LETTING GO; AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD #26/FINALE

 

It was the youngest son, Luke, who finally returned to the homestead, on a clear March day, when winter is still present on the plains and everything is bleak and down trodden in the way that only a bitter winter can induce. There was not the least sign of a bud or blade of grass.

He had gone to the bank to see Mr. Hodfstader, the man who had handled all of his father’s affairs, and was given an envelope with Luke’s name on the front, and inside a skeleton key. The farm was still in the family; pa had been reluctant to ever consider selling it; Luke’s mother had been buried on a hillside not far from the house, where a cherry tree had grown for years to the delight of his mother who knew that cherries did not grow willingly in this region. But Luke’s mother could make anything grow, to the amazement of those who witnessed the vegetables and fruits and that mama could produce. Mama would say it was the coffee grounds she spread under the trees but no one else could make their coffee grounds perform miracles. Mama spread coffee grounds under her rose plants, too, and had the finest roses in all of Iowa. Mama really had a green thumb.

The house was shabby and bleak-looking as well. The windows had been boarded up after some mischievous boys had taken slingshots at them, breaking two of mama’s precious windows. Luke opened the front door with the skeleton key; it was dark and dusty inside, the only light filtering through the open door.

In the kitchen, it was—Luke thought—like a time capsule. There was mama’s range on which she cooked stews and soups and delicious chicken and dumplings, there was the oven in which she baked breads and sweet rolls and a strudel that she learned to make from a German neighbor who lived not far away from them. On the wooden table was mama’s big yellow bowl with a wooden spoon resting inside. Everything was dusty from the dirt blowing in through cracks and crevices. Luke looked around suddenly – seeing movement to one side of the kitchen – and then – it was as though time split – for there was mama taking a pie out of the oven, turning to him, smiling, over a cherry pie.

Mama?” he was incredulous. It wasn’t a ghostly image, she was solid.

I made a pie just for you,” mama said, setting it on the wooden table. “I knew you were coming.”

Luke’s head spun. He could smell the cherry pie, he could see it, and he could see his mother, smiling broadly.

How….how did you get here? He finally asked, standing frozen afraid to move, afraid she would disappear.

It was not easy,” she replied. “I have been saving up for this moment. All of my energy has gone into it. I knew you were coming, eventually. Seems like only a day but I know it had to be a long time. I   died….” She faltered, a long time ago. I could not bring papa with me. He did not want to come.

Luke stood, staring. Finally he asked the question uppermost in his mind.

Mama, what should I do? Should I keep the farm or sell it? Some big farmer wants the property—I could have your remains moved to another place, to a cemetery…” he stopped, hardly able to breathe. He was talking to his mother about her remains.

His mother pshhhed in a way that only mama could do when she thought something unworthy of discussion.

Bones,” she said, “do not mean anything where I am. I only came, Luke, to tell you to let go. You don’t have to keep this farm. Let it all go and get on with your life. I see you sometimes. I know there is a woman you want to marry. Let go of the past, son. Only your future matters. You can let all of this go…” and suddenly, without any warning, mama disappeared. Luke turned around, looking intently. He placed his hand on top of mama’s stove. It felt warm to his touch. And there, on top of the old wooden table….was a cherry pie, still steaming hot.

How did she do that? He wondered.

Then, another thought – was it real? He took the wooden spoon out of the bowl and dug into the pie with it. It was real. It was mama’s cherry pie. He tasted it, almost burning his tongue.

I’d sure like to know how you did that,” he said aloud. Then he took a fork out of the kitchen drawer and sat down to eat cherry pie, right out of the pie plate.

When he had eaten, he said—again aloud—“You’re right, mama. I’ll sell the property. There’s an interested buyer. Maybe you can tell papa. I’m letting go. It’s time to get on with my life…. I love you, mama…”

Somewhere, far off, there was a little tinkle of bells, something like a wind chime.

Luke washed the pie plate and the wooden spoon and his fork. Mama would have felt disgraced if he didn’t clean up after himself.

When he left, he took mama’s big yellow bowl with him, along with the wooden spoon. He didn’t look back as he got into his car and drove away.

He was letting go.

–Sandra Lee Smith

Originally Posted July 25, 2012

Updated October 19, 2018

Sandra’s Footnote: I have been saving the above as a finale to the American Childhood series. I hope you all have enjoyed reading it,, as much as I have enjoyed writing it. 😊

WHEN IT’S CHRISTMAS ON THE PRAIRIE, AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD #25

Come winter on the prairie and as far as you can see,

Snow makes a great white blanket across the endless prairie sea,

Pa gets the big sleigh from the barn and greases up the blades,

To make the pulling easier for the horses, on the grades.

 

Mama takes out the oldest blankets, that help to keep us warm,

Pa checks the sleigh most carefully, to keep us all from harm.

Then snug in mittens, scarves and coats that mama made from wool,

Pa takes us every morning to our little country school.

 

He stays a while to help our teacher fill the old wood bin,

She thanks him with a curtsy, brings out the gentleman in him.

We students hang our coats and things in the cloak room at the back,

And teacher claps her hands and says, “Since Christmas’s coming that—

 

Today we’re going to decorate a tree that kind Mr. Mc Clune

Went up north to get for us and will bring it to us soon,

For now we’ll all make popcorn garlands and chains of colored paper,”

And from a box she lifts up a silver star—nothing had escaped her.

 

No reading, writin’, rithmetic, no studying today!

We’re going to decorate a tree and enjoy a day of play;

On Christmas Eve our families will come to see the tree,

And Santa will come and give us each a bag of candy, free!

 

“Tain’t no Santa,” One of the big boys in the back row shouted out,

The little girls in front began to shriek and cry and pout;

My younger sis is with the little girls that were in tears.

I knew I had to do something to take away their fears.

 

You take that back!” I said with fists clenched, ready for a fight,

When teacher intervened and said “Now, boys, this isn’t right.

On Christmas we all celebrate the birth of Christ the King,

George, you say you’re sorry and we’ll all forget this thing.”

 

Then teacher told a story, while we cut and pasted rings,

As we made a garland for our tree, she told of many things,

Of the birth of one small baby, in a manger far away,

And how folks far away and near remember Him on this day.

 

She told about Saint Nicholas who filled the wooden shoes,

for all the good Dutch boys and girls to remember this Good News,

She said how now, we all remember Jesus in this way,

And all of us remember Him on every Christmas Day.

 

The big boy, George, he was abashed, and said he didn’t mean it,

But he had no ma or pa and no Santa Claus would visit;

He lived with one old aunt who had no time for foolishness,

No time for trees or holly, for Santa Claus or Christmas.

 

On Christmas Eve our families came and crowded in the room,

We’d cleaned our desks, the blackboard, and candles chased off gloom,

Then Santa came and brought a sack, and we all lined up to get

A little bag of peppermints, a night we’d not forget.

 

When all the candy had been passed out, Santa stood upright

And asked, “I wonder if a boy named George is here tonight?”

George came forward and I noticed that his face had turned beet red;

As he said “I’m sorry, Santa, I really didn’t mean to be so bad.”

 

“Oh, I know that!” Santa laughed, “Why, I know what’s good and true,

There’s just one gift I have to give, and George this one’s for you!”

And from his burlap bag, he reached and handed George a box;

George opened it and all of us heard him gasp with shock;

 

Inside the box there was a very fine Swiss army knife;

George’s eyes lit up with wonder, “I’ve wanted one all my life,

But,” he said, “I never told this to a single living soul!

Santa patted him on his shoulder and said “Oh, George, I know!”

 

We all shed tears and teacher said “Let us sing a song of praise,

That we all remember this night for all our living days.”

And so we sang, then hurried home in the cold night with elation,

Before we left, I heard my mama extend a special invitation.

 

George said he didn’t think his aunt ever would agree,

Mama said “I won’t take no for an answer; supper is at three.”

And so next day, George and his aunt and our teacher came for dinner,

That all of us told mama was so fine and sure a winner.

 

In the parlor there were presents for my sis and George and me,

Scarves and mittens ma had stitched and it was plain to see

That no one had done this much for George in all his sorry life,

“Scarves and mittens!” George exclaimed, “And a fine Swiss Army knife!”

 

We all sipped hot tea with cookies ma had baked, just for this day,

And our guests all carried home tins of cookies wrapped so gay,

Before we went to bed that night, I heard my mother whisper,

“You dear old Claus, I do believe, I’d like to kiss your whiskers!”

 

Years later, when my pa was old and frail and could not see,

I ventured then to ask him what had long been bothering me,

How could you know,” I asked him, “About George and that army knife?”

Because,” he said, “I wanted one, most of all  throughout my life.”

 

George married my kid sister and they have a bunch of boys;

Their farm is off in Kansas and sis tells me it’s a joy,

For George just loves his rowdy bunch, for them he’d give his life,

And every one of those young boys owns a fine Swiss Army knife.

