“Ew Sawyer! You smell!! That’s disgusting!”
I yelped nearly gagging.
Linda and Jeannie weren’t the only wives to laugh when Sawyer sneaked up behind me and grabbed me in a big, sweaty hug.
“Awww … That’s just the smell of good, hard work.”
I backed away holding my nose. “I don’t care what it is the smell of, go take that shirt off and throw it over the fence and then hose off. What have you been doing?! How can you stand yourself?”
Sawyer laughed then admitted, “It ain’t easy. Can you bring me another t-shirt? I gotta get back. I just came from the dump, dropping off a deep freeze that had you don’t even want to know what in it that had sat for weeks with no power. Maggots and …”
Delly, Jeannie, and Cindy all barked, “Sawyer!”
“Oh … sorry. Anyway I’m gonna try and make one more run before dark. We’re behind with the hauling because of the rain last several days but we’ve made good time otherwise.” He turned to Aunt Pearl and asked, “Where’s Aunt Suzanne? Uncle Derwint wanted me to give something to her.”
“I’m right here,” the woman in question said coming out onto the porch while she wiped her hands on a red and white checkered kitchen towel. “What’s that man found at the dump this time?”
Sawyer grinned and said, “A couple of quilting frames for Docia … or that’s what he says they are. Someone had just thrown them into one of the dumpsters and the guys didn’t care if we took them out.”
“Quilting frames?! Someone honestly threw quilting frames into a dumpster? Had to be a man,” she said in disgust. “All the pieces for them there?”
“They just need a couple of wing nuts is all he said and they’d be good as new. One is small and the other is a great big ol’ thing so I’ll need to put it in the truck for you.”
That was our excitement for the day and after Sawyer left everyone started asking me what all he’d found at the old houses. Not knowing exactly what to let out I told them, “You saw him take that stuff into the barn earlier. I guess Gramps wanted him to put it there temporarily. Burt is taking the antiques and stuff in payment for the job, the only cash coming in that I know of is the property owner is picking up the fuel costs. Beyond that I really don’t know. Gramps might though.”
Cindy muttered, “Sawyer has all the luck.”
Linda rolled her eyes. “Tommy says Sawyer makes his luck. Isn’t that right Kay-Lee?”
I shrugged with my hands deep in a bowl of plums I was peeling. “Hmmm … I’m not sure I would call it luck. I think it might be that providential stuff that Brother Don is always talking about. God sets opportunities before us and it is our choice whether we take advantage of them or not. God isn’t going to knock us upside the head to make us see things or twist our arm to do something when we see the chance before us.” I sighed. “I could have run from the chance to come up here that morning that Uncle Mark and Tommy showed up at the Brensers. If I hadn’t taken the chance … I don’t really know where I’d be right now. It is scary to think about.”
Mrs. Penny said, “Then don’t think about it. You are up here now and I’ll tell you the honest truth. I wasn’t sure what to make of it myself but you and Sawyer seem to be doing real well. Let the rest of it go. You can waste a lot of time wondering about might have been’s and could be’s … and we ain’t got time to waste. I need those plums in the next few minutes if I’m going to get this last batch of Delicious fixed up before I need to start packing up. Delly? What say you?”
Delly, suffering from a sudden and extreme bought of morning, noon, and night sickness sat in a chair under a tree with her eyes closed. “Whatever you say is fine with me.”
“Uh huh. Someone fetch that girl another cup of ginger tea or she’s gonna stay that green color ‘til Christmas.”
Sawyer didn’t get back until the others had left to go home to fix supper for their families. All of us participating in these canning days were really getting a lot accomplished. We had eight yard stoves going outside, all of which fit a seven-quart jar pressure canner or a large boiling-water-bath canner, then the large wood stove inside holds two or three of the giant All-American pressure canners that some of the aunts own and those hold up to nineteen quart jars or thirty-two pints at a time each. That’s a lot of prep to fill those jars so we have plenty of work keeping up when a pressure canner or pot comes off the flame. It is also a bear to keep the bottom of the cookers clean since we are cooking over wood but Cindy’s mom showed me a trick with moss, sand, and dishwashing liquid and I’ve yet to fail to clean the soot off with that technique. Makes a horrible mess but better than letting it get worse and worse until it wouldn’t clean off.
