A Place of Our Own

After the operation to fix my tongue so I’d be able to talk, Mama and I went across the street to buy some candy. The doctor had given me a nickel for being so brave. Imagine a whole nickel’s worth of candy! I could get the biggest stick of peppermint in the store. I wouldn’t even have to suck it to make it last a long time. There would be enough for me to chew.

I should have sucked it. That newly loosened tongue got between my teeth like it never had been free to do before, and I chewed it along with the peppermint until it was bleeding and sore. Oh, how it hurt! I learned to close my mouth very carefully after that.

Gradually the soreness healed enough so I could start eating again. But it was many months before I learned how to make my tongue behave. As for talking, that was going to require a great deal of practice. The words still did not come out crisp and clear. My mumbled efforts were laughed at and I decided I would rather practice in private. But there is no place for privacy in a covered wagon, especially our wagon, for it was the social center for all the children of the camp.

Our twelve-wagon train set out from Salt Lake City for Harmony, New Mexico, the day after I had my tongue cut. All the families gathered together in a big circle for prayer before we left. Then we sang as we loaded up: “Come, come ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear; But with joy wend your way …”

With joy we wended our way, south and east to a land that held the promise of a good new life for us. The Indian summer days were beautiful and crisp enough in the morning to make us anxious to start moving—golden and warm during the day, but not too hot.

Most of all, I remember the singing in the daytime and the dancing at night. From the place where we slept under the wagon, we could watch the grown-ups whirl in a fast polka or line up for the Virginia reel while Brother Lenstrom played his fiddle.

At the last minute before we left Salt Lake City I had grabbed my jump rope from the nail behind the door. Caroline forgot hers so I shared mine with her, and before long most of the other children wanted a turn too. As soon as the wagon stopped for evening, the girls came running to our place shouting, “My turn with the jump rope, Dora!” If the girl jumped past 21 without missing, we began to call out: “Mabel, Mabel set the table, And don’t forget the red-hot-pepper.”

At this signal the rope started whirring at double time. No one could last forever on red hot pepper. Should the lineup for the jump rope seem too long, those at the end would scratch a hopscotch in the dirt, number the squares, select their markers, and begin to play.

By this time the boys would be starting their third or fourth game of marbles. Each one carried his favorite taw for shooting in one pocket and in the other a handful of aggies that he didn’t mind losing in a game of keeps.

I played with the boys more than the girls because I didn’t need to talk with Ed around.

“Let’s break the record,” he’d shout, and they’d race off to the tailgate of our wagon to begin jumping. A line was marked where the jumper’s feet landed, and each succeeding boy tried to go past the farthest mark.

They couldn’t play break the record if Mama were baking though. She threatened to skin them alive if they caused her cake to fall or disturbed the light bread she made every few days. She had to be careful to keep the yeast going by saving enough of the start in a jar each time she baked and adding potato water and a little sugar. She covered the bottle with a cloth and wedged it in a tight spot by her seat so she could watch it as we rode along.

Mama mixed and kneaded the dough early in the morning before we started our day’s travel, punched it down two or three times along the way, and at night baked a big dripper pan full of biscuits and six loaves of bread. The smell of light bread cooking beats any smell in the world, and a thick slice or a biscuit became both plate and meal when served with a fried egg, a slice of meat, or a chunk of cheese. Our two cows walked along behind the wagon and provided us with milk.

When we could find one, we set up camp next to a stream. One time when we did, Ed and I took off with the fishing pole to look for a deep hole in the nearly dry creek. We found a beautiful spot out of sight of camp but close enough that we could still hear the cries of Annie-I-over. There was a strict rule that no one got so far away that he couldn’t see or hear the camp.

When we got off alone together like this Ed tried to show me how to talk, and I learned to say a few new words. “Look at that frog,” he shouted and bounded across the mossy stones to grab it.

“Frog,” I said. “Frog.”

“What a beauty! Look how big he is. I wonder how far he can jump.”

We stayed until nearly dark testing his ability. By the time we heard Papa coming to get us, the frog’s record was six feet, measured with Ed’s feet.

“Papa, look at my pet,” Ed called as he came closer. “Can I keep him? Can I?”

