The Canning Jar

Ruminations on motherhood

No one got in Mom's way. Clothes and bedding, food and house--fresh was best--and it required work. She tackled the weekly cleaning, a white kerchief on her head, a mop or dust rag in her hand, rushing through the house, swishing in every corner, swiping every surface. Monthly, she scrubbed floors by hand, pulling the pail and her knee cushions along from the front to the back of the rooms. Yearly, she washed windows with newspaper and vinegar. She polished them inside and out until they squeaked.

We were supposed to help; we had our duties, but we grumbled: "It's not my turn." Sometimes we really got going, pushing or shoving or chasing each other around: "I did it last time." "You did not." "I did too."

If we threatened to take our battles outside, Mom shouted, "Don't you dare!

Don't you dare fight where all the world can see and hear you. You fight inside."

Not that Mom liked us kids to fight, but she was sort of resigned to it. As soon as my older brothers started to wrestle, she ran for the old frying pan, the heavy black one. Pounding on its iron bottom, she yelled at the boys, "Stop it. Stop it, I say. Right now. Stop it! I'll have to tell your father."

If the boys kept brawling, she ordered, "Girls, to your posts." My sister and I grabbed our assigned tables and lamps, protecting them, until the boys finally quit. Then, everything back to normal, we got on with our chores.

One of the jobs I didn't mind was cleaning the throw rugs. I hung them over the clotheslines and with the old, gray wirebeater whipped them soundly. I pretended they were bad guys, or a brother or sister, or even a friend who had done me wrong. Whack. Take that. Take a double whack. Make it a triple. Whack. Whack. Whack.

When I took too long with the rugs, Mom came out to help. As she beat them, the sunlight bouncing off her diamond wedding ring broke through the dust cloud billowing above her head.

The gravel roads smelled of that same mix of dust and sun when Mom loaded us all in the car and headed out into the country for fun chores. Sitting on pillows so she could see over the hood, hands gripping the wheel, back straight, she would stop suddenly, snapping the backseat riders into the upholstery, the front-seaters into the dashboard, "Quick, over by the fence." She made us pick wild asparagus growing by the side of the road.

We loved to go to the Van Nuytten farm to buy fresh eggs and chickens, loved swinging on the towering tree in front of the farmhouse. The swing, made of an old soggy mattress, could hold all seven of us and the farm kids too. We tumbled on it and giggled and pumped, our legs hanging over the edges, "Pump. Pump to Heaven. Pump. Pump to heaven." We swung to the oak's top branches. We sailed in the sky.

Below stood haystacks to climb and hide around. Once my brother Jim fell through the middle of one. We ran screaming for Mom. She and Mr. Van Nuytten found Jim with a pitchfork, but when they finally dragged him out, he couldn't breathe.

He had asthma. Mom washed his face and held his hands, all the time talking to him softly, "Breathe, Jimmy, breathe. That's it. Just relax. You'll be all right." As soon as Jim's face changed from blue to white, and Mom's worry lines smoothed to smiles, we hurried off to play.

There were cats and kittens and dogs and puppies and chickens to tease. We tore into their coops scaring them with sticks; they squawked and jumped and tried to fly, fluttering feathers all around.

Mom crated some home. In our backyard, she stretched their necks across the stained wood stump and lifted the sharp hatchet. With their blood still dripping on the grass, she plunged them into a vat of boiling water and presented them to us.

We plucked off their wet, stinky feathers. Mom finished off the massacre by setting a rolled newspaper on fire to singe the pin feathers. Ugh. The smell. "Hold your noses, kids." She hated the smell of it as much as we did, but she liked freezing extra chickens and fixing one, very fresh, for supper that night.

In June or early July, we took a trip to a strawberry patch outside of town. Mom picked fast, three boxes to our one, then she doubled back to our rows and whispered, "Eat as many as you want; they're free while you pick. Eat. Eat them now." We ate, and ate, and rode home from those trips more sick than tired.

She planted two packages of every vegetable seed. We kids had to hoe, weed, water, and harvest. We hated it. Mom loved the dirt, "Isn't it wonderful, the smell and feel?" Under her spade, in her hand, she didn't care if it was dry dust or wet globs. Wearing her straw, wide-brimmed hat, her apron with the deep front pockets filled with either seeds or their fruits, she complained about not having enough time outdoors, "The inside work keeps me too busy."

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