Sawyer simply drove his truck into the barn and locked everything in. When he came into the house to clean up for his own late supper he said, “Tommy is coming over in the morning to help me unload. There’s a couple of cabinet units on there that I can’t get off by myself. And tomorrow afternoon I’m going to bring some stuff I want to put here in the house. Look, you think you could use a treadle sewing machine?”
“I … I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it. Why?”
“I’ve been listening to the aunts talk I guess … or maybe it was Libby when she brought Uncle Junior some of his tools. I don’t think you’ve seen much of her, if any at all. She’s Aunt Pearl’s sister’s daughter. Her mother died of cancer when she was real young and Libby spent a lot of time with Aunt Pearl and Uncle Junior until her dad remarried. She’s … well you’ll hear it anyway … her husband has been acting crazy lately and she and the kids are moving in until she can decide what to do. Kenny is – or was – a good guy but got laid off last year and it has been all downhill since. Everyone is trying to be understanding but his personality has really changed and yesterday he hit Libby; then after he realized what he done he almost killed himself. He’s up at the state hospital for a couple of days and then after that he’s moving in with his parents until he … if he … gets straightened out.”
“Well at least she has the sense to get the kids out of that. How old are they?”
“I don’t know … little but not babies but not old enough for school either. And yeah, that’s pretty much why she moved out. She’s a big girl and laid Kenny out with a skillet after he hit her and then started acting crazy; then she took the kids and ran. If it was just her she said she’d probably move back and try and help him but right now she has to put the kids first. Don’t get me wrong, I got cut a lot of slack not that long ago, dug a hole for myself so deep I shouldn’t have been able to get out, but what Kenny is doing … I don’t know, something just ain’t cool. Any man that would hit a woman just ain’t right in the head. Doubt if he’ll come around here but if he does you don’t spend any time with him until I’ve checked him out. You hear?”
I nodded. “But what are the aunts saying about treadle sewing machines?”
“Not treadles specifically but how they’re all wondering and worrying how they are going to get things done if they start having brown outs like they are threatening to start the next couple of months. And that’s about the time it normally starts getting good and cold during the day. People are beginning to worry about how they are going to cook and heat their houses. And just do basic stuff like wash clothes, take showers, and anything that takes power.”
“I … I know we’ve talked about it ourselves. We’ve got that hand pump in the well house that you finally got to work after you fixed the plunger thing down in the pipe. We figured out some workarounds but I guess I just didn’t think to ask how the others plan on doing stuff.”
“I haven’t asked either. It’s enough to take care of my own business. I do know that Uncle James and Uncle Carl are putting hand pumps at all the houses that they’ll work on – some of the wells are too deep for a hand pump and on those they are putting some kind of little bucket that fits down in the well casing. But, that takes time and money and right now the priority still has to be the field crops. As a matter of fact I gotta hurry up and finish these houses so that I can get back to helping them. Even one person out of the rotation creates a lot of extra work for everyone else. But I was talking with Gramps and he’s actually relieved Burt isn’t taking more than he is. I didn’t realize it but some of the cousins and wives are almost camping out in their places. Seems they got so far and either run out of steam or money or both and they’re having a hard time coming up with more of either to get any further. And while that might not be my problem per se …”
‘I know. Gramps has expectations.”
“He sure does. So if there is anything in these piles I start bringing in that you want you better get it first before someone else spots it and calls dibs.”
“Something you want already?”
