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Down on the farm

Down on the farm
Out of the woods.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Minute at the End of Love

Robby swept the light bulbs right off the dining table  and growled at me when I came in. I hung onto a chair, buggy eyed and scared by this odd behavior. Robby's eyes were red like from crying, but big brothers give piggy back rides, they never get mad and never, ever ever ever cry. His mother shushed him, saying something about little girls not being to blame for what big people did.
I had been at the Miller's house for two days. That wasn't unusual, Susie was my very best friend in the whole world. In the first week of the first grade she pulled me off the school steps and into the game she was playing. Her whole name was Brenda Sue Millard and she was right in the middle of the family. Her big sister, Letha was a senior in high school, Robby was 14, Brenda Sue was 8, then Billy who was 5 and Patsy who was 3. I liked to pretend that the Millards were my own family. Robby was the perfect big brother and I thought he liked me. The idea of Robby hating me made my tummy roll. I ran into the bathroom to throw up.   Susie followed me in. Accustomed to sick siblings she wiped my face with a wash cloth and patted my back, shushing, patting  and tsking me.
When we returned the glass was cleaned up and Robby had gone, to work, to practice, to somewhere else. Outside with the neighborhood kids we raced around the yard playing cowboys and rustlers and Indians. The morning scare was forgotten for the time being.  Mom picked me up just as we were starting to have fun.
A few weeks later my parents announced that we were moving again. We were going to Minnesota, two whole states away on the map. Mrs. Watson showed us on the big pull down map. She even drew a line along the road leading away from home so we could see how far it was. On the last day of third grade, Mrs. Watson, the best teacher ever in the whole wide world, pronounced that Susie and I were "best friends forever", but it didn't help. I wanted to stay, never to move again.
I was much older before I learned that my father's affair with a Millard sister in law had led to the suicide of a cousin just a year older than Robby the night before the light bulbs smashed on the dining room floor.
Sometimes we  get to understand what happens, just as the grownups tell us we will.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

4th of July Old Style

In our little town the 4th of July was a very big deal. The Parade formed behind Court House Square, looped around, and proceeded past our house, past the church, and marched the entire length of Pleasant Ave. to where the street dead ended at the park. The Mayor lead the way in a convertible borrowed from whichever dealership had the biggest, brightest and shiniest car to loan. A big hand painted sign hung on the car door told which entrepreneur lent his best. Next came the Homecoming Queen and her court, in another borrowed vehicle, followed closely by the High School Marching Band. The Sheriff rode his big black horse, his son was mounted on a prancing pony and behind them followed the boys from the farms and ranches surrounding the town. All tossed hard candies and suckers from bags hanging from the pommel of the saddles. Nest the 4 H winners lead their prize winning calves, goat kids, lambs, or carried the hen, bunny or goose that had taken the fair by storm. The clowns followed with pooper scoopers and silly antics. The Shriners rode bicycles in intricate patterns they practiced all year, weaving in, out, round and back, making the crowds gasp at the near misses.  Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts rode hay wagons, waving and singing camp songs.  A local Barbershop Quartet sat in the back of a pick-up truck singing SWEET ADELINE.
That was the official parade and after that anyone and everyone could join in. Tots on trikes, boys bashing garbage can lids, majorette wannabees, all proudly strutted those 10 blocks. Families watching from their front porches would fall in behind pulling Radio Flyer wagons carrying picnic baskets, blankets and babies, ready for the speeches, the games, music and the booths selling cookies, pies, home made ice cream, and sweet tea, all for sweet charity. Darkness brought the fireworks, OOOOOOOOOOOOOhhhhhh! AAAAAAAAAAAAhhhhh. Then the long trudge home, hot, sweaty, sunburnt, tired, proud and happy.....we were the USA. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Missouri Home

