Hands on her wide hips, my grandmother stated, proudly, that on her farm she had “more land than the eye could take in.” How many acres those were, I don’t know.
How a woman, then in her 60s, labored 16 hours a day as she did, I still do not know. She was rarely in the house, and when she was, she was dusting, scrubbing, disinfecting, swatting flies, washing and starching and ironing and then baking all of our bread, pies, cakes, canning and pickling and preserving and then tatting, embroidering, crocheting.
When I’m talking about my grandmother and her farm, people sometimes ask me how I remember this so clearly, given that I was three and a half when I went there and almost six when I left. I say I was like someone set down in a Bible story where every event seems about to burst into a moral and every breeze is a wind of prophecy. I point out how alone I was, no children to play with and my mother and father gone. My only human companions were this old woman and her hired hands.
Her house sat on a rise that declined toward the gravel county road. Behind the house, outbuildings leaned in varying stages of repair and disrepair. A wood-framed barn held stalls for the fawn-colored Jerseys and black-and-white Holsteins that my grandmother and the hands, Bushels and Buckles, milked early morning and late afternoon. A ladder led to the hayloft above the stalls. I never once went there. You could break your neck. Be, my grandmother said, “crippled for life.”
Between back porch door and barn was the well house, where the pump pounded and surged, strong and steady as an athlete’s heart. The well water tasted like stone would taste if you chewed it.
A concrete-block milk house stood near the barn. In the milk house my grandmother separated milk and poured it into stainless steel jugs for the dairy truck that, daily, picked up filled jugs and left off empties. She kept some of the milk for us and some for the barn cats.
To the right of the barn was the hen house. Next door to the hen house stood the brooder house, where baby chicks were let out when they arrived, by mail, in boxes. You could hear the chicks peep in the boxes. And next door to the brooder house, inside a wire fence, was a shack where cockerels were fattened for market and fried chicken dinners.
One thing you learned on the farm was that chickens would not love you. All they wanted was the corn you scattered. If they thought anything about you it was that you stole their eggs. I don’t think they even thought that much.
Spring and summer, when you stretched out on prickly grass, you knew grass didn’t care about you either. Grass had a life all its own, trying to go to seed and make more of itself. The grass didn’t flinch when the cows left hoof prints. Nothing cared, not the hens, cows, the mule, alfalfa. Everything went about its business growing itself. Then my grandmother and Bushels and Buckles came along and turned it, animal or vegetable, to food. This hardened your heart.
Behind the barn, Bushels and Buckles lived in a windowless bunkhouse. My grandmother hired the two old men from the county poorhouse. They spit tobacco on the ground near their boots, chewed cigar stubs and orange rat cheese, the latter kept in the bib pocket of their overalls. In winter they layered on underwear; over their underwear and under overalls, they wore plaid flannel shirts. Frayed long-john sleeves stuck out below the shirt cuffs. They tucked their overall legs into unfastened rubber galoshes; the galoshes’ metal fasteners clacked with each step the two men took. You could tell where they’d been by the smell.
My grandmother traded a hog to a house painter from town who slapped white paint on the house. In exchange for a half-dozen laying hens, he also calcimined the chicken house. My grandmother said she got one over on him, those hens’ laying days were done. When my grandmother got one over on somebody, you should have heard her laugh. She threw back her big head and opened wide her big round mouth and clacked together her false teeth and cackled.
My grandmother tacked up a satin Blue Star pennant, a blue star against white satin, in the front window. You got one blue star for each son or daughter serving in the armed forces. If your son or daughter died, you took down your blue star and draped a Gold Star banner over your window and you wore a gold star lapel pin; the dead fighter’s mother was called a Gold Star Mother.
We drove the pickup to town on Saturdays to sell eggs and buy supplies. My grandmother cruised residential streets. She said she didn’t care how much goddam gas we wasted, she wanted to count gold stars. She wasn’t Catholic, but when she saw a gold star, she took a hand off the steering wheel, crossed herself, and said, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Uncle Carl was 41 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He had never married. Given his age and that he was a teacher of organ in a state college, the Navy made him a chaplain’s assistant, as they did many apparently homosexual men. Uncle Carl was homosexual, although he hid his homosexuality. He had his mother’s stocky German body, a strong chin, large blue eyes, and a flirtatious manner with both men and women. Single women invited him for dinners and to concerts and parties. He accepted their invitations, and then afterward, talking with homosexual male friends, he made fun of the women, their excessive use of cosmetics and perfume, coy mannerisms. Sometimes he spoke cruelly, mentioning their unpleasant female odors, terrifying ardor, attempts to kiss him, their desperation to catch “anything in pants.”