Explaining I told him, “Those upstairs rooms don’t have closets … the center ones don’t have any way to heat or cool them either so I don’t know if they can even be used as bedrooms … but they make good storage rooms. If you see book cases or shelving …”
“Sure, I get it, and I actually thought of the same thing. And I know for a fact there’s a corner cabinet that you might like for that weird dead end at the top of the stairs right before you go up to the attic door. I’ll get that stuff brought in ‘cause I can do it using a dolly … or I’ll dismantle it, take it up in pieces, and then reassemble it. And here’s another thing … you got any idea how many more jars you might want? There’s jars all over the cotton pickin’ place at both houses but they are nasty. I haven’t told anyone about them yet … just been setting them in boxes and crates and putting them out in the sheds … but I’d like to see you and Delly get the pick of them before I turn them over to Aunt Pearl.”
“But won’t she …?”
“Yeah, she will and that’s why I want to take out yours and Delly’s off the top before I let Aunt Pearl know about the rest of them. Delly still has all of Mom’s down in the basement so it’s not like she doesn’t have any but if things go the way that they are looking I want her to have more and I want them to be from me.”
“Then give them all to her.”
“No. She doesn’t need them all. When I say she has Mom’s you probably don’t realize how many that is. I didn’t eat a store bought can of food until after Mom died. I mean none of our stuff was store-bought. Mom had a lot of food allergies so she had to do everything from scratch. I never knew there was anything strange about it until I was half way through grade school.”
“There isn’t anything strange about it.”
He gave me a kiss and then said, “You got what you want taken down to the cellar marked off? I wanna get that done before I eat my supper. I have a feeling after I eat I ain’t gonna be worth much.”
“Oh Sawyer, I hate that you have to do your work and then come down and …”
“Don’t start that again. That’s not even worth bringing up. And I might have an idea to fix some of that but I don’t have time to do it right now.”
“Like you need more work.”
Sawyer snorted half a laugh. “Better to make hay while the sun shines … and no don’t ask me what that means exactly, it is just something Uncle Forrester used to say when I was a boy. But I’m thinking if I can rig up a pulley system that I could build you a dumb waiter. You know what that is?”
“Actually I do. We studied them when we were working on a unit on the history of the hotel industry. Staff weren’t supposed to use hotel elevators, they were reserved for guests, unless the hotel was big enough to have a maintenance elevator on the back of the building. To move stuff between floors, like for room service, they had these mini elevators that could be worked by cranks or later using electricity. You know … that might really work if … oh Sawyer you’re brilliant!”
“Welllll I wouldn’t go that far, and don’t get your hopes up, but maybe I can get it figured out when some of this other work slows down. I’m certainly going to be on the lookout for pulley wheels and cable wire.”
While Sawyer carried down all of the jars that were ours from the last two days of canning I pulled out a surprise. Burt Jr. and I had been practicing shooting wrist rockets again when suddenly a big rabbit shot out of the tall grass in the orchard. Burt Jr. got him with the first shot but he had to get him again because he tried to hop drunkenly away. We brought the rabbit back and Mrs. Carmichael gave us all a lesson in cooking rabbit. I had intended on making a chicken pie for supper but asked her if there was such a thing as a rabbit pie and by the time the aunts and other ladies were all finished discussing the topic I had enough recipes to start a new section in my recipe card file.
When I put the pie on the table I didn’t say anything but Sawyer must have sensed something ‘cause he asked, “You haven’t caught Cutter’s problem have you?”
“Why I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“Uh huh. Give it up Kay-Lee, you lie terrible.”
I can’t tell a joke either but by the time I was through embellishing the story of the rabbit and Mrs. Carmichael explaining how to skin and prepare rabbit and how she had a few of the wives running for the bushes … and not all of them pregnant either … Sawyer was laughing so hard he almost couldn’t eat.
“I wish I could have seen that. Was Delly one of the ones that went hurling?”
“Actually no. She said it was too much effort to move and so long as she didn’t have to see it or smell it then it was no big deal.”
“Oh man, now I really wished I had a seen it.”
