Mum’s Story – Chapter 3

brown horse with carriage on road
A prettified peddler’s wagon

Peddlers visited our little farm regularly.  The Rawleigh man and the Watkins man are two that come to mind.  They sold spices, medicines and some groceries, like packaged puddings.  From them we bought cod liver oil, castor oil and magic oil. 

We hated cod liver oil, but Papa dispensed it every night in the winter for its vitamin D content.  He demonstrated how good it was by drinking it from the bottle and smacking his lips.  We were not convinced.  We hated the fishy taste until someone discovered that by holding one’s nose while swallowing it, the taste disappeared completely – until you let go of your nose anyway.  Cod liver oil was given by the teaspoon, straight, unadulterated.  But magic oil was more pleasant.  It was measured one drop for each year of your age into a teaspoon of sugar.  I’m not sure of its purpose but judging by the name, I assume it was meant to cure whatever ailed you. 

(Yet another demonstration of Grandpa’s eclectic palate)

Castor oil was rarely administered and was the worst of all. The thick oily consistency and tastelessness was repulsive.  Floating it on top of some precious orange juice motivated us to gulp it down.  Fortunately we didn’t often need a laxative.  Epsom salts was another home remedy.  The one time my mother forced it down me it came back up instantly.  Skunk oil was used for exterior application in case of a sore throat.  Papa made his own and wore it on a rag tied around his neck.           

I remember when we first became aware of vitamins.  Papa discussed the subject with the peddlers who sold them and read whatever information was available to him.  He was interested but couldn’t afford to buy them for his ever-growing family.  We were a healthy family but did not escape the childhood diseases.  After Marge started school, the infectious diseases to which she was exposed were brought home.  We all had scarlet fever, chicken pox, measles and most had whooping cough.  I did not get whooping cough even though every one of the children around me had varying degrees of misery with the dread disease.  When the home had an infectious disease the County health officer came and posted a red quarantine sign to warn visitors not to enter. 

The only time a doctor was summoned was to assist in giving birth.  When my mother’s pregnancy was in the seventh or eighth month, Papa telephoned the doctor to tell him the approximate due date.  Then, when labor started, the doctor was called to come and attend the delivery.  If the weather permitted, he arrived in time. He came from the nearest town which was about eight miles away.  Three of the eleven children didn’t wait for him and I was one of those three. 

Across the road from us lived the old Gruppens.  We called them the old Gruppens because two of their married sons and families lived near us and constituted our near neighborhood.  We were on civil, sometimes even friendly terms with all of them even though they belonged to the Christian Reformed Church which had expelled Papa.       

We paid formal visits to the Ed Gruppens.  Formal, meaning we were invited to spend a winter evening with them.  The parents sat in the living room talking.  The children played games in the kitchen.  A favorite game was hide the thimble.  All but one child went into an adjoining room while the one who was “it” hid the thimble.  The adjoining room was cold and dark.  Some of us huddled together to keep warm.  The little boys were not above indulging in some mischievous feeling and tickling of the little girls.  On signal we all barged out of the dark room and began the search for the thimble.  The one who was “it” continually called out “warm” or “cold” as we were closer or farther from the hiding place of the thimble.  The finder became the next one to be “it”. 

This family always drew the shades down at night to “save the light”, they said.  Their theory was that if you stopped the light rays from going outside, you had more light inside.

They were a family with seven children, four of whom were boys.  Three of the boys were close to my age.  They were my nemesis.  They teased and frustrated me.  When their father castrated animals, they saved the gonads and showed them to me.  They delighted in drawing my attention to mating animals.   They were earthy and crude.  They pretended to be horny animals, bumping their genital area up against telephone poles; anything to embarrass me.  I was always trying to time my departure from school and from home, so as to avoid having to walk with them. 

As I later learned, my fear of them was unwarranted.  One day Harold, the oldest of the three had me cornered in the back stop of the baseball diamond.  School was out and I was carrying my metal lunch pail.  In desperation I swung at him with the pail.  Although he was probably two years older than I, my sudden fury caught him off guard and he jumped back.  He laughed but kept his distance and I felt he had gained a new respect for me which encouraged me to use the same tactic on later occasions.  This taught me that bullies prefer to pick on wimps.

The old Gruppens had a grape arbor near the road.  When the grapes were ripe we sneaked in among the vines and helped ourselves.  It was forbidden and periodically they complained to my dad and we were properly scolded.  But it was too great a temptation to give it up entirely. 

Our sex education began with our observation of the animal raising process.  When Papa led a cow down the road to a neighbor to be bred, we knew the purpose of the breeding was to produce a calf.  We had seen dogs mating and knew puppies resulted from that.  The only thing we were told about human sexuality was that genitalia were dirty.  If children showed an interest in their own or others private parts, they were playing dirty.  It was forbidden. 

