Thursday, August 20, 2015

Maria Egel writes

A Memory 

When there are seven children in a family, it is a rarity to have your mom all to yourself. The last time I had that privilege was on a beautiful fall day in 1947, because Mom died that winter. Instead of herding the obstreperous cows, strung out from being in the barn all year, a job I hated, the two of us worked in the potato field, gathering the stray potatoes that were overlooked at the original harvest. I loved that chore. The sun was beaming down at us warmly but without its hot-summer sting. Socks and shoes tossed aside, the rich soil was squishing between our toes. The forest next to the field had started its changes for its fall garment, the leaves, a splendid exhibition of yellows, browns and golds. A bunch of forget-me-nots, misplaced at the edge of the field, were bravely defying the end of summer and swaying their fragile stems in the noon breeze. Our nostrils inhaled the mysterious earthen smell and from far away, we heard the occasional crack of a plowman’s whip. Then the church bells rang out the noon blessing and everyone stopped for lunch. God himself took a moment to smile kindle down on His world.

Mom and I raked the dried potato vines together, and from it built a fire. When it was ablaze we threw some of the bigger potatoes into it, the small ones we packed to be stored for the pigs. This task was repeated on every potato field around the village, making the air a bit dense with smoke, but no one minded a little drift of it into the eyes. The aroma from the potatoes baking had made us so hungry, that the taste buds started dancing way before they were ready to eat. If you have never eaten potatoes baked in an open fire, you don’t know what you are missing. First, there is the delicious taste and than the great fun of eating them. Your hands and face get coal black from their charred skin and on the way home, everybody you meet will have the tell-tell signs of their best autumn meal.

After lunch mom and I rested. We sat on a burlap sack and I curled up next her, my head cradled in her lap. Above us the thrushes and finches gave their free daily concert, and mom’s hands stroked gently over my hair while she told me this beautiful story. She told me that soon my body would be changing just as it would for all the millions of girls around the world and, that I would be taking my first step toward becoming a woman. My body would built a special cushion inside me that would be able to protect and nourish a baby but, until I was a fully grown woman and ready to have one, that cushion would dissolve every month, and when that time came, she cautioned, I might feel some ache.

Ache, I would easily be able to handle, it was pain I was not friends with, but it was always able to find me. Not so long ago I had been running through the yard, barefoot as always, practicing my “Olympic Long Jump,” leaping over a row of wooden boxes, and missed, landing on a rusty nail. Papa needed a plier to pull it out. When I fell out of the cherry tree, right onto the barbwire fence, I could not even limp in papa's presence because we were forbidden to climb that tree, half its roots dead, hanging limply over an open quarry. Its lure was, that it grew the sweetest cherries. Pain I felt, when my appendix busted and papa had to take me the hospital on horseback, an hour away from our village.

Mom told me when that big day came we would celebrate the occasion. We celebrated everything!  We celebrated when the barn cat had kittens, the shortest and longest day of the year, a new calf being born, and even the day, when my little brother finally learned how to tie his shoes. We celebrated with milk and black bread, topped with fresh berries or cucumbers, or anything that was in season. We would be dancing and singing and created music by clapping together the lids of cooking pots. When there are seven children in the family, it does not take much too create a party.  Papa had often claimed that he had the silliest family in the world.

Mom died that same year in December, a few days before Christmas, not yet 39 years old. She had a brain tumor. After her death, we no longer found too many reasons to celebrate. So, when my big day finally arrived it would no longer be so important. I did not feel shame or fear as some of my girlfriends did, because I remembered every word mom told me that day. I even remembered her smiling down at me when I told her that our bodies were pretty smart to practice every month until it got it just right and how happy I would be to become a woman, just like her.

I would have liked a little attention though, a hug, or my sister telling me I could sit quietly in my hide-out to read. But on that very same day, every thing went haywire. Our best milk-cow decided to calf and she was in trouble. My oldest sister Betty, just 17, a teenager herself, could handle our needs and fears pretty well, but on that day she was overwhelmed. My four-year-old brother had been stuffing cracked walnuts up his nose and he screamed like a stuck piglet. The harder we tried to get the mess out of his nose, the more we seemed to clog it. The little pieces of shells were scratching his nose until it bled. His screaming scared the neighbor’s dog so much that he started to chase him around the yard. With all the running to get away from the dog, his nose unplugged all by itself. With that entire travesty we had forgotten about the cow until a loud bellowing from the barn brought her to our to attention.  Betty gave the commands to us, her troops. Nannerl went to the Mayor's office, who had the only phone in the village, to call for the vet. Calling the vet was a rarity, because he costs money we did not have. Agnes was sent to get papa, who was in the forest cutting firewood, and I had to run to the store to get a bar of soap because our homemade soap would not do for the fine doctor. Our soap, a concoction of tallow and lye, felt like rubbing a rough brick against your skin, but the brick had a nicer smell.

I did not mind running to the store that day because I had something to prove. I had to pass the Schneiders' house, who had the meanest gander in the whole wide world. He would never bother grown-ups or boys, only girls. I could never figure out what had made that dumb gander so smart. He was a skirt chaser! Every girl in the village had black and blue marks on their calves from his vicious bite. Well, on that day I was no longer just any girl, I had became, almost, a woman. So, when I had to pass the Schneiders' fence, I almost thumbed my nose at him, and even left my stick at home, no longer needed. But then I heard his mean screech and I could almost feel his wings puffing up to help him get over the fence. Before I knew it, he had clamped his peak into my calves so deeply that he had drawn blood. I started to scream, and my almost womanhood had collapsed right back into being nothing more than a scared girl. My screams awakened Rosa Krohn from her nap, resting on her front stoop. She came running to help me out, screaming as loudly as I, all the time swinging her broomstick. She had to hit that stubborn gander several times before he finally let go.

I have to explain about Rosa and her broomstick.We kids had never been very kind to her; in fact, behind her back we had been calling her “the witch.” She had a badly deformed back and ugly purple warts on one side of her nose, jaundiced eyes, and almost no hair. But here she was, rescuing me from that beast! After the gander ran away, defeated, she took my hand and walked me into her kitchen. It smelled so nice there; it had a ”peace” smell, a comforting mothersmell, and I started crying. She understood that I was not just crying about my sore leg but my whole twelve year old life that had suddenly gone so wrong. Over apple pie and milk I asked why the gander seemed to be chasing only after girls. It had nothing to do with gender, she told me, but the fact that boys and men were wearing trousers, women long skirts, and only girls flashed their legs unprotected.And I had been calling the gander dumb? When we talked about my mom, she too had tears in her eyes, missing her friendship and kindness. I had been too young to go through that natural separation and rebellion that daughters sometimes have with their mothers and then death came and did it mercilessly. All this talking about mom made me remember how she had planned a celebration for me and here I sat doing just that, celebrating, and eating apple pie, drinking milk, and making a friend.

The gander might chase me again tomorrow, and I might still be too much of a girl not to be looking over my shoulder when passing his fence, but I was grown up enough to make a new friend for life. Sunday afternoons Rosa and I would be sitting in the sun, its rays comforting her aching bones, and she would tell me stories or I would be reading to her. Her eyesight had gone bad, and she could not afford glasses. She, treasure chest of wisdom and I, the young girl so eager to learn, had been passing each other daily without ever connecting. The two of us had always planned to make Roast Goose” out of that fiend but never got to it, perhaps because we both knew we owed him thanks.

The doctor managed without the more delicate soap, my sister happily took the unspent money back, the cow and calf were doing fine, and I just knew that mom was near us.

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