Saturday, April 10, 2010
Queen of the Farm
QUEEN OF THE FARM
22 November 2009
In an age before the world was turning from farms into suburbs, long before the city riots of '68, we lived on the edge of our town's main farm in central New Jersey. It was the family farm: my uncle's, who was actually my father's cousin, but it was all family then. We lived in the small older home, Uncle Clarence lived in the upstairs of the more modern farm house, across the way. The Tenants lived downstairs from him, and old grizzly (really gentle) Mr. Walker lived in the converted chicken coop behind the two houses. Our house was actually newer than the cottage it was attached to, which was a falling down shack that bristled ol' Uncle John (who was nobody's uncle that we knew of) lived in until it actually began to sag in the roof. Then he moved down the road to the old well house, which fit him as he was a plumber of sorts. In between our property and the Farm were three houses, remnants of the Great Depression when pieces of land had to be sold off to keep things going. The pieces sold were the ones that were least useful to the family, so the woods and rocky parts got sold to Strangers, and the family property got divided.
At the real Farm house (our property wasn't really a farm any more except for the truck we raised to feed ourselves and-oh, truck is vegetables to us farm folks, you know, the stuff you truck to market). The Farm was the old, big original family place down the lane, over the creek. Like a few of the really old places in town, it didn't have electric to speak of. The main house had a line that ran some lights and the plumbing, but the rest of the place was run on kerosene generators, tractors and pull ploughs powered by old Bessie, the big white percheron. A big business could be done in feed and hay in New Jersey in those days still, so those were the main crops. Crops had to be rotated, so it was corn one year, hay another, and soy beans in between to feed the fields. I knew that from the time I was two or so, but I couldn't tell you how. The fields stretched out for what seemed like miles to me as a youngster, way out behind the house, where it could be kept a good eye on.
In the farm house lived Aunt Mamie, Uncle Henry and Uncle Hugo. It took me 'til my teens to realize none of them were married; they were brothers and sister, along with my Uncle Clarence. The way they argued and kidded, you'd know right away they were family of some sort. All the boys (in their sixties they were still called the boys) were big hulking masses of German stock, as round about as they were tall and strong as oxen. I figured the farm would have gone down long ago except for their brute strength. Aunt Mamie, on the other hand, was a mere 5 feet and barely a hundred pounds soaking wet. The oldest, she was the brains behind the place, and she was a lady, not a girl (no one needed to tell you this). She wore practical yet womanly house dresses, and had her graying hair wrapped around her head in braids, where she could keep it neat.
As I write this, I'm contemplating that I come by my messiness naturally. There was no order to the inside or outside of that farm, except in the minds of those three residents. Everything had a place, but it might not be the place anyone else thought a thing ought to be in. Deeds and important papers were stored on top of the old fridge, or on the “way top” of the everyday china closet in the kitchen. Unused furniture was stored on the front porch, which no one used for anything else anyway. I think there were bed rooms in the farm; it was clearly a two story, but I was never allowed past the front parlor. The kitchen took up most of the downstairs, and it was clearly the place most business was done, around the huge rough oak table that filled the center of the room. Consequently, everything that had importance to the family had to be within reaching room of that table, and over the years that meant that things became stacked around the edges according to importance, on table tops, cabinet edges, packed full shelves, with the most used things on top. It should not be mistaken however, that this meant things got lost, for they never did.
The kitchen also had the most light in the house, facing south, and having more windows than any other room, being three together on one wall and a fourth on the east wall, plus a door with a window also facing south. This owed back to the days way before electric lights. Everyone entered and left through that side door, as it opened to the wide driveway that bisected the farm property. The house sat close to the road, as so many did in those slower days. Since the windows overlooked the drive, there was no question of knocking or entering unannounced; either the door was flung open for you or a shout came from within before you topped the steps; if not, you'd best go on home.
