Saturday, December 20, 2008

Random thoughts from my childhood

We were pretty poor when I was a child. My dad was 63 when I was born in 1953 and had a sixth-grade education. He wasn't able to find much work at his age and hauled coal to supplement what my mother could make by cleaning houses and taking in laundry. We didn't have an indoor bathroom, although we did have running cold water in the house. Water had to be heated on the stove. The house was the one that my great-grandfather built in 1887 and has always been and still remains in our family. My brother has owned it since 1961.

Mom had a wringer washer and a big rinse tub. And, of course, all the clothes were hung outside to dry, summer or winter. I can remember her starching all those white shirts and nurses uniforms and caps in that blue liquid starch. It was my job to stir it up. I had the easy part. Oh, and she would let me iron the handkerchiefs. The men's were boring white, but I loved the ladies' hankies. No two were the same, and I thought we must be rich, because Mom had hankies just like those rich ladies. They weren't really rich, just a little better off than we were, but it seemed as if they were to me. I still iron shirts in the same order that Mom taught me.
1. Right sleeve, cuff first and spread out.
2. Left sleeve.
3. Yoke.
4. Back.
5. Collar.
6. Left front.
7. Right front.

We had beans every day for supper, except for Sunday when we would have fried or baked chicken. Mom put up vegetables in the summer. She made lots of sauerkraut, pickles, pickled beans and corn. We were of German ancestry, after all. There were also jellies. My favorite was the wild plum. I've always liked jelly and jam that is a little tart.

We had our own milk when the cow was fresh and Mom made her own butter, cottage cheese and buttermilk. I always begged to churn the butter, but she would say, No, you're too little. I couldn't get the rhythm just right. You sang a little rhyme...Come, butter, come. I can't remember the rest. Then she would gather the butter out of the liquid and form it into a ball, making sure to get as much of the whey out as possible. The best part of butter-making day was slathering a fresh slice of bread with the freshly made butter and eating it very slowly to savor each mouthful.

Every Spring, my dad would go to the post office and come home with a box full of baby chicks. Usually a couple hundred. They had to stay in the kitchen by the coal stove to keep warm. So exciting for a little girl!

The brooder house wasn't heated, but when they got too big, Dad would move them all out there and sleep with them on cold nights so they wouldn't freeze to death. All he had to keep the brooder warm was a dim light bulb and his body heat. Can you imagine doing that now? Of course, most of the chicks were destined at eight weeks of age to become meat for the deep freeze. On butchering day, my Aunt Ruth would come over and help with the scalding and plucking after Daddy chopped off their heads. Then she and Mom would dress them. I have no idea what they put them in after that, because there sure were no Ziploc bags back then. She always gave Aunt Ruth some dressed chickens to take home as pay for helping out. The rest became our Sunday dinners for the rest of the year.

Of course, they always kept hens for eggs and we had them every morning for breakfast along with biscuits. They were always fried soft and I would beg Mom to mash them up for me. Sometimes she liked to soft-boil her eggs and I still eat them that way occasionally. Mom made biscuits every day of her life with Dad. When he passed away at 73, she hardly ever made biscuits again. I wonder if she was just tired of making them or they reminded her too much of Dad.

An addendum: I found this churning song from Eastern Kentucky. It isn't the one my mother sang, but I like it.

Churning Song
(as collected in Eastern Kentucky)

Sing to the tune of “Farmer in the Dell”

Churn churn churn, this is churning day,
Til the golden butter comes the dasher must not stay.
Pat pat pat, make it smooth and round,
Now the golden butter’s done won’t you buy a pound.

This hand-painted Delft ornament was brought to me by my dear husband from Amsterdam when he was there on business.

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Amy said...

Oh Susan, I so enjoyed reading this. I could picture each scene in my mind, especially your poor dad sleeping with the young chickens! That must have made for some rough nights!

Fresh butter--so good! I love it too and if I ever get a goat I'll make some of my own once in a while.

Thanks for sharing your memories. I truly enjoyed reading them! And that's a lovely ornament from your dear hubby.

Susan said...

