Many of the earliest memories of my father had to do with his sense of humor. He was playful and intentionally eccentric. Once when he had invited the widowed school teacher and her daughter to dinner the conversation was about unusual things to eat. He claimed his children liked raw eggs. She couldn’t believe it. He offered to demonstrate.
(Grandpa was omnivorous and would eat outlandish combinations of food. He was known to dump his green salad into his soup and eat it all together)
We had indeed become accustomed to eating raw eggs slightly beaten with sugar in it. So to prove his point, he prepared it as usual and set it before me. I was always a shy child and disliked being the center of attention. That first. Secondly, the look of sheer revulsion on her face made me view the late delicacy as something less than appealing. The fact that this demonstration came at the end of a complete and filling dinner may have contributed to the fiasco. At any rate, I took one sip and decided I wanted no more. I was never offered, nor ever ate, another raw egg, sweetened or otherwise.
We had our main meal at noon in the summer and on weekends. During the school year we had it in the evening. We each had our own place at the table and ate from enamelware which we called tin plates. The baby of the family was placed in a high chair to the right of either Papa or Mama, depending on whose turn it was. Since feeding the baby was an inconvenience, (this was before the days of canned baby foods) they had agreed to alternate not by days but by babies. The first baby was fed by my mother, the second by my father, etc. Of course, all the babies were breast fed until almost a year old. The earlier they grew their teeth the sooner they were weaned.
We had no electricity, but the farm had running water produced by a windmill. We children were taught the mechanics of disengaging the pump when the tank was full or when we wanted to operate the pump manually. The metal structure of the windmill provided us with exciting climbs, both up the ladder and when we were more daring, up the corners. If the sky turned dark and high winds threatened, my father would tie it securely and arrange the blades so as to catch as little wind as possible. Sometimes the winds came without sufficient warning and he would have to fight to get control of the windmill while my mother waited in the house with her brood. She worried a lot and we sensed the tension. We were poor and could not afford the expense of a damaged windmill.
We bathed once a week. Not because of a shortage of water, we always had plenty. But we had to heat the water in kettles on a cook stove. The cook stove also had a built-in reservoir on one end from which we dipped hot water. In the summer bathing was easier. Sometimes we went swimming in Lake Michigan at Port Sheldon on Saturday instead of having a bath at home. I can still see Papa sitting in the shallow water sudsing himself all over, then rinsing and drying. Standing just in the water, he dried one foot at a time, put on one shoe and then tried to keep the shoe out of the water while he dried the other foot, encouraging us to do the same rather than getting the beach sand in the car.
In winter the house was unevenly heated with coal or wood burning space heaters. To get a room comfortable for bathing, the kitchen would be closed off and the cook stove fired up to heat kettles of water. Then a wash tub was brought in and placed on top of the kitchen table. And the water was poured in. A couple kettles of hot water made a very shallow bath, even when diluted with cold water.
Papa bathed the kids, beginning with the youngest in the few inches of warm water. Continually refilling the kettles and adding it to the tub, by the time two or three of us were clean, the water had come to a level where we almost felt luxurious.
In later years when there were seven or eight children, it became necessary to throw out the water after the kids were done. Then the tub was placed on the floor and refilled with clean water and our parents bathed, first Mama, then Papa. Having only one warm room for this process, we grew up with no privacy and nudity of siblings and parents was commonplace.
We walked the mile and one-quarter to school and carried our lunches in round pails with tight fitting covers. I think they were originally five-pound pails that contained Karo syrup. We usually had peanut butter sandwiches and a homemade cookie or cake. But Betty Plant, the teacher’s daughter, would often have something as exotic as an orange in her lunch. She would sit at her desk peeling it with her hands and we gathered around to watch. We waited patiently as she generously doled out the pieces of the peeling, trying to fairly distribute it so we each got an equal portion. To the poor children of Michigan farmers, orange peeling was a rare treat.
We got our very own, whole orange once a year on Christmas. Christmas was such an enjoyable celebration in those days. After the school Christmas program each student was given a small box of candy and an orange. My first year in school I was one of the performers in the program. My act consisted of singing three verses of “Away in a Manger” while seated in a child-sized rocking chair with a doll in my arms. I had just turned five and in spite of my shyness, I liked being chosen to perform.