Most often, you could come on in when you arrived, for from 6 AM or earlier until well after dark, life went on and on in that kitchen. There was canning to be done, business deals to be sealed in the form of trailers of bales and bushels of corn, meat to be sold, butchering to be finished off, meals to be cooked and served, clothes to be mended, and all sorts of news to be passed by the farmers who came to share a beer or an ear of corn as they passed by on their way here or there. Aunt Mamie tolerated those men just long enough to glean the gossip, then neatly brushed them off, out the door and home to their wives, who she was sure needed them for something around their property, so they'd best be getting on. (I remember that after Mamie's death, the farm became more of a haven for the men to drink a little more heavily and hide out from their wives, and the only time I went there was when my own mother sent me to fetch Dad for dinner. Mamie must have been turning in her grave for that.)
In the days when Aunt Mamie was Queen of the Farm, things ran on a clock and with a “method to the madness,” she said, and it was easier to abide by it than to fight it, so most did. I only recall seeing Mamie mad once, and I expect that was because it only took once for most people to learn their lesson well, and it was a small town. Mamie, it was said, got the Irish blood in the family, and she was slow to anger but once set off, she was quick to throw a plate, and she was a good shot. The one time I saw her fired up, it took me two months to go back. When I did, I thought I was going to have to run again, as she grabbed me up and boxed my ears roughly but playfully and said, “Child that outburst wasn't meant for your likes, and you oughtn't have run and it would have been clear to you in a minute.” Then she hugged me and shoved me in the direction of the crystal candy dish in the parlor, and I learned not to stay away.
I guess Aunt Mamie had learned to be tough, being the only girl in that squabble of boys. My mother told me her momma died when she was just twelve and all the chores inside the house fell to her. I guess she got so comfortable and at home there, that she never left the Farm; she told me the Boys wouldn't have known what to do without her. Somewhere along the line, I figured out that her pappa must have died young too, and since she was already mostly in charge, it just came natural to her to step in and take over. It was definitely a full time job, especially after Uncle Clarence went to the war, then came home, married and took over the patch that was over the creek and beyond the Strangers' homes, where we came to live when my daddy came home from the war and married too.
There's a rhythm that goes with all farms that is way deeper than anything any human could impose. It has to do with the timing of the seasons, and the needs of God's creatures. Animals have to be fed and cared for at the times of day that are natural to them, or they won't fare well. Corn and other seeds have to go into the ground at the appointed time, or there will be no crop, and hence, no income or food. Sooner or later, those who farm come to live by those rhythms, and it is as natural as the rising and setting of the sun, and is governed in fact by them. Animals got hunted at certain times, fish got pulled from the water at others, and it all seemed to have a rhythm that meant bellies got fed just in the time as was needed. Aunt Mamie understood that rhythm better than anyone, which was why she commanded a natural respect of all those around, animal and human alike.
It seemed like Aunt Mamie never really asked for anything for herself; it was her natural way to give. Cookies for children, meals for the men, scraps for the dogs and cats and hogs, feed for the cows and horse, it all came from Mamie, directly or indirectly. Even the raccoons kept for training the coonhounds were treated to slices of apples or raisins or something that would endear her to them, so that she could handle them all in her own way, to accomplish the tasks she needed done. Love was felt but unspoken; often everyone was too tired for the niceties and extra words city folk would expect. “You'd best make good of what you've got, or you might lose it.” That was Mamie's best advice.
There was only one part of the week when time stood still for Mamie, and that was Saturday night. Most often the Boys took their coon hounds out to run on Saturday, especially if the moonlight was bright. Those hounds knew when a run was coming, it seemed, as they would begin braying especially loudly, calling to every arrival in the drive as though they were starving to the bone. Once dinner was served and the dishes put up, the boys would climb into their hunting overalls and mosey out the door. As soon as that side door screen squeaked in the moonlight, the red hounds knew it was on, and the sound was deafening. From a low whine it slowly built to loud bawling and squawling, and nothing could be heard over the sound of those dogs. It would keep on for an hour, as the coons in their cages had to be set out first, and that took a good deal of time. Henry and Hugo put the cages in their old Ford pickup, with one cage dragging behind, and set out across the fields. Meanwhile, the big flop-eared hounds were building up energy and stretching out their muscles straining against their chains, sniffing the wind and getting ready for the run.