“That’s a fine frog all right,” Papa said. “But you’d better leave him here. He’d only die if we took him with us.”

“I can take him in a bucket of water. He won’t die.”

“A bucket of water is not the same as a stream. This is his home.”

“Please, Papa.”

“No, Ed. Now put him down, and I’ll tell you a story on the way back.”

“What about?” Ed asked.

“About a frog.”

“A true story?”


Papa’s stories were always worth whatever we had to give up to hear them. Ed put his pet down carefully in a sheltered spot by the stream and took hold of Papa’s other hand. Then the three of us began to walk toward camp.

“What’s the story?” Ed asked.

“How butter was discovered.”

“You said it was about a frog.”

“So it is. You see, a long time ago, a frog jumped into a bowl of cream that was left by a dairymaid to keep cool at the edge of a stream. All night long he paddled around trying to get out, and when the girl came the next morning to get the cream, it had turned to butter.”

“Was the frog still alive?”

“I don’t remember that, but since there was no cream to spread on the bread, the dairymaid used the butter. She was afraid she’d be scolded for being careless enough to leave the lid off the cream, but everyone said the new spread was better. ‘Betty’s better spread’ they called it and wanted her to make more.”

When we got back to the wagon Mama had a good hot supper ready. Afterward we had a campfire program and evening prayer. Then the children were put to bed, and soon the fiddle began its tune and the grown-ups were moving their feet in time to the music. We happily watched them from the place where we slept beneath the wagon.

The next morning was washday, which meant the clothes were put into a half-full water barrel with a bar of homemade lye soap and jostled clean as we rode along. When we stopped, they’d be rinsed, wrung out, and hung on ropes stretched between trees. It wouldn’t take long to dry them if there were a little breeze.

Washdays were always planned between two stops where there was plenty of water so we wouldn’t run short. And since it was an extra busy day for Mama we had to help more than usual. Before camp broke up she assigned the chores.

“Caroline, you take care of the chickens,” she said. “Make sure they get fed and watered and don’t let any of them get lost when you turn them out to run.

“Dora, I’ll need you to watch Frank and Georgie while I do the washing. And Ed, you can churn the butter.”

Just then I saw the look come into Ed’s eyes that meant he had an idea, and I knew what it was because I had it too. Although he didn’t need to, he jerked his head at me in a way that said come on. Grabbing a bar of soap and a towel, we ran off in the direction of the stream.

“Where are you two going?” Mama called, and Ed shouted, “To wash our hands.”

“You told a lie,” I accused.

“No, I didn’t. We’ll wash our hands.”

The frog hadn’t got warmed up enough to move around yet so he was still where we had left him.

Ed started to lather him with the soap, and he slipped away. He picked up the slick frog again and said, “Have to get him clean enough.”

After he’d washed and dried the frog, he put him inside his shirt. We stayed by the stream cutting willows until the camp was ready to leave and then ran and jumped in the back of the wagon.

Mama was riding up front with Papa, holding Frank on her lap, and Georgie was asleep in his wash-basket bed. Caroline was walking with her friends.

Ed plopped the frog into the butter churn, and we settled into the back of the wagon for a leisurely ride. We reached over the tailgate, dragging our willows in the dust to make patterned trails behind us.

Several times we peeked into the churn where the frog was still swimming around, but there was no sign of butter. Ed started to work on teaching me some new words, and we forgot about everything else.

At lunchtime Mama asked, “Did the butter come yet?”

“Not yet,” Ed said.

“Well, it will pretty soon,” she encouraged. “Even the bouncing wagon helps it along.”

Then Papa told her the frog story. “Now don’t go giving these children any crazy ideas. It would be just like Ed and Dora to try that out.” She looked at us. “AND DON’T YOU DARE!” she warned.

We were glad she didn’t check out the butter churn before the wagons started up again. We decided that as soon as it was safe, we’d get the frog out of the cream and churn the way we were supposed to. When we lifted the lid, there sat the frog on an island of butter it had made. We laughed and laughed, and Ed put the frog inside his shirt to keep him safe until later. He wasn’t going to turn him loose here where there was no water.

As soon as we stopped, we took off for the stream to release the frog, and no one but us ever did know how the butter was churned that day. (To be continued.)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann