BLESSINGS FOR A SIMPLER LIFE
Tell Your Story
In case you haven’t notice, the heading of my website is “Telling the Stories of Your Life.”
Why stories? By recollecting and retelling the stories of our lives, we draw upon the wisdom we have gained from our past experiences and can then apply it to our future.
One of the popular classes I teach is “Write Your Life Story” where I try to guide my students in how to do just that. So many feel, as I once did, that writing our own story is arrogant – ego-driven. Instead, the process of recollection helps us understand ourselves better and helps others understand us. It is essential to fully understand our own journey so that we might share what we have learned. – to provide guidance or inspiration on universal issues.
We can enrich other people’s lives through the power of sharing. What better way to do that than by the telling of our stories?
Also, we learn lessons from our own life when we re-live it through the telling.
My blessing to you today, dear friend, if you choose to read it, is a short story from my memoir, Thrift Store Shoes.” I hope you enjoy it.
My shock of having everything I owned suddenly gone turned to grief when I thought of moving again. It had been a good year at that farm in Orrock. Now, once again, I’d be the new girl at school, living in a different house and a different town. This time the reason wasn’t because Dad “has gypsy blood” as Mom often said, but it still meant another change.
I had loved my little country school—where grades one through eight sat together in one room and were taught by one teacher, Mrs. Florence Lundsten. I shared the third and part of the fourth grade with Karen Woolhouse and Ethel Lemon at Kragaro School where we began each day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I sat near the front, so I could see the blackboard and the roll-down maps. I didn’t want to miss anything.
We had rows of wooden desks with lift-up tops. Mrs. Lundsten frequently interrupted her teaching to put wood into the stove at the rear of the room, our only source of heat. The smell of smoke competed with the smell of wet coats, scarves and mittens hanging in the back cloakroom near the entrance. When we needed a restroom, we went behind the schoolhouse, in the cold and snow, to the outhouse—one side for the boys and the other for the girls.
Mrs. Lundsten made learning fun. All eight grades of her students took turns reading from a book every morning. I’ve never forgotten the Little House on the Prairie series, especially The Long Cold Winter.
Mrs. Lundsten was so much more than just a schoolteacher to us students. She seemed to first sense, and then meet, all our needs. When my brother Lee stuttered, Mrs. Lundsten taught him to sing his words, so he could make a sentence. Lee was embarrassed to sing until he learned that doing so enabled him to communicate quickly and easily.
Mrs. Lundsten took Lee and me on a train trip one day because we had never been on one. We didn’t go far, but it was an exhilarating experience. The other kids at school accused me of being “teacher’s pet,” and after that treat, I thought maybe it was true. But I didn’t mind.
At the beginning of fourth grade, Jerry Woolhouse told me I was his girlfriend. He was a year older than I. I liked Jerry too and was grieved when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He missed a lot of school and died shortly thereafter. I was inconsolable.
Our parents did not plan to attend the funeral, so Mrs. Lundsten took Lee and me to the funeral. I had never seen a dead person before, and his white, stone-like face scared me. He didn’t look like himself. I cried into Mrs. Lundsten’s tan coat sleeve. She let me cry for a while, then gently took her sleeve from me, and put both arms around me and held me close to her so I could cry some more. I loved Mrs. Lundsten.
Forty-nine years after that funeral, my mother died in 1999. I found a letter from Mrs. Lundsten tucked away in Mom’s small box of important papers. It merely asked Mom to have us at the school at a certain time so we could leave with her for Jerry’s funeral.
Why did Mom keep that letter as one of her treasures? She had so few things in that box. I can only believe, as a teacher and a person of education, Mrs. Lundsten’s letter to Mom probably compared to my autograph of Harry Belafonte.
Mom also admired Mrs. Lundsten because this teacher gave us raisins for a snack at recess and frequently simmered goulash on the wood stove and served all her students a hot noon meal. She always dished out an especially generous serving to Kenny Johnson whose mother had died.
Did she also have Lee and me in mind when she fed her students? Dad drove truck in the city for a while that year and came home on weekends to farm our few rented acres, but he was often unemployed. Times were tough. We only ate lavishly on the Sundays when my Uncle Chester, Aunt Ruth and cousins, Ruthie and Alvin, came to visit us.
“Sunday is a day of rest,” Dad always declared. Then the men and boys loaded up the fishing gear, drove to a lake, rented a rowboat and fished until noon.