 

–Sandra Lee Smith,

Originally posted in 2010

Updated, December 2018

 

(*This was a poem I wrote in a small collection of poems called An American Childhood, for my poetry club in 2010. Then my Canadian girlfriend, Doreen, took all of the American Childhood poetry and put it together with illustrations and one of her own poems, and compiled a booklet titled MAMA IN THE KITCHEN/AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD, 1900, RECEIPTS AND VERSE WRITTEN BY SANDRA LEE SMITH).

ONE DAY WHEN MAMA AND PAPA WENT TO TOWN, AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD #23

ONE DAY WHEN MAMA AND PAPA WENT TO TOWN,

AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD #23

One day, I awoke and much to my surprise,

I didn’t smell coffee brewing;

I went down stairs and

could not believe my eyes

 

There mama sat, in her Sunday best,

With gloves, her purse and hat–

Then Pa came in–and he is dressed up too!

What could I make of that?

 

He said “the team is hitched to go”

Mama said “I’m ready too,

I just need to give young sis a list

of things for her to do”

 

My eyes were wide; I took the list

that mama wrote for me;

I was to go and gather eggs,

and give the hens some feed;

 

I was to take some jars from the pantry shelf

some applesauce and beets,

and there was bread and butter that

My brother and I could eat.

 

“He’s got his own chores” Papa said,

“And  you have got your own”

“don’t want to hear  no fussin,’

feuding over some old bone”

 

“Yessir” I said, my eyes still on,

the list that seemed so long,

Mama said “I want you to make up supper

and we’ll eat when we get home”

 

Yes mama” I answered, feeling fearful,

They’d never gone away before;

Mama gave me a kiss and off they went

Out through the kitchen door.

 

I fixed tea for Luke and milk for me,

and got out bread and jelly,

I ate a lot of fresh-baked bread

to satisfy my belly.

 

Then Luke went out to tend the pigs,

and lead the cows to pasture,

Then he went to sow the seed

that papa said he should master.

 

With mama’s basket, I gathered eggs

and fed the hens some mash,

Mama sells the eggs in town,

that’s how she gets some cash.

 

I cleaned the eggs like mama did,

and laid them down in straw;

I swept the kitchen and the yard,

It wasn’t hard at all;

 

from the cellar,  I brought up applesauce and beets,

and then thought that I should bake a cake,

I followed mama’s receipt in her cookbook

and put it on to bake.

 

from the smokehouse I cut a slice

of ham and chopped it up,

Then in  a pot I put runner beans

and carrots, ’bout  cup.

 

Midday my brother came to eat

more of mama’s bread and butter,

Then I tidied up the kitchen,

so there wasn’t any  clutter.

 

’bout supper time  all was done,

and I had he table set,

When we heard the wagon wheels,

Luke said “That’s them, I bet”

 

Oh, pa and mama praised us both

and said we’d done them proud,

They ate the supper that I’d made,

and Pa said that he allowed

 

He’d left some room to try the cake,

I fixed the plates with pride,

I saw my mama’s eyes fill up,

the first time I’d seen her cry.

 

Then papa said “we have some news”

We wondered what it was,

They went to see the banker, today,

and the reason was, because,

 

He said they’d  paid the mortgage off,

the farm was free and clear,

Luke and I stood up and clapped,

and gave a rousing cheer.

 

I didn’t really understand

how much it meant, that day,

Years would pass before I knew,

by now I’m old and gray;

 

Luke and I stayed on the farm,

long after our folks had died;

and now the land belongs to us,

I feel gratitude inside;

 

It could have all been left to Luke,

a lot of people feel that way ,

But papa left it to me, too,

there was naught anyone could say.

 

and so I cooked and kept the house

and tended to mama’s hens,

I sold the eggs to folks in town,

the circle never ends.

 

Sandra Lee Smith

Originally posted June 30, 2010

Updated  October 13, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

WHEN MAMA’S MAKING GINGERBREAD, AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD #22

“Why do they call it ‘Gingerbread’?

I asked mama one day, “Oh, you know,

it’s just a cake”

“Just a cake, you say?”

“gingerbread” my mama says

is the oldest cake in all the world.

It is believed to have been created by

a Greek in Rhodes, in 800 BC,

and was famous in the Mediterranean area.

The Crusaders brought it back to England

after the wars and by the 14th century

it was customary to make it into fancy shapes

representing men, animals and birds.

Queen Elizabeth the First of England

gave Gingerbread creations to her guests,

But it was the brothers Grimm who made us

Remember Gingerbread for all time by

using it as the material for the witches cottage

in Hansel and Gretel….”

“Oh,” I say, “mama  you know so much!”

And she laughs and says

“You will know a lot more when you are my age,

too, and if you study hard in school and learn everything

the teacher tells you….”

and then she  says, wistfully, “I loved school”.