Amy, a million thoughts ran through my head as I was writing. I think this will have to be a continuing project. When I visit my brother next week, I'm going to take some recent photos of the homeplace. Thank you for sharing in my remembrances of things past.

Ruth said...

Oh Susan! Like Amy, I have to open with that. I loved every word of this too. Tears welled up!

I have to mention what I loved especially:

- I did the ironing too, but I did it in a different order: yoke, collar, sleeves front side, back, other front. Yours sounds more scientific! :D

- By the time I came along Mom didn't make preserves any more, but we still had canned plums from the store many suppers. They were my favorite too.

- The rhyme for making butter! Wow. I made butter in kindergarten at school.

- I've picked up chicks at the PO for Don. Nothing like hearing those little peeps!

- My Auntie Sue made biscuits every day of the year too.

The Delft ornament is gorgeous, Delft is one of my favorite things to look at, but I don't have any, and now I have too many collections to start a new one. But I can admire yours.

Thank you, Susan. This was a beautiful way to start my day.

Susan said...

Ruth, thank you for your kind words and observations. It sounds as if we lived very parallel lives. I want to ask my Aunt Marie if she remembers the rest of the churning rhyme. She is 90, but still very sharp of mind.

I don't know that Mom's method of ironing was any more scientific than yours. She just had her way and it was her way or the, well, you know. :)

Don said...

What a nice essay. It made me feel nostalgic for childhood and the way things were in the 50's and early 60's. I didn't have to iron, but certainly remember the sound of the water in the coke bottle water sprinnkler my mom used to sprinkle water on the clothes as she ironed. The smell of clothes being ironed is such a deep memory.

I hope your hen is recovering. I may have lost one to a marauding creature yesterday. I guess winter makes for a "hankering" for fresh chicken.

Susan said...

Don, thank you, and I completely forgot about the pop bottle sprinkler, only ours was a Pepsi bottle! That was one of my jobs when I got a little older. Sprinkling the clothes with just the right amount of water, rolling them up and putting them in a cloth bag to be ironed the next day. Wash day was Monday, ironing day Tuesday. I still tend to do it that way myself. Our customs are ingrained, aren't they?

I'm sorry to hear about your loss. Mine seems to be doing okay. She's doing everything the other hens are doing. Today that mostly consists of complaining that they can't roam the yard. The wind is brutal, so I'm confining them to the pen.

Cindy said...

Wow, you write beautifully! You brought back so many memories from my own childhood that I still have tears in my eyes. We too were quite poor and my Dad always held two jobs to keep us afloat. My grandmothers were also a big part of our family because they lived nearby, and many of the household chores and rituals I recall took place at their houses as well as my own.

It makes me wonder what memories our own children will carry with them and pass on to their children. I find there are so many traditions we have, especially during the holidays, and if I even try to slack on any of them my daughter is quick to remind me.

Wishing you a wonderful holiday season!

Susan said...

Thank you, Cindy! It makes me happy that I touched your heart. It's amazing to me that even though none of us really know each other, we have such kinship through the power of words and pictures.

My only living grandmother lived with us for the first 8 years of my life until she passed away. Most of my memories of her revolve around swinging with her on the porch. She loved to swing and so do I.

Merry Christmas!

Char said...

loved reading many memories entertwined with my parents and then my father's parents (my grandparents). i remember the coke bottle sprinkler at both places and churning butter at my grandmothers....


we were poor growing up to but i don't know that i ever realized it until i was much older.

Deborah said...

I'm learning about your life backwards, Susan. You had already given me an idea of your childhood, but only bits and pieces, but I had a much better notion of what life is like for you now. Now the person I understood you to be is more fully revealed. More of the colours that make up your rainbow.

Reading this is like hearing about my mother's childhood, not of someone who is a contemporary of mine, and I found it very moving. You said all these things so matter-of-factly, without complaint, without any sense of having gone without or been deprived. And why would you? You had enough to eat (I guess) and didn't miss what you didn't know. You had love. You had fun. You learned some really important lessons, which obviously have stuck with you to this day.

I couldn't being to tell such a compelling story of my childhood. Thanks for pointing the way to this post - I'm glad to know you better.