Trespassers and Tantrums

dadMy son, Gary, posted recently that he has planted potatoes. I wish him luck and God willing, there will be no creatures of the forest to come forth, sniff and eat.

However, it took me back to the year my father decided he should have a garden. Now those who knew Dad well took this in stride, knowing full well he would lose interest the minute the vegetables did not grow according to his time table. He was more at home hunting in the fall, fishing in the summer and in between times, sitting on the porch, boots on the railing and a bottle of Old Narragansett in his hands.

And so it was with rolling eyes that the rest of the family watched as he found a hoe and proceeded to break the earth with the strength of his back. In his mind, I am sure he was a pioneer somewhere in the wilds of the Dakotas or perhaps just emerging from his covered wagon en route to California and had just decided to homestead.  He continued for a couple of days and pronounced it ready for the great seed dropping. Which he did. Every day thereafter he hopped the stones in the brook and walked up and down the three rows of his new garden looking for shoots.

It was a day of celebration in the Martin house the day Dad came into the kitchen, hands on hips and announced to the eye-rolling family that he was a successful gardner. The lettuce was up, the radishes were doing great and he knew the carrots were not far behind.  Ma said, well, that’s good, and continued on with her biscuit making. The rest of us smiled and said appropriate remarks such as Gee that’s great. I think he knew that in our hearts we were still questioning his dedication to being a master gardener. In private conversations, we all tried to remember the last time we saw our father eat a vegetable. It had to be the challenge.

One morning the blue skies turned slightly gray when Dad announced he could see animal tracks around the outskirts of his garden. It was becoming personal. He spent most of that Saturday morning making a fence of fishing line around the garden with little stakes and all. There were no questions asked as we watched with fascination as he snaked the fish line across the brook and led it to the porch where he attached a big bell. Hands on hips once more, he said the minute any animal crossed the yard en route to his garden the bell would  sound and he would rise out of bed, run to the yard and shoot his gun in the air.

That sounded like a plan. Except it was Saturday night and Ma went dancing on Saturday nights. Ma came home late, hit the line with her foot, bell clanged, Dad jumped and he met Ma at the front door, gun in hand. Cursing ensued and we in the attic , with eyes still rolling, turned over and went back to sleep.

Not to be out done, Dad decided another course of action should take place. Not that he let the Saturday night debacle, he injected that into the conversation for quite a few days, That called for a lot of face turning and hidden grins. The fish line would stay in place. Dad knew for certain that deer would be nibbling before long..the green shoots emerging even higher and his hoe had been doing its job . It was a weedless garden worthy of many a second look.

Again the fish line was dragged across the brook, but this time he warned us all that no one, NO ONE should be coming across the yard after nine o’clock. The fish line was draped skillfully around the house this time…and through the bedroom window right by his head and again attached to the bell.

Later, we figured it was about midnight or close to it, when the bell started clanging. Dad jumped out of bed, grabbed the rifle and yelled “Ethel, grab the flashlight”. Ma did not want to go outside with her nightclothes on so there ensued a short conversation, interspersed with Dad cursing and we assumed, from the attic view, practically dragging her, flashlight in hand. The front door opened, steps were heard across the porch and louder cursing. There was no animal in sight.

Back into the house they came with mutterings and banging of the front door. Again, we rolled over and back to sleep.

Fast forward the next morning.  Dad went out at days first light apparently because it was six o’clock and we were in the middle of our fried fish and potato breakfast when in the door he came, hair standing on end and obviously in a rage. What had been a garden fit for a magazine cover was now nothing but spears here and there with deer tracks obliterating his neatly hoed rows. He sat down after delivering the news in a much louder voice than usual, picked up his coffee cup and said, “That’s it. They are smarter than I am and they can have the blankety blank garden.” Though he didn’t say blankety blank, that’s for sure. Another sip of coffee and he said, “You know, we would have had vegetables this summer if your mother could hold a flashlight right.”

Ma said nothing. We said nothing. We knew he’d rather be fishing anyway. The local animals had let him off the hook.