I am stunned to silence.  I always thought the only

thing mama loved was working in her kitchen and

taking care of me and papa”

 

Sandra Lee Smith

Originally posted June 26 2010,

Updated October 11, 2018

TO MAKE MAMA’S GINGERBREAD YOU WILL NEED:

1 CUP MOLASSES

1/2 CUP BUTTERMILK

1 EGG SLIGHTLY BEATEN

2 CUPS ALL PURPOSE FLOUR

1/2 TSP SALT

1/2CUP SUAR

1 TSP ALLSPICE

1 TSP GROUND CINNAMON

1 TSP GROUND GINGER

1 TSP BAKING SODA

1/2 CUP (1 STICK) BUTTER, MELTED

1 CUP HEAVY CREAM, WHIPPED (OPTIONAL)

Preheat oven 350 degrees. grease a 9″ square baking p an. in a small bowl, combine the molasses, buttermilk and egg; stir to blend. Sift together the flour, salt, sugar, allspice, cinnamon, ginger and baking soda in a large bowl. add the molasses mixture and mix well. add the melted butter and stir until just blended.  pour batter into pan. bake 25-35 minutes or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. cool in the pan on a wire rack. serve with whipped cream, if desired

 

 

 

WHEN MAMA’S MAKING PICKLES, AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD, #21

One morning after breakfast,

Pa brought in a bushel basket

that was filled with plump cucumbers,

though my mama hadn’t asked him.

 

“Well, I guess we’re making pickles”

she smiled and said to me,.

So I brought out her receipt book

for the receipt, so she could see.

 

I fetch the cider vinegar,

Pa carried up the crock,

from the cellar where we store it,

it’s as heavy as a rock;

 

From the garden I bring dill weed

while mama measures pickling spice,

and we both scrub all the cucumbers

to make sure they’re all firm and nice.

 

Mama peels ten cloves of garlic

I bring in water from the well,

And we mix it with the vinegar,

and some salt though who can tell?

 

Then mama puts a layer of cucumbers

in the bottom of the crock,

that we scalded first with water

that mama boiled up in a pot.

 

Then she sprinkles on the spices

and a layer of the dill,

and repeats each of the layers

til the stoneware crock is filled;

 

The brine is then poured over

all the contents of the crock,

and mama puts a  plate inside it

and weighs it firmly with a rock.

 

Then she covers it with a towel

and after three days she starts skimming,

off the foam and makes sure the cukes

stay under ‘stead of swimming,

In three weeks we have pickles and

Pa brings up empty jars

that we scrub and boil in water

by now we both have burns and scars.

 

We put a clove of garlic

and a sprig of dill in each,

We divvy up cucumbers and

then we leach

 

the brine through a piece of cheesecloth

then we fill the jars with brine,

and we cap the jars and boil them

til the pickles come out fine.

 

Oh, its a wondrous thing to see

those jars of pickles in a line

I can’t wait til we start eating them

(I even love the brine!)

 

Sandra Lee Smith

Originally posted June 23, 2010

Updated October 10, 2018

Sandra’s foodnote:  This was perhaps the most challenging of the American Childhood series and there remains the question in my mind, whether mama and pa would have kept the pickles in a barrel in the fruit cellar or canned them after 3 weeks of soaking in the brine. Every general store would have had a barel of pickles that you could buy, one at a time.  Possibly mama would have wanted to keep them in a barrel in the fruit cellar and save her canning jars for the more important things that had to be canned.

The general directions I have followed are from a favorite cookbook of mine, “500 Treasured Time Honored tried and true Country Handed Down recipes by Martha Storey and the recipe itself if an old fashioned brined dill pickle recipe.  And the cloves of garlic–they weren’t actually needed until they started canning the pickles.  Mama may have kept them on ice in the ice box.

 

WHEN MAMA’S MAKING APPLE MUFFINS, AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD, #20

It’s a cold and wintry morning,

and the snow lies on the ground,

deep and thick and heavy,

a white blanket all around;

 

From deep beneath my quilts, I smell

the coffee as its boiling,

In the kitchen down below, I hear

my mama as she’s toiling.

 

I slip into my old brown dress and shoes,

and the apron mama made me,

I splash my face with water,

and tie my hair behind me,

 

I rush down to the kitchen

to see what I can do,

And mama looks at me and laughs,

,says “You haven’t tied your shoes”

 

I ask what she is making and

she tells me with a smile,

We haven’t had those muffins

that you like, for quite a while”

Oh, muffins! Muffins! My heart sings–

I run down to the cellar

and there amongst the straw I find

red apples in the barrel;

 

In the kitchen, I help peel and dice

two apples, I am learning,

And mama takes some kindling and

she gets the stove fire burning.