The old road from Aurora, through the outskirts of Springfield, led past the WigWam Motel, out and across the cricks, through the crags, bluffs and and over the hills.  Red and gold in the fall, paynes' gray, dun, and dull black in winter, forest green on hunter green on olive green in summer and a miracle of dogwood, ground roses and apple green in spring.  About three quarters of the way to Union, in the midst of towering pines and overwhelming cliffs a weathered, hand painted board was impaled half way up a preposterous hill. It read "hot biskits and honey". At the top of the hill an ancient black iron stove sagged on three legs outside of a rickety old cabin.  No one ever appeared at the sound of our motor. No dog lounged on the falling porch, no chickens scratched about the yard and no granny woman pulled "biskits" from the rusty oven.  Daddy always promised that "next time" we would stop and climb to the top of the ridge.  We never did.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Mary Elizabeth's Great Adventure

My paternal grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Plumlee Downs was a woman who knew her own mind. What was right was right. God was her Father, Jesus was her Savior, and the Bible was her guide. These facts didn't change because her husband abandoned her. She gave up her beloved spot on the Board of Directors of St. Elizabeth Hospital in East St. Louis, her church and her dream job as high school English teacher.  She sold the elegant, and lovingly polished furniture, and left the grand old apartment building to head west.
At least one brother and two sisters lived in the area in and around Bozeman, Montana. Brother Clinton and his wife ran a motel just outside of Yellowstone Park during the summer months. They owned a house in Bozeman, but in the winter months they ran a motel and lived on a nut farm north of Los Angeles about 60 miles. Sister Sara owned a meat market/neighborhood grocery store. She and her two sons lived behind the store in a tiny apartment, not much more than a kitchen with two bedrooms and a bathroom. Sister Laura lived in Helena. They quickly closed ranks around their beloved baby sister. During the winter, while Clinton was in California, Mary Elizabeth stayed in the Bozeman house, got her Montana teacher's license and applied for work. No local jobs were open.
Then she learned that the mining companies badly needed teachers due to new legislation requiring them to provide one teacher for every thirteen children living in the mine village. Transportation, housing, and food supplies were included along with a salary higher than most teachers ever saw in a lifetime. However, only single women under the age of fifty need apply.  Grandma was over 50, married and planning to stay that way, but evidently figured they didn't need to know all that. She was hired.
Her first job was at the Mike Horse Mine and she loved to tell the story of how the mine was discovered.
In 1890 a miner, Joseph Hartmiller and his horse Mike, were out prospecting along Beartrap Creek. Old Mike was startled by a rattler and began to buck. As he kicked he struck a stone and uncovered a vein of ore. The prospector made his fortune but never forgot it was the horse that found the mine, and Mike Horse lived out his days in green pastures.
 I do not believe she was their first teacher, but was certainly their last. She taught all the children from kindergarten through ninth grade. She was proudest when one of "her" children went on to high school.
 When the mine shut down, she collected and redistributed the books stamped Mike Horse Mine School and moved on to another mine to teach.
ME and Grandpa Downs never shared a home again, although they traveled together during summer vacation and for holidays. Grandpa died of an overdose of barbiturates in about 1967. Grandma lived well into her 90s.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015