Salt Pork and Dandelion Greens

threeofusIt has been most interesting to read articles about school lunches and nutrition facts for youths of all ages. I had finished reading such an article and upon glancing out the window, noticed all the yellow that had shot up over night on our front lawn.

Dandelions!  Ma is bending over on the side grass ( I say grass as we did not have a lawn in Greenwood Center.)  She has a big dented silver colored pot set to one side and a little pair of snippers or whatever in her hand. Bent in the shape of an upside down letter “U”, she moves from one green plant to another. Soon, she crosses the brook carefully, balancing on the two rocks and planks which affords us access to the path to my grandparents’ farm. Apparently my Grandfather Ross does not mind her digging and soon the pot is full.

Even though the kitchen is hot, Ma takes two sticks of wood and lifts the lid to make sure the stove is hot enough for her meal for which she has been waiting. I watch as she pours water over and over into her silver pot and with a resounding “THERE”, covers the treasure with water and on to the stove they go.  We are in for the season treat of dandelion greens! She cuts a piece of salt pork and sticks it on top the greens and remarks that they will boil down so there will probably be just enough for a “taste” for everyone. I know a couple in the household that will pass on their taste to someone else.

The greens bubble and the kitchen is beginning to have that dandelion smell. Ma reaches for her frying pan and cuts up slivers of salt pork and soon it is crisping and snapping along with the bubbling of the greens. A symphony of music coming from the old wood stove!! Out comes the salt pork and into the grease goes the slicing of the left over potato from last night’s meal. It is golden brown on both sides now . The table is set , glasses of water at each plate, and we all set down to our potato, salt pork and dandelion greens ( with vinegar on top, of course) supper.

As I stare at the yellow in the yard, I wonder the nutritional value of that meal. There was no such thing as a food pyramid in our house. We ate what was on the table if we liked it and if we didn’t, we waited for the next meal to come or plain picked at it and hoped Keno, the husky, was under the table waiting for anything a stealthy hand could get to her.

Looking back, it is hard to believe how much we lived and ate off the land. Dad was a voracious fisherman and hunter. We ate smelts in the spring, yellow perch ( but not in August because they were wormy), white perch ( if he was trolling and ran into a school of them) and brown trout. We had deer each year, with the hind quarter nailed to the side of the house. It was high enough so the neighbor’s dog could not get it, but low enough so Dad could cut off slabs with his hunting knife and hand to Ma, who dumped them into the hot fat in the frying pan.

We seldom had dessert unless it was a holiday and certainly no candy unless we found bottles to turn in and bought some 2 for a penny sweets.  We ate plain food. Sometimes there was plenty; other times not, but somehow, some way, Ma always found enough to feed her four kids. If anyone could make something out of nothing, it was Ma…

When I read about school lunches and students protesting about the food; parents up in arms because this or that has been taken from the menu, I wonder how we survived. Each of us carried our own little brown bag and usually there was a biscuit with peanut butter, sometimes jam on it, and maybe a marshmallow cookie if Ma thought she should pay the extra at Vallee’s store for the treat.  In warm weather, we sat on the school grass, ate, talked and shared with the neighborhood stray dog. Our drink was water from theschool fountain in the hallway.

Dad shot partridge, rabbits and the Lord only knows what else that Ma put on the table at one time or another. The only thing I tried that I can honestly say I would not care to try again was bear meat. Now that was a wild taste and Ma would have nothing to do with it at all.

I look out again at the yellow and know there are chemicals that can kill the dandelions. Not on my lawn. There are too many chemicals and too many preservatives in the world as I see it today. Perhaps had I not survived almost seven decades of living, I would not see such a difference in the way we were and the way we are this day.

I would give anything for one more day in the old kitchen with Ma bustling around the old wood stove stirring up the greens and making sure we knew before they went on the table that they “were good for us.”

Dandelions…good for so many things. When I was grown, my friend Charlotte Cole introduced me to dandelion wine. But therein lies another story.

