throughout. They had this rope on a pulley that went from one end of the upper hayloft to the other. K and P were fearless, and so was my little brother B. Recklessly they would jump off a high pile of baled hay, snatch the rope like Tarzan of the Apes and swing across the barn, dropping safely into the hay on the other side. Me? Not quite so brave. I was probably calculating the forces needed to break my small bones and wondering why I would ever do such a thing. I did, of course, and loved it. I recall tunneling through the hay, which, as I look back on it baffles me. I am currently pretty claustrophobic, so when did that start?
We had some good times, but I wasn't always the nicest person. I don't recall the exact incident, but it had something to do with P and B getting in a disagreement. K took P's side and I stood up for B (of course we did!). Heated words were exchanged and K said something like "I hope you go home!" and I retorted "I hope you die!" and stormed out of the barn. Even now those words tear at my heart and I'm sorry K. Saying that upset me so much that I walked home from there. At some point Mom came by in the car, and Grandma Minnie rolled the window down. Did I want to talk about it? No. What was said? I didn't tell her what I said, I was so ashamed. I don't recall if I got in the car or finished the walk home, but I do recall my misery.
We made up, I'm sure, since that wasn't the end of the year and life went on. 
I'm thinking (now that I am older) that Uncle Jerry probably had some influence on the house we rented as well. We had a large two-story house with a bathroom upstairs. All the bedrooms might have been upstairs, too, actually. I don't recall. I think that all we had downstairs was the kitchen, a small eating area and the living room.
A wheat field surrounded the house on three sides, belonging to the owner of the house, who lived in a very nice place down the road from us. When the wheat was ripe, or nearly so, it glowed with a golden hue, and was refuge for birds of all kinds. The most prevalent were the red-winged blackbirds, and they were fun to watch. They'd perch in the large willow or in one of the trees near the abandoned farm buildings. We'd often see a flock of small wild canaries (or at least that's what Mom said they were). Their bright yellow bodies would streak through the grains of wheat, and we'd see them sitting in the field, the dark crests on their heads and wings a contrast to all the gold around them.
There were a lot of old buildings on the property with the house. The owner stored some very old equipment in the buildings. Though we were not supposed to rummage around in them, my cousin K and I often combed through the cast-off newspapers, magazines and books in the lofts of the buildings. Moldy, dusty and half-eaten by rats these magazines had little value, except for the archaeological significance to the two of us.
An ancient chicken coop, badly in need of repair, adorned the back left corner of the small lot. In hindsight we should have fixed it up and put some chickens there, but Mom probably had enough to worry about feeding four growing boys without worrying about chickens as well.
An awesome tree with a tire swing dominated the yard right outside the side door, which was the only door I ever remember using while we lived there. In the summers we practically lived in and around that tree, allowing us upward mobility into its green-covered branches. A spaceship, a spy headquarters, a pirate ship at sea - it's hard to find a good tree nowadays.
I once climbed that tree to get small green branches for roasting marshmallows (what a treat!) and used the very, very cool pocket knife that my Uncle Bill gave me. I cut one branch with the edge toward my left hand and sliced through the branch deeply into the edge of my thumb. I was terrified that Mom would take my knife from me, so I wrapped it in black electrical tape and left it like that for about a week. I still have the scar.
I broke the end off that pocket knife once when I threw it into the tree and pulled it out wrong. That wasn't the last knife I'd break by throwing it at trees, but it was the first and I was heartbroken.
The house came with a basement. The basements in older homes in Michigan almost always have a huge furnace in them, but the basement can often be converted into something usable. If not, you can put shelves along the walls and use the cool basement environs as a place to store canned goods. Some basements had their own cinder block storage rooms for canned foods. I don't recall which we had, but our basement was not habitable.
I was always scared to go in that basement. One naked bulb hung in the center of the room, near the furnace and provided sufficient light to barely be able to tell the canned peaches from the canned pears. The shadows were what always got me, though, swaying back and forth, reaching with dark fingers toward me just as I thought I was safe. I knew strange things grew in the dark because I could smell them, a pungent odor of mold and age and dirt and crawling things. (The mold which pervaded Frau's room smelled differently, older and drier than the Michigan basement mold.)
There are a few more stories about when we lived in Michigan, coming in a few days.


  1. You should call this series "the Uncles" instead of "Michigan Stories," I do believe. :P Or make a tab for them, like with the Frau Chronicles.

    So Uncle Jerry was the one with the meat! Please disregard my earlier comment.

    Which of the houses you visited do you remember best? This one?

  2. That summer was really the most memorable of my childhood. A huge influance on my life! Kath