Sunday, September 18, 2011
My mother is dead now, though she still angrily haunts my dreams. Difficult as our life together was, as time passes, I find myself wishing I’d listened more attentively to her stories of old times.
My mother, Dorothy, was born in 1920, which is getting to be a long time ago. She had many every day experiences with a kind of life that’s shadowy hearsay for my grandchildren. When Dorothy came into consciousness, Albert, her father, was working toward his PhD. His father, an upstate NY dairyman had land and a little money , but also, unlike many of his peers, he ardently believed in the value of a good education. My grandpa was not the only one of his children he sent to Cornell. He even sent a daughter there, and despite the prejudices of the time, she too ended with a doctorate. My grandfather, Albert, then earned a scholarship to Princeton, and was filling in the inevitable gaps in his income as a graduate assistant and tutoring the less-motivated sons of the rich. In summers, though, he brought his young family back to the farm. There he worked as he had as a boy, and his wife helped in the kitchen and house and took care of their small daughter.
Dorothy loved her grandfather’s farm, even though there were things that scared her. Behind the big red brick farmhouse was a large kitchen garden. At certain times of year the chickens were allowed in to clean up bugs and help themselves, though they were generally banned from that area. Still, the time of year would come, after the peas and beans and when the lettuce has gone to seed, that is time for a bit of clean-up. They were loosed to peck and scratch before the second crop went in.
These were times of trial for Dorothy, because along with the hens came the rooster. He didn’t limit his displays of dominance to other chickens, but always lurked along the path that led across the garden to the backhouse, hoping to ambush people on their way there. On the first summer there that she clearly remembered, her own mother had bronchitis and was upstairs in bed, leaving the woman’s share of the work shorthanded. She told me of having to pee mightily, but not daring to go, and finally weeping. Spanking was in order for children who wet their pants in those days, even when they were caught between a rock and a hard place. Her grandmother, busy canning, or laboring to cook for the family and hired help at the big wood stove, didn’t have an extra minute to escort her across the garden. Mom says she remembers her grandmother saying with exasperation, “Just pick up a stick of kindling and hit him!” before turning back to the bubbling pots.
My mother was small for her age and the rooster seemed a monster, tall enough to look her in the eye. She said she did as she was told, but could still recall the terror when that big old red rooster came charging out of the berry bushes at her. She threw lots of kindling that summer, and sometimes she hit the feathered bully, but it only gave him a moment’s pause. She’d have to take to her heels and run. Next there’d be those awful seconds of struggling with the heavy door before slamming it shut. Chest heaving, heart pounding, she pant'd in the odorous interior, lit only by the moon and star carved in the door. One day, while her mother was sick, she waited too long and peed herself as the rooster chased her. She had to hide her underwear under her pinafore before taking an even more circuitous route back inside.