Spending the Morning with Gram

gram mIt was a long time ago…sixty years ago, in fact, when I married( the first time).  It feels as though it was in another lifetime, but occasionally there is something..a momento that takes me back in time to that little village in Maine and the lovely people. One of my most cherished gifts was a recipe box filled with wonderful recipes for everything imaginable and they were all hand written and signed by the ladies of Locke Mills, Maine.

Over the years and sometimes bumpy road that’s been my life, the recipe box moved with me and now and then, I’d pull out a recipe, see the name and sigh because that lady was no longer with us, but her contribution lived on.

And so it was this morning when the urge and , yes, need arose for me to bake. I have so many cookbooks that I am ashamed to admit I could have a library of those alone. There are stacks of printed recipes from the internet. Yet, I dragged out the little box and started going through them. That is when I spotted my Gram’s handwriting. A blueberry cake! Hmm. Very neatly on the back was written in beautiful script “Nellie Martin”.

There was Gram reaching as far as she could to get the last berry from the high wild blueberry bushes. On her kitchen counter was a big bowl of blueberries my Uncle Louis had brought home from his week of logging on Overset Mountain. She gathered all the ingredients on her kitchen table and began. Four cups of flour she sifted with cream of tartar and baking soda. I looked at the “four cups of flour” and thought …boy, that’s a lot of flour. It was then I noticed on the back at the bottom of the recipe was this admonishment “This makes a very big cake..”  Gram was still instructing me after all these years.

Gram went to the shed and brought in an armful of wood to stoke up the fire, her little blue sneakers just a humming over the kitchen floor. When the stove began to heat, she pushed her tiny black rimmed glasses up on her nose and said, “now stay there”.

So I labored on, recipe propped high. The four cups of flour, the cup of “sweet” milk, the cup of sugar( sugar must have been very dear as that did not seem like a lot of sugar in proportion to the other ingredients). Take the pint of blueberries and roll them around in the flour and dry goods. Well, Gram, all I had was a bag of frozen blueberries, so forgive me. If the cake looks horrid, no one will know but you and me and the squirrels will love it. Maybe.

Everything mixed together and looking good. That is a lot of dough and as my Kitchen Aide whirled it around, I wondered aloud how Grammie ever mixed that by hand. I found the biggest cake pan in the house and pushed it in and leveled it off. Whoa! Wait! There is no oven temperature or time. Hmm. What to do? 

I remembered the gauge on Gram’s wood stove and when the needle pointed straight up, she always plopped her cookies or cakes in. That needle might have meant about 350 degrees. As for the time, that would be any one’s guess…at least I had a window to peek in the oven.

I peeked and I peeked some more. 35 minutes later, out came the cake…slightly brown and I drove a toothpick down the middle of this massive project. Came out slick as a whistle. 

Now that cake is a masterpiece, Gram. It is on the kitchen counter and yes, I sneaked a corner piece before it cooled. That is some good. Not as good as yours because you were smiling and filled it with lots of love before you chucked it in the oven.

It was great spending the morning with you, Gram.

Cap guns, Yo Yos, Marbles and all that and then some…

photo11It is spring again in Greenwood Center. Winter has shed its icy cloak and changed to a dress of green. My grandfather Martin’s apple tree is full of blossoms and one can smell the perfume from his pasture into our front yard.

The dirt is back, the grass is back and everyone and every thing seems to take on a new life. My cousins and I crouch in the dirt by the side of the road with our marbles. I am not sure if we have any special rules, but I love the colors and really want to win the pretty marbles, big or small. I have a tiny bag that I keep the marbles in and draw the string really tight to make sure they stay there until the next time my knees are dirty from the ditch.

We don’t worry much about traffic. There are cars, but mostly when the mill gets out and people are coming home from work. By that time, we are all back in our front yards and completing chores before the parents arrive. 

There are a few kids at school with yo-yos.  Now I really , really want one and I know pretty well that I will never be able to “walk the dog” or any of the tricks that some of the boys can do, but it seems like a challenge. 