At the age of 6 I began learning to use the Dewey Decimal System from the man who had been Head Librarian for the East St. Louis, Illinois Library System. 
I didn't understand or even consider why Grandpa, whose home was a beautiful 4 bedroom, oak 
paneled apartment in East St. Louis, IL, suddenly become a fixture in the spare bedroom in our house in Aurora, MO. One day Grandpa simply came to stay, bringing more books than clothing. 
Whatever he was reading he shared with me. His mormally dry crackly voice became rich and lustrous when reading aloud. It didn't matter that I was 6 and he was 60, we shared a loved of the story. Through the constant cigarette haze of his chain smoking, I absorbed carcinogens along with tales he read to me. Paragraphs and epics of regular people doing astounding things as well as odes, and epics of  heroes, kings, emperors, and of course, the United States of America. Did I understand everything he read to me? No, but as a natural teacher, he stretched my comprehension, my vocabulary, as well as my imagination to the max. 
He planned to write the definitive book on American presidents, and voraciously collected tales, sentences, mind pictures to include in his book. The research consumed him. The walk to the library was only 4 or 5 blocks, but that is not an easy distance for a man who'd lost his right leg to tuberculosis when he was 12. Usually, rather than come home for lunch, he simply read through the entire day, making copious notes. At first it was my job to walk to the library and bring him home for dinner. On Saturdays and holidays, he sometimes took me with him as his "research assistant". 
Smoking was allowed in the library then, but neither food nor drink could come through the doors. The librarians often slipped him a secret cup of coffee, but I survived on the water fountain and nothing else, as it is a well known fact that small hands spill. These hands were checked frequently by the librarians, and I was often sent to the restroom to wash them when they became  begrimed by the contact with old books. To this day I clean my hands before reading out of respect for these fonts of knowledge, (pun intended).  I do not crack the "spine" of a book, not even a paperback, nor do I "dog ear" pages.  I use proper book marks, or little rips of scrap paper, even occasionally a paperclip. 
It was more than 40 years before I learned that one day Grandpa had gone to the store for cigarettes, and simply disappeared. He was gone for months, leaving Grandma worried and heartsick. Eventually, she sold the grand apartment, and went to live in Montana with her sister. And that is story for another day. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Safe in His Arms.

 I was reading a MITFORD book in which Father Tim is recalling a stern and cold father who yet shared a wonderful moment with his son on Christmas Eve. I wanted to have such a memory of my own, to have and hold onto, shoving all the rest away.
I don't often write about my father except in passing. He was there, in my early life. His wishes and wants trumped all but our most basic needs. Shelter was provided by the church, including most but 
not all utilities.  Mama grew and canned most of our own food. Meat was usually provided by farming parishioners. We ate a lot of squirrel, rabbit, eggs, bacon, and chicken. Pork, beef and ham were holiday foods. I never ate a steak that didn't require pounding to a fare-thee-well until I was a grown woman. SOS was a staple in our home....made with one six ounce jar of chipped beef for the three of us. Daddy got most of it, Mom and I each got a sliver.  
We were decently clothed more due to my Grandmother and aunts than from his paycheck. My mother's cleverness with a needle mended many an outfit made to fit one much larger than I. Purchase of  a few yards of new fabric for clothing happened at the beginning of the school year and never seemed to stretch to anything new for Mama. One fall Mama and I each got a brand new store bought "Storm Coat". I think Grandma Downs saw what we had been wearing and took charge. 
But I am doing what I didn't want to do. I am recalling all the things that were wrong. Let me see if I can remember....the time he took me to the YWCA Father/Daughter dance...and asked loudly if anyone could believe he was old enough to have "one that age".  On a particularly bad hair day, saying as we were headed out to dinner "So, is that how the girls are wearing their hair, now?" Remarking sorrowfully to a friend, "I had hoped to raise a surgeon, but the best I can hope for is a librarian." I was doomed to be a disappointment. Curly, bushy hair, skinny, gawky, graceless figure, with no charm or gift of gab. He wanted those curls to be Shirley Temples, he wanted a daughter who danced, sang, played ball, or at least some kind of sport.  I could read. Who cared. Not him. 
The only praises I recall are public ones that told the world what a great guy he was. I don't remember a single bedtime story. I don't recall a single cuddle that wasn't public. Although by the time I was noticing, he was denying that he was old enough to be my father. 
The only time I remember having his full and absolute approval, I was 2 or 3 years old. We were in San Antonio, TX, at an amusement park. Against mama's  better judgement, Daddy took me on the roller coaster. Each time we finished a ride I begged to go again. I do not know how many times we rode, certainly three or more, before he tired of it.  I did not.  I wanted to go fly some more, with my daddy, holding me safe and tight and approving. There it is. That feeling. The reason I still love to ride long and fast and high.  Laughing in my daddy's arms. 

