OF THE FARM
CHARLES AUSTIN, tending his grape vines, circa 1944.
Warm and cozy memories
of growing up a farm girl
By BARBARA McFADDEN
The young farmers instincts told him that the weather was changing. As the sky grayed, he sensed rain was on the way and as the temperature dropped, he feared hail. He hurried from the field to the barnyard to secure the animals, hen house, and barn for what might come.
As he lay in bed that night beside his lovely young wife, he shivered with the increasing cold and feared for his beautiful corn crop. Before dawn, he awakened from restless sleep to the sound of rain on the roof, which quickly increased its beat. Then it grew even colder. Hail began to pelt away at the shingles with increasing fury.
At first light, he hurried to the back door, flung it open, and stared in horror at the
devastation of the corn crop he had been relying upon for cash and food for his animals and flock of chickens.
Without a word to his wife or a bite of breakfast, he purposefully dressed, hooked his horse up to the buggy and drove into town. By the time he returned, everything on the farm had been sold and he had nothing with him but two one-way train tickets and a great big trunk.
They were leaving Toledo, Kansas, with its cruel summers and winters and going to California.
Upon arriving in Stockton early in the 20th Century, these Westward Ho pioneers found themselves the butt of laughter at their old-fashioned clothes. Charl, as his wife referred to him, found work on other folks land, building houses and barns. In time this resilient man, who later became my grandfather, accumulated enough money to invest in his own land next to a irrigation ditch bank (the sloping outer side of the dirt wall), down a country road from a wide spot on Highway 99 between
Modesto and Turlock called Keyes.
While Grandma and Grandpa loved that place they called the home ranch and the fertile land that supported their family, my folks slipped beyond the surrounding mountains and created a far different life in a much different place. They followed my dads parents to coastal Santa Cruz, after discovering that my brother Bobs asthma nearly disappeared each time they visited the coast. Nonetheless, we grandchildren went back for visits during summer vacations.
While it may be an agricultural cornucopia, one thing we had to acclimate ourselves to each time, was the fact that the great San Joaquin Valley of California bakes during the summer months. And, some times, it just sizzles. In the Golden Olden times before air conditioning, folks relied upon open windows and doors in the evenings to let the hot air that accumulated during the day pass through the
screens and the slightly cooler air to enter.
Not only did cool air come through the wire screens, the rumble of the night train, as it whistled through the single crossing down the country road at Keyes entered as well. So, as I lay in bed at Grandmas house, my vivid imagination was filled with visions of men and women in suits and hats, swiftly moving through the night. And, of course, I was filled with curiosity about their destinations and the reasons for them.
Were they traveling to big cities for new careers, loves, vacations, or to flee old ones? Was it possible they were traveling to port cities where they might be taking ocean liners for all of those possibilities or were they headed for large airports for any of the same reasons?
As I fell asleep to the sturdy tick-tock of the big clock on the corner shelf in the kitchen, I tumbled into wonderful dreams about all these assorted possibilities. No wonder Ive always dreamed in technicolor.
One of the realities of country life back in the 30s, 40s and 50s was family. Since my grandmother had been orphaned and lost one sister by the time she married Grandpa, she had most of her family fiercely attached to her apron strings. And, since her flowered aprons were made of large cotton sacks sturdy enough to hold feed for her flocks of chickens, those strings held.
So, during the day, my aunts, Irene, Betty and Vi would drop by. Another aunt, Mary Lee, and her family lived with Grandma on the ranch after Grandpa died of asthma and probably lung or esophageal cancer.
Most of the time when Betty and Vi came, their kids joined them. So, there were a lot of us to go outside and play. Play, like work, started in the barn, where the great trunk that my grandparents brought with them from Kansas was stored. It was filled with the most wonderful old clothes and my mind was stuffed with the most marvelous scenarios for all of us to act out. No wonder I developed such a love for drama!
Customarily, the only interference from the back porch would be calls from Mary Lee, worrying about whether there were any black widow spiders hiding in those old clothes. Mary Lee worried about a lot of things.
Nearly everything we ate there came from the ranch and there really is nothing like farm-fresh fruit and produce. Uncle Johnny was so proud of his fruit and vegetables and fussed about the fact that Aunt Mary Lee really preferred the nice, clean produce in cellophane bags from the grocery store. Actually, I think it was the dirt that clung to the carrots, onions, etc., from the vegetable garden behind the barn that bothered her so. In addition to spiders, Mary Lee worried a lot about about things like germs.
Oh, and then there were her concerns about all of us falling into the irrigation ditch on our way to the bank of nearby mailboxes where the rural delivery mailman filled a bank of those old fashioned gray metal mailboxes with red flags that you put up if there was mail in your box to go.
These fears led to our familys very own version of the fairy tale about the Billy Goats Gruff. However, this one only featured the troll that would leap up and drag you down to the very bottom if you got too close. There were no heroes here. Since I had the very strongest imagination, I worried about this the most. So, each time I reached the ditch, I stopped and took a very deep breath and ran like blazes right down the middle of the road. To this day, I have marvelous lung capacity. I also have a lingering suspicion that my aunt used to stand at the dining room windowand giggle at my antics. Farm life could be a bit dull and folks found their fun where they could.
However, once past the ditch on my return trip, mail in hand, I could stop and pick some of Doc Sergiss big black figs. When he emigrated from the Middle East, he must have brought cuttings from all his favorite fruit trees. And, as my grandfather sampled them, he, too acquired loquats, persimmons, and pomegranates. Stuffed with those glorious figs, I returned much more slowly toward Grandmas park-like
yard. There was a hedge with flower beds between it and the great green lawn with the two large Christmas trees, which were like our grandparents. One was tall and thin and the other was short and stout. The only blemish was the huge butane tank-there were no natural gas pipelines leading to farm houses.
There was also a wonderful pond filled with water lilies and goldfish. When I reproduced that in my own yard at the bottom of a waterfall decades later, raccoons destroyed everything. First they upended and tore apart the plants while looking for grubs. And then, they ate my beautiful koi. However, Grandmas goldfish led much longer and happier lives.
Recently, I learned that the lovely yards around some of the farmhouses were the result of articles in the monthly farm magazines, encouraging farmers to beautify the area around their homes. The more successful the farmer, the more splendid the yard.
Towards the end of the Summer, the big event was the County Fair. In addition to the rides and booths offering prizes for various feats, there were the individual booths for all of the small communities, which competed for the coveted first prize blue ribbons. Not only did places compete, the farmers within them tried to out-vie each other. My cousins and I would pile in our uncles cars and ferry plates of magnificent produce back and forth between the Keyes booth and the judges. Uncle Dick and Uncle Johnny were the most competitive of all.
As I grew older, an added attraction was riding on all of those rides at night with my favorite broad shouldered boy of the Summer. And, of course, there were those wonderful square dances in Uncle Bills big garage. There was also house work to be done. Even though farmers removed their boots on the back steps, dirt found its way inside the house. As I think back upon how purposeful my grandmothers and most of their daughters were, I think it helped protect them from the isolation of farm life.
The routine of laundry, on a certain day, ironing the next, etc., provided a framework for their lives. Women who rebelled, like my mother and one of her sisters-in-law, succumbed to fantasy land, depression, and agoraphobia. (One service station owners wife even ran off with a truck driver.)
Like all good things, Summers came to an end. And, in time so did that park like yard. It succumbed to the rapacious needs of modern farming.
Now, the diminished yard is surrounded by fencing instead of a hedge. Aside from a row or two, the grapevines have been ripped out along with the walnut trees and berry vines. Im probably the only member of the family who misses that wonderful yard. However, it and the people who filled it still vividly exist in my mind.
©2012 by Barbara McFadden. The photo is the property of the author. All rights reserved. This column first posted Jan. 23, 2012.
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