I did a little baby-sitting,saved my money and I now have a genuine Duncan Yo-Yo. It is yellow with soft brown streaks through it. I practice upstairs on my side of the attic and yes, eventually I make it go up and down quite nicely but occasionally the string hangs down and I have to wind the whole thing up again. I am beginning to think that Yo-Yos are highlyover-rated unless someone is really coordinated and skilled.

There is one thing I love to do and Ma does not like it and says it is dangerous. I think she says that because the noise gets on her last nerve. We buy caps in little rolls and lay them out on flat rocks and then take a rock and hit the little black dot…some make more noise than others. I know they are supposed to go in a cap gun, but we don’t have one, so this is the next best thing. Ma says we are never to point a gun at another person…not even a toy gun. She says it is dangerous and if we point a toy gun, then some day if we have a real gun, we will forget and still point it in the wrong direction.

After Memorial Day, we get brave and decide to test the waters of Twitchell Pond. Curt and I put on our suits and up the road we go, barefoot and all, walking in the ditch. Ouch! Our feet are tender from wearing shoes all winter, but by the end of the summer, the bottoms of our feet are tough like old leather and nothing bothers them..well the hot tar is something we kind of skip and hurry on, but rocks just bounce off them. When we get to the field that Grammy owns, we scurry across the path to the little beach. We scurry because there are rumors there is a huge milk adder snake in that field and I am not about to linger one tiny second . I hate snakes.

Ace will be coming with his milk truck as soon as a few summer residents appear and we cannot wait for some ice cold strawberry milk again!! That will be another month at least and after school lets out.

That is another thing. I think school should stop the minute the weather starts getting nice. No one can think if the window is open at school and you can hear the birds singing and a warm breeze is coming in to flutter the papers on our desk. There are those teachers that will take us outside for a class and we sit on the grass in the school  yard. I think the weather has got to them as well, and they are tired of smelling oily floors and chalk dust! That’s another thing!  Now that the ground is dry, we can all take our brown bags out and sit in the school yard to eat our lunch. There is a dog belonging to someone in the village who comes each noon and goes from one of us to the other gathering scraps and wagging his tail. His name is Sandy and we look for him every day.

It is so nice to feel warm again after the awful cold of the winter. I run across to Gram Martin’s and sit on the porch while she mends and we visit. She tells me if her hens are laying or not and if we have to collect eggs.

On the week-ends, Ma hoes around her delphiniums and Sweet Williams. There isn’t much room for a flower garden,b ut she does love the little plot she has. I have some hens and chickens that Gram gave me..those are sweet little plants and Ma has an iris that Uncle Elmer gave her so we do have a little color at the side of the yard.

My pet rooster was killed over the winter. Last fall, Ma took him to Grampa Libby’s to live as we had no place for him to keep warm. Mr. Rooster always rode on my shoulder and we walked around the yard looking grand. Curt has a fear of birds..domestic birds I guess…and he did not like Mr. Rooster at all. One day I was feeling mean and chased Curt, with Mr. Rooster on my shoulder, clear to the main road. The next day, Mr. Rooster went to Grampa’s to live…Ma said, for the winter, but I knew better. Anyway, long story short, she announced that a coon came in over the winter and bit his head off. I did not want Mr. Rooster to come to that kind of a death and had hoped he could come back for more shoulder riding this summer. Ma said he was better off dead as he was of no use to anyone except for scaring kids. I got her meaning without asking any questions.

I love spring in Greenwood Center where it seems like a different world than the months we have just endured. There is one down side to it all and that is the dreaded black flies. The air is black with them, but you just have to remember to put on some of Dad’s “fly dope” and you’ll be fine…well almost fine.

Getting up every day to see a beautiful blue pond, apple blossoms, smell the tar warm from the sun…who could ask for anything more?

Ma, Mice and Mayhem

pictures from old computer 072Well, with Mother’s Day on the horizon, I thought I would touch on Ma again. When this picture was taken, I was 67 and she was 90 years old. I don’t think either of us thought we would get this far down the road, to tell the truth.