On that same ‘day of rest’ my mother took the hatchet out of the woodshed and propped it against the chopping block before she walked into the chicken coop for our dinner. Of everything on the farm, Mom loved her chickens the most. Mom wasn’t one to ‘neighbor’ much, and sometimes I thought she liked talking to her chickens more than she liked talking to us children. Maybe in the chicken coop, away from earshot of her children, she voiced thoughts and feelings she couldn’t voice anywhere else.
Every day she dipped her right hand into the grey galvanized pail she cradled in her left arm and pulled out a handful of ground corn. Then, she slowly walked round and round that pen flicking feed onto the ground with her long, bony wrist as she talked to the chickens. “We need rain, yes we do. Or we won’t get a good crop this year.” On and on she talked until the pail was empty.
She gathered the eggs herself, too, even though Lee and I were old enough to have that chore. She’d say, “I’m going to the henhouse now, Connie. Watch the girls.” She picked eggs from all the nests and even reached under the brood hens that didn’t want to give up their future family, talking gently to the chickens all the while.
So, when she walked into that pen, scooped up a big fat chicken, laid it on the chopping block and, with one swift hatchet stroke, saw the bird’s head roll off onto the ground, it was hard to understand. She loved those chickens. Sometimes the chicken rolled off the block and ran wildly in circles, blood spurting out of its severed neck, until it fell.
She then held the chicken by its legs; neck downward, until it bled out. Mom plucked the feathers and singed the pinfeathers over the flame on the kitchen stove. She gutted the chicken, washed it thoroughly, and cut it into small enough pieces to serve eleven people. When the fishermen came home, Mom had a dinner prepared of crispy fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, and whatever vegetable proved ready in her garden.
She did what was necessary. I always thought of Mom as being weak. I think I misjudged her.
“Save the neck for me,” Mom said, as she passed the platter of chicken around the table. It was the only piece left when the platter came back to her.
Several years ago, after my mother had died, Cousin Ruthie showed me an old black and white photo that her mother had taken of our family on one of those Sundays. I looked at the photo of my parents posed in front of my uncle’s new, black, 1951 Studebaker. We five children stood in front of them. My eyes darted to each of us in the photo but focused on Mom. She was so skinny! Her hair was unkempt—so unlike her. She wore an apron over her housedress as if she had been summoned from the kitchen to pose for the picture. She wasn’t smiling. She always hated having her picture taken.
Dad was in his usual blue chambray shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, a round spot worn thin on his breast pocket where he always carried a box of Copenhagen snuff. The bill on his baseball cap tilted upward; his smiling face as handsome as I remembered.
Lee was grinning. Barefoot, freckle-faced, wearing bib overalls without a shirt, he looked like he could have stepped out of a Mark Twain novel. Donna, Judie and Irene all wore shy smiles and what looked like hand-made dresses. And there was me, the oldest daughter—mother’s helper. I looked so serious, so grown up already. My first pair of glasses; blonde hair in a ponytail, I was holding Irene’s hand. Always the caretaker.
My eyes returned to Mom in the picture. She would have been 30 years old. Her flowered housedress hung on her tall, bony frame. Save me the neck of the chicken! That memory came to me like a flash. It made me wonder how often my mother fed us first and ate only what was left.
A weak mother? How could I have thought that?
I never went hungry. Sometimes only a slice of homemade bread spread with lard and sprinkled with salt was available to us, but it was filling, and we actually learned to like it. Mom used her coffee grounds so many times that sometimes her coffee had hardly any color to it by the time Dad came home on Friday evening with groceries—when he had a job. I learned very young that we didn’t have money for things that many other people had, like store-bought clothes, cookies or books.
Mom’s life never got much better. Dad died when she was only 58. After Mom had a stroke in her ‘70s she came to live with my husband and me. She asked me once why we didn’t raise chickens since we had a farm. I think she would have loved to see chickens again—maybe even feed the chickens.
Was I good enough to her when she was with us? I don’t think so. She sacrificed so much for me as a child, yet I sometimes resented the sacrifices I had to make to fit her into our small home. Now, with all my heart I want her back—even for a week. I’d go out and buy a few Rhode Island Red hens and a rooster so she could talk to them. I’d cook her favorite pot roast and bake chocolate brownies for her again. We’d talk all day and then I’d take her to play bingo. I’d rub lotion on her back again, using my lavender lotion that she loved so much – polish her toenails, and dote on her.
My mother deserved it.
Blessings for a simpler life,
- Magic Soup
- Get What You Really Want