(Considering the infrequency of bathing and the shared bathwater, I expect their genitalia were dirty!)

The edict against playing dirty was not enough to stifle our natural curiosities.  My closest friend Jerene and I wandered off into the fields on the way home from school on a warm day.  There we found a private spot behind a bush and a slight rise in the land and explored each others anatomy.  Old Mr. Gruppen spied on us from a distance and reported to my mother.  When I walked on the yard my mother was seated on a stool at the back porch with a stick in her hand.  I knew what was coming.  I was turned over her knee and the rod was not spared.  I was so ashamed of what I had done that when my cap fell off I didn’t pick it up.  Somehow it became the symbol of the shameful thing I had done and I never wore it again. 

In spite of my fear of and revulsion for the Gruppen boys, one warm summer day when we were playing on the banks of the drain ditch under a  bridge, I exchanged a little anatomy exploration with them too.  They never let me forget it.  In the secrecy of our world, the world made up of kids only, they coined a nickname for me.  They called me “hot pants”.  And again I was ashamed. 

(A testimony to my mother’s ability to learn from her own experiences was that she didn’t instill the shame of my own natural inclinations as her parents had. My aunt Marge would tell her boys, “Acht! Don’t play dirty.” But my mom gently suggested that I should go to the privacy of my bedroom to “do that”. Of course, I inferred that it was shameful, even wicked, and I credit my mom for making it all the more pleasurable.)

I never expected them to tell about this incident to an adult but they did.  After Mrs. Plant left Eagle school,  Fred Knoper became our teacher.  Mr. Knoper was a very nice guy.  He gained our confidence.  He encouraged us to confess to him our darkest sins.  He even took us to a private place in the basement of the school where no other student could hear what was being said.  The Gruppen boys had their turn for a private conference with the teacher before I did.  Imagine my surprise when my turn came and the main topic he wanted to discuss with me was the “hot pants” incident.  He tried to get me to talk about it, gently telling me such behavior was not nice.  But again, I was too ashamed of myself to even tell him that it had happened three years before when I was a mere child.

Papa and Mama my grandparents

At the time of my birth, my parents (Tom Elzinga and Edith (maiden name omitted) Elzinga) were living on a forty-acre farm which they had bought before Jim was born.  Our farm was mostly poor, sandy soil.  But a small strip near the drain ditch was black and rich.  We called it “the muck”.  On this strip we raised celery.  Early in the spring Papa planted the seed in a cold frame.  When the seedlings were the right size and the weather was right, we transplanted them in the muck.  In order to make straight rows, we placed stakes at each end with a string pulled taught between them at ground level.  One of us would then walk on the string to make a straight imprint on the ground, a job that we liked to do more than the planting.

At first, the person who planted crawled on hands and knees placed each plant separately in rows.  Marge and Jim were big enough to be planters.  I was given bunches of the small plants and instructed to separate them, laying the individual plants at six inch intervals in the row.  Then the planters came along and punched holes in the soft ground with their fingers and set the plant in, firmly tamping the soil around it to keep it standing.  After hours of planting, our knees became sore, so Papa designed and made knee pads out of old inner tubes for protection. 

Later, we rented a celery planting machine.  The machine accommodated two people who sat on it riding backwards.  With a box of plants between them, they separated their own plants and slipped each one into a large wheel equipped with wires to hold the plants.  As the wheel turned, it placed the plants into the soil.  The wires were spaced for the proper distance between plants.  It was important to get a plant into each wire and the machine had to be run at a speed that would permit this.  The machine made the job fun and exciting, and we had no more sore knees. 

Part of the farm was not used because it had not been cleared of trees and brush.  This part was also low land and usable as muck.  Papa decided to clear it.  We worked hard at cutting trees and uprooting everything and eventually it too was suitable for farming.  We called it the “new land”. 

If we were working out in the field, far from the house, Mama sent snacks out to us for a coffee break.  She sent hot coffee in a fruit jar and sandwiches, cake and cookies.  One of the children who was  too small to be working in the field was told to carry the lunch to the workers.  I remember that as a very pleasant job because she would pack enough for the messenger to be able to eat with the workers.  Once, when we were eating our lunch in the field, a cat that had followed us jumped into the lunch bag.  Jim said, “that cat is ambitious for something to eat”.  We thought that was a very funny remark and repeated it often.

5 thoughts on “Mum’s Story – Chapter 3

    1. Education may have evolved but I doubt that children have changed in that regard. But perhaps the vigilance of helicopter parents and organized activities has reduced the opportunity for exploration.


    1. I’ve heard that Americans are more preoccupied with nudity and “anatomical studies” than Europeans. I find that odd considering how obsessively sexuality is exploited in the media. At any rate, I expect ALL children are interested in their bodies (and those of their cousins of the same age). I’m hoping my American readers aren’t scandalized by my Mum’s frankness, especially the Gruppen boys!


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