“Do you eat a lot of stuff like that? Wild meat I mean? Because I’ll cook it if it is something you like. It sounds interesting and a heck of a lot better than having to pay for something at the grocery store.”
“Welllll, I can’t say I’ve ever eaten it on a regular basis unless we were out camping and hunting for a few days at a time but I won’t turn my nose up at it. I guess even farmers’ wives can get where they prefer to buy stuff at the store already butchered than having to fix it from the fur or hoof. But that’s something else Gramps has been talking about that I haven’t known quite how to bring up.”
“What? Did I do something wrong?”
“No and will you stop letting that be your first worry? It isn’t just you anyway, but he mentioned you specifically. What would you think … or should I say do you think you would be able … to manage your own flock of chickens? There’s a surplus of roosters right now and they’re starting to get on each other’s nerves. Rather than culling them Gramps would like to see everyone – or as many as can be trusted – have their own flock. Or maybe you’d prefer a hutch of rabbits since you seemed to do so well with this one today.”
I thought about it. “Do chickens bite like rabbits? I read some place that rabbits aren’t all fluffy and nice … they’ve got teeth for a reason.”
Well by the time Sawyer finished picking himself up off the floor where he’d fallen from his chair laughing he explained that yes, chickens pecked pretty regular but they don’t bite or pinch. I said then that I’d prefer to try chickens first and Sawyer snickered and said, “The non-biting variety, right?”
Ignoring him because I knew there wasn’t a mean bone in his body when it came to me I said, “I’m only going to make you laugh more when I tell you I wished chickens gave both eggs and milk.”
Yep. He started laughing again but finally asked me why and I told him, “I use a lot of milk in my cooking and I’m going through the canned and powdered milk faster than I like. And then I’d love to try and make stuff like cottage cheese and ricotta since you like lasagna so much. And other kinds of cheeses too but those first because I can make that queso blanco that I fried the other night with powdered milk that you nearly ate so much of you got a belly ache.”
“Then don’t cook so good and I won’t eat like that.” He stopped for a moment thinking and then said, “I tell you if we had fresh milk I bet I could drink a gallon of it a day by myself. Toby used to fill my thermos up with the previous night’s milkings every morning before school. God that was some good stuff. But Honey, a cow is nothing to fool with. They can kick, they’re expensive to keep, and you have to keep them freshened or there are going to be long stretches when they’re dry … don’t give milk.”
“I know what that means. Cindy explained it when I said something about a cow today.”
“Was she being snotty about it? She can be. I don’t want her hurting your feelings or making fun of you because you don’t know things she would know since she’s a farm girl.”
“Oh I know she can be but I think I know how to approach her now. She’s actually pretty smart and I know she brought two cows when she married Davis. When she figured out I was serious about wanting to know she settled right down and explained how it all worked. I asked her if she made cheese and she said she didn’t yet because it was a lot of work but that she planned on it later. She does skim the cream and make fresh butter. Mmmmm … fresh butter. At school in H&C we used to get fresh butter from a local dairy that donated it to our program but then those stupid rules kicked in and we had to buy everything from the store pre-packaged.” I sighed. “Besides, I better practice on chickens first. I’m good at playing catch up when it comes to learning new stuff but I wouldn’t want to risk the life and health of something living like a cow until I’m sure I’m up for taking care of animals.”
“Harley and Davey love you.”
“Harley and Davey are part pig and only love me because I’ve learned to feed them. They know if they knock me down they don’t get fed so they’ve learned to use manners.”
“And you’re the only one they use those manners with. You know those two mangy things bit me on the butt?!”
“You shouldn’t have put those meat sticks in your back pocket. It was too much temptation.”
“Obviously I am not going to get any sympathy out of you tonight.”
“You’ll get plenty of sympathy from me but until I get these dishes done you’re gonna have to wait for me to kiss it and make it better.”
Suddenly the dishes started flying off the table and into the sudsy water.