 

She takes out her yellow mixing bowl

and puts in salt and eggs and flour,

adds soda, butter, cinnamon, and

some milk that has turned sour.

 

Then we fold in those chopped apples,

that I stir up with a wooden spoon,

She says the batter should be lumpy,

But we’ll be eating muffins soon.

 

I grease the little muffin pans

that look like little cakes,

We gently spoon the batter in

and wait for them to bake.

 

Mama tells a story while

we both clean up the kitchen,

The apples in a barrel come

from her brother back in Michigan.

 

He sends a barrel full each fall,

and it’s such a wondrous feeling,

and while the muffins bake away,

I sit and eat the peelings.

Here for you to make in your own kitchen is mama’s receipt for apple muffins.  This recipe calls for “one cup milk” and doesn’t state that it should be fresh–presumably so, but mama would have known that sour milk would enhance the recipe (mama called them receipts) while at the same time using up some milk that had gone bad.

APPLE MUFFINS

2 CUPS ALL PURPOSE FLOUR

1 CUP APPLES, CORED, AND CHOPPED BUT NOT PEELED*

1 CUP MILK

1 1/2 CUPS BUTTER, MELTED AND COOLED

1/4 CUP SUGAR

1 EGG

3 TSP BAKING POWDER

1 TSP GROUND CINNAMON

1/4 TSP GROUND NUTMEG

1/2 TSP SALT

Preheat oven 400 degrees. Grease 12 muffins cups or line with paper cupcake liners; mix all ingredients using a wooden spoon. batter will be lumpy. Fill muffins cups 2/3 full. bake for 20-25 minutes or until a tester inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean.  Mama would use a clean broom straw for a tester.  Makes 1 dozen.

*We didn’t peel the apples because mama knows I like to eat the peelings.

 

 

 

Sandra Lee Smith

Originally posted June 24, 2010

Updated October 8, 2018

WHEN MAMA’S MAKING APPLE PIES, AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD #19

When mama’s making apple pies,

She never makes just one–]

Oh, no, there’s always two or three,

or a fourth, sometimes, for fun.

 

That’s ’cause we all love pie so much

and apple pie’s the best,

We’d eat it any time of day,

for breakfast, I’d confess.

 

Dinner, supper, for dessert,

It don’t matter much to us,

Even for a midnight snack,

Pie’s never any fuss.

 

Mama starts by making up the crusts

for all those apple pies,

She mixes flour and salt and ice cold lard,

I watch her, with keen eyes.

 

Into the big old yellow bowl

she mixes these things up,

And then dribbles in some water, chilled,

Pour from an  old tin cup.

 

When it’s  looking like coarse meal,

She starts to mix it up,

and when the dough comes to a ball,

she covers it all up.

 

She puts it in the ice box and

she lets it rest a while,

and while the dough is chilling,

she asks me with a smile

 

to fetch some apples from below

from the barrel in the cellar,

I go to bring the apples up,

“I love apples best” I tell her.

 

We peel and slice the apples and

sprinkle them with spices,

some sugar and some flour too,

but cinnamon is nicest.

 

One by one, mama rolls the dough

and fits it in the pie pans,

She flutes the crusts and hands to me

the pans so I can fill them.

 

For each she rolls another crust

and these will go on top,

and then we bake them til they’re done,

and we EAT TIL WE COULD DROP!

 

TO MAKE MAMA’S APPLE PIE YOU WILL NEED:

PASTRY FOR TWO 9″ PIE CRUSTS

1 CUP SUGAR

2 TBSP FLOUR

1 TSP GROUND CINNAMON

1/4 TSP NUTMEG

6 LARGE TART APPLES, PEELED AND SLICED

2 TBSP BUTTER, MELTED

1 TBSP LEMON JUICE

Preheat oven 450 degrees. Roll out half of the pastry dough and fit into a 9″ pie pan.  In a small bowl, combine the sugar, flour, cinnamon and nutmeg. Place sliced apples in a large bowl (a yellow one if you have it) and toss with the sugar mixture, coating each slice.  Pile the apples high into the prepared pie crusts. Combine the butter and lemon juice; drizzle over apples. cover with top crust. Moisten the edges of the crust with water, then crimp to seal. cut several openings in the top to allow steam to escape. bake for  10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees for an additional 45 minutes or until browned and bubbly.  serve warm or cold, day or night.

Sandra Lee Smith

Originally posted June 25, 2010

Updated October 7, 2018