The preparations were so exciting! My hair was curled with a curling iron which was heated on the cook stove. My long underwear which usually came off once a week to be replaced with a clean one, now was left off entirely and my legs were left bare. Ankle socks in the winter in Michigan was unheard of but it was allowed for the occasion. The doll I held was a big, beautiful, expensive one that belonged to Betty Plant. I was driven to the school like a prima donna. A blanket was wrapped around my bare legs and my mother fussed over my hair to keep it curly at least until I got on stage. I remembered all three verses of the song and sang it on key. I was a hit.
It soon became apparent that I was the smartest kid in my grade, with one close rival, Marvin Haveman. I always compared my test scores with his. Sometimes his score was better, sometimes mine was. He may even have been smarter than I but I never conceded that.
(My sister, Babs used to tease Mum when she would boast about being the smartest in her class. Barb would say, “Yeah, Mum, but there were only three kids in your class.”)
The teacher favored me. I always suspected that was because she liked my dad. He was not above flirting with her in my mother’s presence. Anyway, when I finished the day’s assignment before the rest of the class, Mrs. Plant would invite me to sit with her at her desk and give me new crayons and a coloring book to use while the rest of the class was finishing the assignment she had given. Coloring in coloring books was not a normal part of the curriculum in kindergarten. If we were allowed to color, it was as a reward for a job well done. We learned the alphabet, simple arithmetic and eventually reading, in our first year of school. By the end of my kindergarten year I was taking my turn at reading the Bible for our dinner table devotions at home.
At each sit-down meal Papa offered an original prayer. Immediately afterward the children said a short “God bless” prayer. Then we ate. No eating was allowed before prayers. At the conclusion of the meal a chapter was read from the Bible and Papa said the Lord’s prayer. Then the children said a “Lord we thank thee” prayer. Later, when several kids, all speaking at once, rushed through the prayer without seeming to mean it, Papa decided we should say our prayers one at a time beginning with the oldest.
At about that same time, I remember Papa placing me on the communion table in church to perform some little song or poem that I had learned from my brother Jim. My parents were very proud of me and my mother often asked me to “play something” when we had visitors. I always demurred until the visitor joined in encouraging me to do it. I sensed that they might not be as interested in seeing me perform as my mother was.
One day, as a complete surprise to Marge and me, a piano was brought to our house. Few experiences of my life compare to the joy of that day. From then on more hours were spent teaching myself rapid sight reading of music than were spent on any other form of recreation. Even on the coldest winter days when we only heated the kitchen, I ventured into the cold living room and played the piano until my fingers were too cold to play any more.
(Mum played the piano until the day she died. When she could no longer read music, due to her failing eyesight and ageing brain, she played the songs she had learned as a young girl from memory. Each year her repertoire grew smaller, until towards the end, she could only play portions of “Rustle of Spring” and “Robin’s Return”.)
Other winter recreational fun was ice skating and skiing. My father had ice skates from the Netherlands. They had a narrow blade which curled up over your toe and left your foot closer to the ground. I found them easier to use than the American made skates. We skated on frozen ponds or sometimes after a sleet storm, almost anywhere. The ponds had to be shoveled clean of snow first. We went to the pond with kids from the neighborhood and shared the task of clearing the ice for skating. The winter days were short and by the time we had a large enough clearing for skating, we had cold feet and hands. The next day we hoped to get more time for skating. But if it had snowed during the night the shoveling process had to be repeated. After a sleet storm it was easier. Then skates could be put on at the back porch and the smooth areas of the yard were good for skating.
The house stood on a slight rise from the barn and the path between the two became a miniature ski run, perfect for “old country” skates. The countryside had no hills suitable for skiing and we had no skis. We did have barrels. And barrels have staves. Barrel staves make passable skis, and a rope fastened to a moving car takes the place of gravity. My dad drove the car on the road and the kids took turns on the skis, skiing on the shoulder, across the ditch which was alongside the road, or even in the ditch. This type of skiing was hazardous but suited our need for adventure.