Monday, April 27, 2015


We were sitting behind two couples in church Easter Sunday. They were at least my age, maybe older, all had
short gray hair still twisted up at the crown from the Lazy Boy. The women wore pedal pushers with  sweaters, and
sturdy, flat podiatrist prescribed sandals. Both men wore khakis and a cotton shirt, with Keds. My husband
is dressed similarly. I check my hair. It seems to be laying flat. So is Dick's. I smooth it down just to be sure and he
gives me that "huh?" look.
Two rows up and one over a black woman of our age group is elegant in hat, silky suit and
sensible heels. Dotted around the sanctuary like orchids amongst peanut vines are others in their Easter finery.
Our few contemporary black men are wearing suits, collared shirts and ties with good leather shoes.
My brain went into oddity overdrive and I began a mental poll of the congregation.
Nearly all the white women of my daughter's age (fiftish) wear jeans or clam diggers, tees or tanks and sandals with a moderate heel. Their hair is long, worn pony tailed or loose. Most of our black sisters in this age group are dressed in the cutest short swishy skirts,  astoundingly high platform shoes, and wonderfully intricate hair dos. The men are wearing vests, with dark slacks, and collared shirts, black or pink seem to be the prevailing color today.
The younger moms, both black and white, wear simple dresses, slacks or knee length shorts, and flat shoes appropriate for child chasing. Their hair is sensible and easy care with an occasional baby wrought twist.  The fathers are in slacks, tennies, polo shirts, no tie.
Except for a few, the teens and school aged kids are wearing cut offs, tee shirts, and sandals or tennies. Those who are dressed up seem ready to declare rebellion.
Toddler boys scoot happily around our legs in little suits, shirts and tiny ties. The toddler girls are without exception dressed to the nines, in starchy petticoats, pastel pinafores or sundresses suitable for a sunny Easter in Florida. In a few years they'll be in cut offs, but hopefully still in church.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The $25 ARK

We had moved to a small town in southwest Florida to be near my husband's elderly mother.
My mother and our 6 year old grandson, Sam, moved with us.  In rapid succession my mother, who was Sammy's best friend and caregiver died, and then Dick's mom died following a short illness.
We were reeling and confused, rocked to our foundations. We were trying to make a home,
find jobs, grieve, and be good parents, when one of Sam's teachers invited us to Edgewater United Methodist Church. Many of Sam's school friends attended there, people remembered us and included us. We had a church home.
That was wonderful, but we needed paying jobs. During the illnesses of our mothers, our savings had dropped drastically and neither of us was eligible for Social Security. Sam went on Florida Healthy Kids, and got free lunches at school.
 No one in either of our families had ever had to ask assistance, even during the Great Depression. Then we rediscovered football.
In Charlotte County Pop Warner is total participation. Everyone attends the games. The kids
from the high schools attend because they learned the game with Pop Warner. The Cheerleaders attend because they learned to cheer with Pop Warner. Their families go because they always had.
We registered Sam for Pop Warner football and became part of that community. Many of
our church friends were involved in coaching, playing and cheer squad. It was an enlarged family.
We took turns driving Sam and his friends to practice while Dick worked toward his real estate license. The football fields for Pop Warner are better than some schools I attended. Money to support the fields and the teams was raised by holding a raffle. They cost $25 and night after night I fended off the football moms saying I had no money with me.  But on one of Dick's nights, he pulled out his wallet and paid up.
I exploded. Our bank account is down to 3 very low digits and how could you be so foolish
and what did you think you were doing and all those accusations came out of my angry
My anger sizzled for weeks. I am pretty sure it festered everything I touched. Then,
one night at Bible study, friends at our new church prayed with me for peace and the anger left. We hadn't starved yet, we had a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and even decent cars to drive. We were blessed and Dick was studying for his real estate exam.
The day of the raffle drawing Dick came home stunned and bemused, holding the
winning ticket. He was now the owner of a big, beautiful boat contributed by a Marina
owner whose son played on Sam's team.
The generous contributor agreed to keep the boat on his lot and sell it for us. May God bless that good and decent man.
The proceeds from the sale supported us for nearly nine months while Dick learned the
business of real estate.
My family was saved by a $25 boat.