Around six the other farmers would start to file in, and the cold beers set out in the crocks filled with ice would be downed as they each leaned in to pay their respects to Aunt Mamie. “Fine evening, Mamie!” “Wisht I'd ate here, smells great!” “How's your rheumytiz, Mamie?” “Got your church clothes laid out, Mamie?” Then they were off down the lane, yelling shut ups and calm downs to the beasts, pulling on their jackets if it was a cool night. Mamie knew that once the late comers were here and off up to the barn, it was her time, for at least the next three hours. They'd get the hounds on their leads, wait for the Boys to come back in, then give the hounds the scent and set them off.
For Mamie, this signaled it was bath time. She had three kettles that could be filled at once, a gallon or more each, already boiling on the stove and I always marveled at how she could even hoist those boiling hot tanks to carry them into the back room to fill the bath.
If we were lucky enough to be spending the evening, she'd settle us down in our pajamas with cookies and milk for our “bedtime snack” while she ambled into the back room. “Keep it quiet now, you kids,” she'd mutter as she smiled a knowing nod and closed the door between the kitchen and the rest of the house. My brother and I, and our cousins, all knew that this was meant as serious, and we never broke a whisper until she reappeared. We shared our stories of our day, our complaints of our chores, our plans for Sunday after church, and hushed tales of problems between our moms and dads, as much as we dared tell.
The sight of Aunt Mamie freshly bathed in her long flannel gown and her chenille robe was something no one could see even once and ever forget. A little slip of a thing, it was only apparent how old she was (an age not known in years by anyone) when she appeared in her flushed delicate pink, freshly-washed skin, smelling like rose water and glycerine, rubbing balm on her hands, an inch or two shorter without her oxford shoes. In her pale night clothes, she had the presence of an angel, and this was made all the clearer by her hair, unburdened from her head and freshly washed, streaming behind her. It never failed to take my breath away, that silver veil of hers. It streamed behind her, flaxen, silky, silver, and trailing behind her on the floor like the train of Queen Elizabeth's velvet robe I'd once seen in a picture. It was then that I knew our Mamie was truly a queen, and one far fairer than any of those from far away countries.
“C'mon now children,” she would call in a near-breathless voice of relaxation, “give me a hand.” I know now that we were silent while we waited, for none of us would want to miss what came next. “You know I can't do this myself anymore.” She'd pull that old metal step stool, still-shiny chrome with the red back and the black rubber treads where you could use it to step up, right out into the middle of the space beyond the table near the door, as her throne. This was the only place in the house with enough room for her delicate tresses. I always wanted to ask her when the last time it was she'd cut her hair, but I knew better. My mother told me that she remembered having the honor of trimming Mamie's “ends” one time shortly after she was married, as if it was a rite of passage of entering the family to be allowed to assist Mamie with her locks.
I never saw pearl-handled hair tools before that, though I have seen them since in antique stores. “Mother of pearl,” she muttered to us proudly. They glistened whitish pink as she took them out of their velvet case. She held out the little mirror, which was smokey at best and looked over her shoulder. It was the only vanity I ever saw in that selfless woman. I saw the glimmer in her eye as she threw her tresses over her shoulders and handed the comb to me. “Now missy, squeeze that lemon there into that glass of spring water, and mind you don't get the seeds in. We've got to comb that through first or my hair will get yellow in this cool weather.” Those days lemons were hard to come by off season and this was Mamie's sole splurge. We pushed each other aside, my cousin and I, eager to be the one to get the big bone large tooth pearl-edged comb from our Aunt, and be the first. “Mind you don't pull my scalp apart!” She'd warn us as we began.
Combing Aunt Mamie's hair was no easy task. It was six feet long, easily. Even draped off that old high stool, it dragged on the floor, and she had us bring another oak chair to set it across so it could dry some and so we could run that comb and then the silky brush through it smoothly from one end to the other. No way she wanted her prized possession dragging on that old linoleum floor.