She gave up on trying to make a girl out of me by the time I was five years old. An excellent seamstress, she told me to never mind trying to sew. …and added that she knew I would rather play baseball. When it came to cooking, she took one look at me and told me to go play ball, she didn’t have ingredients to waste. That was the eerie part…Ma could read my mind. She knew I had no use for sewing or cooking when I could be running wild outside either fishing, playing ball or building a tree house. I think she was glad to have me out from under her feet.

There were those times when she came down hard on me. Oh, yeah, the woman did not spare the rod. I knew when I skipped my chores, I was “in for it.”  Many a time I picked a bunch of “Stinking Benjamins” from the path in the woods and brought them for a peace offering. Silently, she put them in a jelly jar on the table without a word of reproach. She knew I was suffering inside, wondering what my punishment would be and that really was punishment enough, knowing I’d let her down.

Oh, there were times when I knew she was totally unfair. One day I played at my cousins’ house way beyond the time to prepare for the parents coming home from work. They came home to absolutely nothing done. Before I knew it, I was running toward home on the path through the woods with a very upset mother behind, weilding her “switch stick.”

But as years went by and we were in high school, it was Ma who worked all day in the mill and drove me to my basketball game, sat and cheered, drove home, went to bed and up before dawn for another day at the mill. When Ma got her drivers’ license, it was the key to Sunday afternoon at the movies, going to baseball games  on the week-end and always seeing I got to my beloved sports games. She said if I wanted to play softball and basketball bad enough to walk from Bryant Pond to Locke Mills and the four miles down the Greenwood Road to home after dark, then the least she could do was drive me to the games.

Ma was the one who gave us the fifty cents we needed for the mandatory Readers Digest subscription.  Having nothing as a child, she tried to give us as much as possible. True, it was not much, but then no family at that time had very much.

There are some moments that live forever. One day Ma was going to bake her famous biscuits. She kept her flour in a large tin with a cover. I sat at the table and suddenly I heard a clang and screech and Ma flew by with the tin in hand and out the door she ran. She stopped at the edge of the woods and turned the tin upside down , turned and came in and plopped the tin in the sink. Mice, she thundered, Mice! There were mice in my flour. How can they get through tin. She clanged the tin, clanged the cover, filled the tin with boiling hot water and proceeded to scrub. I was so stunned, I sat wide-eyed. After a few minutes of scrubbing, she dried the tin, set it upside down on the counter, came to the table, sat down and said, there will be no biscuits tonight. End of story. No need for her to elaborate on what had just taken place.

After Dad died, Ma took an active part in her local union and traveled to many union conventions. At that point in life, I was out and about interviewing  and writing for several newspapers. She knew I had nice clothes to wear for interviews. I came home one night to find her in the bedroom, raiding my clothes for her convention trip. I called her “the thief” for many years after that.

Another moment was years later when she came to visit me in New York. It was August and she loved garage sales. I proceeded to drive her around the village and we happened upon a nice sale with a handsome vacuum cleaner. I had needed one for some time and yes, I was assured it worked beautifully. Home we came. I proudly sat it in the middle of the floor and we both agreed it was handsome indeed! It was self propelled, it said, and that would make it easier on my back. Ma said we should give it a whirl. She plugged it in and that cleaner came alive. It actually started chasing me. Ma started yelling to stop it and I yelled back I didn’t know how. I jumped on the sofa, the vacuum hit the sofa, did a swirl and headed in Ma’s direction. She ran and got behind a kitchen chair. The cleaner went right up to the chair and spun its wheels . In that one lucid moment, we both remembered how to stop it. She reached over and pulled the plug. We looked at each other and collapsed on the sofa laughing.

The vacuum went out on the porch , never to be plugged in again. I kissed my five dollars good bye and grateful we both escaped unscathed.

The picture below is my brother, Rex and I with our Mom at Thanksgiving in Maine. She still had a great sense of humor.

rsm2The last visit I had with my Mom I leaned over and whispered “Remember the great vacuum cleaner caper, Ma?”  She started laughing and I knew it was one of the moments she never forgot either.

I hope everyone has special moments with their Moms this Mother’s Day and all through the year.