A Place of Our Own


I was watching Papa put the last touches on top of the windmill when he called down to me, “Dora, go into the house and get your mama.”

When we came out, Papa was hanging by his knees on the highest crosspiece. “Look, hon,” he called to her. “It’s all finished.” Mama looked up and gasped.

“Alfred B. Cookson, you come down here right this minute before you’re finished. You’ll have every last one of these kids up there hanging upside down, and before we know it someone will fall and break his neck.”

Papa swung easily to his feet, climbed down, and ran over to silence her with a kiss. “You worry too much,” he said.

“No wonder, with such a crazy husband,” she scolded. “You scared me to death.”

I think Papa knew she was right, though, because he used the leftover pipe and lumber to make us an acting pole where we could learn to hang upside down and do other tricks at a safe distance from the ground.

After we had all worked together assembling the pieces for the water tank, it was time to begin breaking the ground for the crops. The soil fell away from the plow in light, sandy furrows. Then the harrow laid it out in a soft, level blanket to wait for just the right moment for sowing the seeds.

Papa insisted on planting root crops in the dark of the moon and crops that matured above ground when the moon was full. He had a special feel for the weather too.

“Looks like a dry spring,” he’d say. “Better plant deep so the seeds won’t sprout and dry out.” Or “It’s going to be wet this year. If the seeds are too deep, they’ll rot.”

Whether his methods were based on science, superstition, or inspiration, I don’t know, but whatever they were he seemed to have a magic touch.

While Papa was getting his land ready, I was preparing a little plot close to the house to plant the seeds I had brought. I was digging with the spade one day when he came in from the field for dinner. “What are you making, Dora?” he asked.

“My garden,” I said.

“What are you going to plant?”

“Beans and watermelon. I brought the seeds from Utah in my box.”

“What a good thing to bring! That makes them very special seeds. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to them if they came clear from Salt Lake. I’ll help you build a fence around your garden to keep out the cows and chickens.”

After I had finished my garden, Ed and I decided to fix one for our Indian grandma. We kept it watered and weeded, and she enjoyed coming outside to watch it grow, as well as for the tasty addition of fresh vegetables to her diet.

Soon the corn was growing in straight green rows. We’d weeded out the suckers and weaker plants, leaving only the sturdiest stalks. Papa pulled three white crayons from his pocket and handed one each to Caroline, Ed, and me.

“I want you to draw a line around the bottom of each cornstalk, so the ants don’t crawl up. They won’t cross that line,” he said and showed us what he meant.

“Will the ants hurt the corn?” I wanted to know.

“No, but the aphids will, and where there are ants there are aphids.”

“Why?”

“The ants milk the aphids like we do cows. They need each other.”

“Do we have to do all the corn?” Ed asked.

“Every plant,” Papa said. “If you each do ten rows a day, it will soon be done. That will help keep the worms out too.”

“Ten rows?” Ed complained. “That’s impossible.”

“OK, eight then,” Papa compromised. “Now get to work.”

Every minute Papa could spare from working in the fields he spent fixing up the house. He added on until we had a front room, kitchen, bedroom, and back porch. He dug out underneath the house to make a cellar to store our food and coal for winter.

Occasionally Papa got a job laying brick for a fireplace chimney, and once he received a horse in trade for his work. It was a gentle, broad-backed creature named Bessie, who would carry as many children as could climb on. When she got tired she would walk under the low limbs of the Early Harvest apple tree and sweep the laughing riders off onto the ground. Ed could leap onto her back with a quick, smooth movement that I envied. I always seemed to get stuck lying across her back on my stomach, unable to wiggle around to swing one leg over and sit upright. Ed usually had to give me a shove that threatened to push me off.

One day I had an idea as I sat on the barn roof watching Ed ride Bessie around the yard. “Bring her over here,” I called. “I want to try something.”

Ed rode over. “OK, here we are,” he said. “Come on down.”

“Back her up under the sliding board,” I said.

Ed could see my idea at once and did as I asked. It was not more than two inches from the end of the board to the horse’s back, and I slid easily from one to the other. After that I always mounted Bessie the same way, and before long she backed herself close to the board as soon as anyone was on the barn roof. She learned to lower her head so we could slide down the board onto her back, over her head, and onto the ground in one quick swoop. We called that game the Bessie Bounce, and it was one of our favorites.