The next day after Tommy came and went and Sawyer left with him I discovered I had most of the day to myself and I decided to use the time to work on some stuff that Aunt Suzanne and Aunt Nel told me were ready to be picked. First off I picked figs by the bucket full. There had been a fig tree in the school garden so I knew what to do with fresh figs but the aunts had all given me some good ideas on how to preserve them. I took a short and careful walk to the slow moving creek that ran not too far from the house and cut bunches of elderberries and brought them back and froze them until I could get to them. When I’d had enough of that I used a rake to gather butternuts, fighting the squirrels for them every step of the way.
Watching the demented tree demons scramble around stealing from piles of nuts as fast as I could rake them together reminded me of some of the discussions that had gone on at canning day. Mrs. Penny and Mrs. Carmichael and Cindy’s mother kept referring to “signs and portends” of a bad winter on the way. When I wanted to know what they meant you could hear the groans of the younger wives. I told Linda later that I hadn’t meant anything bad by it but had been curious why they were so sure.
“Just ignore ‘em. I swear some of them act like they are just too good to poop.”
“Well it’s true. Just because older folks believe in stuff they don’t doesn’t mean it might not be true. Mom … well she up and called me and I was so scared, I thought … thought Dad had …” She stopped scrunched up her face and whispered, “Put it in a box.” Then she said, “It wasn’t Dad. She’d just seen several woodpeckers sharing a tree and swears up and down that it means a real hard winter is coming. Apparently woodpeckers don’t share too well and for more than two of them to be banging around on the same tree is some kind of warning. She wanted me to be sure and waterproof my winter shoes because she thinks this winter is going to be a bad one.”
Well sociable woodpeckers isn’t the only sign that I’d heard about. Another one was how thick the cornhusks were this year. I’d noticed that the husks were tougher but just figured it was the difference between getting corn from the store versus getting it straight from the field but apparently not. Aunt Nel swore it was a sign of bad things to come. Aunt Suzanne mentioned she’d been seeing halos around the moon and that her mother and grandmother had always said that was a sure sign of a hard winter as well.
I was sweating to get those nuts but decided to leave some for the squirrels just in case all of those old wives’ tales had some basis in fact.
After that I gathered wild greens, dug wild leek bulbs, dug parsnips, and dug burdock until I was just plain tired of digging. I went back to picking and got about six quarts of firethorn berries to make jelly with, about the same in serviceberries for the same purpose, cut more sumac drupes, and then topped the day off by picking pawpaws. I knew what they were because the Brensers had one in their backyard and old Mrs. Brenser used to entertain herself by telling me all the ways she and her sisters used to fix them when they were girls. The flowers of the pawpaw tree had been really pretty when they bloomed but the fruits were frankly just plain ugly. They looked like stunted bananas if you looked at them a certain way and as it goes they also kinda taste like bananas to most people. To me they just taste different with the texture of a banana once you dug out the big black seeds in them. I planned on making papaw preserves but for the time being all I did was puree them and freeze the pulp so I could do whatever I wanted with it later.
That’s how I had to do things and I hope it doesn’t wind up biting me on the butt. I pick on my good days and prepare stuff and put it in the frig or freezer until I can get to it on the days when my leg is saying I need to stay closer to the house. The bad days are fewer and further apart now that Sawyer has refined the platform shoe so that it works better with my brace and isn’t so heavy or hard to walk on for long. He hollowed out the platform part, filled it with an insulated foam that would hold up to use, and then glued down a “jelly” like some people put in their running shoes for extra comfort. It doesn’t exactly look like something a model would wear on the runway but to me it is beautiful.
By the time Sawyer came home tired but triumphant that he’d found several bookcases like I’d asked for I was able to tell him I’d gotten a lot accomplished as well. Or at least made a pretty good showing. We celebrated with a DVD and bowl of popcorn after supper but we both fell asleep well before the credits rolled.