There was no sensation like it. The finest spun silk, like I'd read of in Rapunzel, this was Aunt Mamie's hair. The kerosene lamp burning, the light dim, and everything in our circle had a magical aura to it. The shades of silver and white were innumerable, yet we tried to notice each one. We took the utmost care, not wanting to break a single strand, and one of us held the section of hair, as the other gently tugged the comb through, pausing when it stuck, taking our time to be “Easy, ea-s-y” as she directed us. It smelled like heaven in that kitchen, with the roses, the lemon, and the sweet smell of Mamie's lavender bath salts, purchased from the Sears catalog. Time passed but we didn't notice. We were rapt with the task at hand.
This particular summer I'm remembering, I had learned how to braid. After the combing, then the soft, smooth brushing, came the braiding. Mamie patiently instructed us how to make four sections around her head. “We could make a contest of this if you want, but not a Speed contest, a Perfect one...Who can make the best and smoothest and tightest braid?” We'd each take a section. We had to be careful, because unless they were each in the right place, they'd never lay flat in the end. One over the ear, one behind, on each side. The hardest part was they had to be pulled up, but the hair was so long. And we never would want to hurt Aunt Mamie's head. This was her time. Somehow we knew it was sacred.
Tiny sections of hair, three apiece, times four braids. That night, I counted 387 turns. In my own hair, which wasn't short, I'd only ever gotten 20. Three Hundred Eighty Seven careful turns, and with each turn, we each gently held on with one hand while we softly straightened and stretched out the tress beyond the braid, lest it tangle before we were through. I thought my hands would break off at the wrist, yet I didn't dare say. I knew that this was a special time, this first time of braiding. Soon enough we had four long ropes of silver and flax, trailing out over the chair and almost touching the ground, halfway across the kitchen. Mamie picked up the silver edged mirror and gazed back satisfactorily. “Ohhh, myyy. You children have done a fine job.”
“All that's left now is the turning. Now you stand here, and you here, and you here, and you there. Stand still, 'til I say.” She had a smile like that elf in the fairy tale book, I thought. She stood, ever so slowly and softly, as though she expected we'd pull that hair out of her head if she moved wrong. “Now walk,” she softly commanded, “one step at a time, as I tell ya.” She pulled out the little package in the box with the silver hair pins. We were spread out evenly around her, like she was a maypole and we the dancers. She put her hands to her head, the little pins now in her mouth. She mumbled, “Step, (pause) and step, (pause), and step,” and on and on it went. Like we were carrying the queen's train, we waltzed so gracefully around her, and she pinned each lock in place, pace by pace.
When we were done, she once again wore her silver crown around her head. “It's perfect,” she exclaimed, and I saw how it gleamed in the lamplight.
Our own Aunt Mamie, Queen of the Farm. We were awestruck at her beauty. A beautiful pink ferry in a soft beige gown, in a crown of silver. We were speechless as our Fairy Queen admired herself in the mirror, so enamored we forgot it was ever a contest.
I don't know how old I was that Saturday evening of my first hair combing. Aunt Mamie was a wisp of a woman, but we were far tinier than her. We were her snippet of a court and we all curtsied as she bowed her head to us. Not long after, she scooted us off to bed under afghans on the couches in the parlor, where our mothers and fathers would gather us in sleep much later, to shepherd us home.
I dreamed of fairies in the glen that night, how they scurried up into the trees as the hounds brayed at the moon. Those big dark creatures foolishly thought they'd have a meal of those raccoons who were safely hiding in their cages in the big reddening oak trees. The fairies laughed at the huge silly beasts who didn't know any better, then fluttered off to find more fun.
Not much later, I was told by my mother that Aunt Mamie had passed away. “Gone to heaven with her momma and pappa,” my mother told me, “where she'll be happy forever.” I knew that this was not a lie. It was an honor fitting our Queen of the Farm.