One time Bessie got tangled up in some barbwire and had deep, bleeding cuts on both hind legs when we found her.

Papa came out of the house with a curved needle and some black silk thread.

“What’s that for?” I asked.

“To sew her up—like you do a tear in your dress,” he explained and showed me how to take a stitch, tie a knot, cut the thread, and take another stitch.

Quickly the wound was pulled together and Papa washed off the blood.

“It’ll soon be good as new,” he assured us.

After that, whenever an animal had a bad cut, I ran to get the curved needle and thread for Papa and watched while he sewed it up.

Mama, Caroline, and I were busy bottling the produce from the garden. Papa had wrapped the stems of the chard in gunnysacks to keep them white, and we bottled the leaves in one half-gallon jar and the stems in another. It was like having two different vegetables.

We were washing the boiler in the yard after finishing the chard when Papa came in from the garden with a bushel basket full of cucumbers for pickles.

“I picked them just the right size for dills,” he said.

We ran clean water into the boiler and he dumped them in for me to wash, while Caroline went after the crock and some salt to make the brine.

“Be sure you rub them all over until you get all those little black prickles off,” Mama told me.

When Caroline came back she filled the crock half full of water. “How much salt do you want put in?” she asked.

“Enough to float an egg.”

As soon as the egg was floating, I slipped the smooth green “torpedoes” into their briny bath until the crock was full. Mama put a dinner plate upside down on the top and weighted it with a brick to keep the pickles submerged. “They have to soak a week in the brine, then in clear water to soak the salt out,” she explained.

“Why put them in salt in the first place if you only have to get it out later?” I wanted to know.

“It makes them keep better,” she said.

“What do you do next?”

“Soak them in alum water so they’ll be crisp. Then we put them down in the pickle barrel in alternating layers of cukes, dill heads, and grape leaves. Then cover it all with a vinegar brine.”

“Are they ready to eat then?”

“No, they have to cure for about a month first.”

After the big barrel was full of dill pickles we made some sweet ones from tiny cukes and a sugar syrup and kept them in the crock. We bottled bread and butter pickles, mustard pickles, piccalilli, and relish.

When the cucumbers were big and fat and yellow we cut them open, hollowed them out, and made boats to float down the irrigation ditches. I thought pickle season was over, but Mama knew one more kind—ripe cucumber pickles.

The corn was ready next. No vegetable was so deliciously sweet as corn on the cob popped into boiling water as soon as it was picked and husked. The eight-row variety we grew had the kernels spaced just right to bite off easily—four sections with two rows in each.

I loved to walk down the whispering rows with Papa to pick the corn. If the ear felt full and hard and the silk was frizzled brown on the top, it was ready. Papa would grab it firmly and crack it off with a quick, downward jerk.

Sometimes there was a little baby corn with long pink or green hair as smooth as silk growing next to its mama. Once in a great while there were twin corn babies. I always saved these little dolls and made cradles for them to hang in the tree where they rocked in the breeze.

When the corn patch was at its peak of production, Papa carried basket after basket into the shade by the house. There the boys pulled off the husks and put the cobs in a pan for Mama, who was waiting on the back porch with a sharp knife to slice off the kernels.

The chickens always came running and flipped up their feather duster behinds as their heads went down to peck up the corn worms or any discarded kernels they could find. Later they would have a feast cleaning off the cobs when Mama had finished with them.

Caroline put the sliced-off corn into dripper pans, heated it for a while in the oven, and then spread the steaming kernels on flour sacks to finish drying in the sun. Flies swarmed around the fragrant sheets but couldn’t get through the layer of gauze that had been put on top for protection. After several hot days, with an occasional stirring, the hard, dry corn was hung in cloth bags from nails in the rafters so the mice couldn’t get at it.

The husks were dried and saved to be used later for filling mattresses and quilts.

At last the watermelons were ripe. I’ll never forget the crisp, cracking sound when the knife bit into the green shell and spread open the luscious fruit, colored like a rosebud and speckled with flat and shiny black seeds, just right for spitting target practice. Watermelon was the best thing of all at the farm. My face was always sticky from being buried in a piece. We didn’t have to bottle, dry, or preserve watermelons. They were just for enjoying while they were fresh—and they were certainly that! (To be continued.)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann