Authors: Betty MacDonald
Tags: #General Fiction
It was late summer before we even started on our house. We laid new floors; put in windows; kalsomined the walls; fixed broken sills and sagging doors; put in a sink (without water but with a drain) and made other general repairs and, though it looked about as stylish as long underwear in its gray sturdiness, it began to feel like home. The kitchen had two armchairs and a rocking chair, a big square table, rag rugs and the stove. The kitchen was the hub of all of our activities. We kept the egg records there—we wrote our checks—made out our mail orders—read out mail—ate—washed—took baths—entertained—planned the future and discussed the past. We began the day in it at 4
and we ended it there about eight-thirty by shutting the damper in the stove just before blowing out the lamp. The rest of the house was clean and comfortable and unimportant.
We traded our car for a Ford pick-up truck. We traded a valley farmer, a waffle iron and toaster (wedding presents) for a dragsaw. We traded electric lamps (wedding presents) for gasoline lanterns, kerosene lamps and sad irons. We bought tin washtubs and a pressure cooker.
We hewed a road into the virgin timber at the back of the ranch and drove the truck out there, loaded with axes, mauls, wedges, peaveys, oil and gasoline and we sawed shake bolts from fallen cedars four feet in diameter and straight grained. We sawed fallen firs, six and seven feet in diameter and conky in the middle, for wood. The dragsaw barked and smoked dangerously but its sturdy little arm pulled the blade back and forth with speed and skill and the great wooden wheels rolled off and Bob split them with the sledge hammer and the wedge, and I stacked them in the truck and gathered bark.
The woods were deep and cool and fragrant and treacherous with underbrush, sudden swamps and roots. Laden with a six-inch-thick hunk of bark and a wedge of wood I would start toward the truck, step on what I took for a hummock, go knee-deep in water, get slapped in the face by the Oregon grape and salal bushes, and peel the skin off my forearms as I fell with the wood. The next two or three trips would be without mishap, then just as I reached the truck, overconfident and overloaded, I'd catch the toe of my shoe in a root and fall flat. I learned the inadequacy of "Oh, dear!" and "My goodness!" and the full self-satisfying savor of sonofabitch and bastard rolled around on the tongue. I also learned the mean ing of a great many homely phrases that first spring and summer. Things like "Shoulder to the wheel," which meant actually my shoulder to the wheel of the truck while Bob raced the motor and tried to pull it out of a hole. "Two honest hands" which were Bob's and mine, hoeing, weeding, chopping, feeding, caring for and cleaning. "Teamwork" was Bob and Birdie and me pulling stumps. "Woman's work is never done" signified the dinner dishes which I washed and dried while Bob smoked his pipe and took his ease.
I believe that long-suffering Bob learned best the meaning of the one about a wife being an impediment to great enterprise.
There were many nights when I was so tired I couldn't sleep and I tossed fitfully, and hurt in numerous places and thought, "And they call this living?" The next morning I would get up sore and stiff and grumpy and then suddenly the windows in the kitchen would begin to lighten a little and I knew it was time for the sunrise. I'd rush outdoors just as the first little rivulets of pale pink began creeping shyly over the mountains. These became bolder and brighter until the colors were leaping and cascading down the mountains and pouring into the pond at the foot of the orchard. Faster and faster they came until there was a terrific explosion of color and the sun stood on the top of the mountains laughing at us. The mountains, embarrassed at having been caught in their nightdresses rosy with sleep, would settle back with more than their accustomed hauteur, profiles cold and white against the blue horizon. Then from the kitchen would come the smell of coffee, that wonderful heartwarming smell, and I'd think "Life is wonderful!" as Bob came whistling in to breakfast.
By fall our potatoes were dug, our pullets were laying, our roosters had been fattened and sold and we were really chicken farmers keeping detailed egg records and netting around $25.00 a week from our three hundred and fifty hens. Several thousand sets of new muscles had stopped aching, the blisters on my hands were healing and one night I lay in bed beside Bob and watched a full moon come up from behind the black hills—there would be a frost before morning—listened to Bob's breathing, so deep and peaceful—heard the stove make occasional crunching noises as it ate into its nightload of bark—overheard a little mouse scratching gently and thought, "This is the life, after all."
And then winter settled down and I realized that defeat, like morale, is a lot of little things.
No sun—no moon—no morn—no noon,
No dawn—no dusk—no proper time of day,
No warmth—no cheerfulness—no healthful ease,
No road, no street, no t'other side the way,
No comfortable feel in any member—
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds, November!
espite its location, I never had the feeling that our small ranch was nestled on the protective lap of the Olympic Mountains. There was nothing protective about them. Each time I looked out of a window or stepped out of doors, I was confronted by great, white, haughty peaks staring just above my head and doing their chilly best to make me realize that that was once a very grand neighborhood and it was curdling their blood to have to accept "trade." We were there with our ugly little buildings and livestock, but, by God, they didn't have to associate with us or make us welcome. They, no doubt, would have given half their timber if they could have changed the locale to Switzerland and brushed us off with a nice big avalanche.
All that first spring and summer they were obviously hostile but passive. With the coming of September they pulled mists down over their heads like Ku-Klux hoods and began giving us the old water cure.
It rained and rained and rained and rained. It drizzled—misted—drooled—spat—poured—and just plain rained. Some mornings were black and wild, with a storm raging in and out and around the mountains. Rain was driven under the doors and down the chimney, and Bob went to the chicken house swathed in oilskins like a Newfoundland fisherman and I huddled by the stove and brooded about inside toilets. Other days were just gray and low hanging with a continual pit-pat-pit-pat-pitta-patta-pitta-patta which became as vexing as listening to baby talk. Along about November I began to forget when it hadn't been raining and became as one with all the characters in all of the novels about rainy seasons, who rush around banging their heads against the walls, drinking water glasses of straight whiskey and moaning, "The rain! The rain! My God, the rain!"
In case you are wondering why I didn't take a good book, settle down by the stove and shut-up, I would like to explain that Stove, as we called him, had none of the warm, friendly qualities ordinarily associated with the name. In the first place he was too old and, like some terrible old man, he had a big strong frame, a lusty appetite and no spirit of cooperation. All attempts to get Stove to crackle and glow were as futile as trying to get the Rock of Gibraltar to giggle and cavort. I split pure pitch as fine as horsehair and stuffed his ponderous belly full, but there was no sound and no heat. Yet, when I took off the lids the kindling had burned and only a few warm ashes remained. It was as mysterious as the girl in high school who ate enormous lunches without apparently chewing or swallowing.
Incongruously, things did boil on Stove. This always came as a delightful shock, albeit I finally stopped rushing to the back door and shouting hysterically to Bob, quietly and competently at work, "The water is BOILING!" as I had done for the first few hundred times I had witnessed this miracle.
I put my first cake into the oven with such a sense of finality that I almost added a Rest-in-Peace wreath, and I felt like Sarah Crewe when I came in from the chicken house and the air was vibrant with the warm spicy smell of baking.
On the coldest dreariest mornings Stove sulked all over his end of the kitchen. He smoked and choked and gagged. He ate load after load of my precious live bark and by noon I could have sat cross-legged on him and read
from cover to cover in perfect comfort.
Stove was actually a sinister presence and he was tricky. The day we first looked at the place, I remarked that he seemed rather defiantly backed up against the wall, but such an attitude could come from neglect, I thought, and so when we moved in the first thing I did was to clean his suit, take all the rust off his coat and vest, blacken every inch of him, except his nickel which I polished brightly, and then I built my first fire, which promptly went out. I built that fire five times and then Bob came in and poured about a gallon of kerosene on top of the kindling and Stove began balefully to burn a little. I learned by experience that it took two cups of kerosene to get his blood circulating in the morning and that he would only digest bark at night. In the summer and spring I didn't care how slow he was or how little heat he gave out. Bob and I were out doors from dawn to dark and we allowed plenty of time for cooking things and all of the wood was dry and the doors were open and there was plenty of draught. But with the first rainy day I realized that Stove was my enemy and would require the utmost in shrewd, cautious handling.
From the first rain, until late spring, across the kitchen in true backwoods fashion, were strung lines and lines of washing, only slightly less damp than when first hung up days and sometimes weeks ago. Those things directly over Stove flapped wetly against me as I cooked, but I dared not take them down for they were the necessary things like underwear and socks which had to get dry before summer. Try turning the chops, and stirring the tomatoes with someone slapping you across the back of the neck with a wet dish towel—you'll get the idea. I was cold all winter—It seemed that I moved around inside of but without direct contact with my clothes, and my skin became so damply chill that put side by side with a lot of clams I would have found them cozy. Another factor was that being so cold kept me running to the outhouse and each trip made me colder and the next trip frequenter. . . . I wondered if Death Valley Pete wouldn't like a pardner. Our spring and summer had been strenuous to the point of exhaustion and I, at least, having read many books about farms and farmers, had looked forward to winter as a sort of hibernation period. A time to repair machinery, hook rugs, patch quilts, mend harness and perform other leisurely tasks. Obviously something was wrong with my planning, for it took me sixteen hours a day to keep the stove going and three meals cooked. I leaped out of bed at 4
, took two sips of coffee and it was eleven and time for lunch. I washed the lunch dishes and pulled a dead leaf off my kitchen geranium and it was five o'clock and time for dinner. Everyone else in the mountains had dinner at eleven in the morning and supper at five in the evening, but dinner at night was, to me, the last remnant of my old civilized life and I clung to it like a Southern girl to her accent. Even though we had it at five instead of seven-thirty and it was as leisurely as choking down a hot dog at a football game and our conversation consisted chiefly of "Pass the pickles," it was dinner at night.
Another misconception of farm life I had gleaned from books was that winter was a time of neighborliness. In spring and summer we were too tired at the end of the day to do anything but fall into bed, but I imagined that winter evenings would be filled with neighborly gatherings, popping corn, drinking hot coffee, talking politics and crops. How wrong I was. Winter was a time for ordinary chores which took ten times as long to perform because everything was cold and wet and dark and the neighboring farmer's one idea was to get the damn things done so he could go in where it was warm and stay put. The farmer's wife followed the same pattern for winter working that I did, which occupied her for twelve to eighteen hours a day and was roughly as follows:
Washing was something that the mountain farm women had contests doing to see who could get it on the line first Monday morning. All except me. I had a contest with myself to see how long I could put off doing it at all. I attacked my washing with the same sense of futility I would have had in attempting to empty the ocean with a teaspoon. Bob had been a Marine in World War I and instead of being shell-shocked he carried home a fixation that a helmetful of water was enough to wash anything, including blankets, and on Monday morning he would say cheerfully at breakfast, "Going to wash today?" and I would answer hopefully, "Yes, and it's going to be a HUGE ENORMOUS washing!" And so Bob would go whistling down through the orchard to the spring and bring back about four tablespoonfuls in the bottom of each bucket and then disappear into the woods where he remained incommunicado until lunch. A few times I left the washing until after lunch but learned that a sufficiency of water does not compensate for having to straddle clothes baskets and wash boards while cooking dinner or having to leave the warm house and hang out wet clothes in the dark. So I carried 99 per cent of my wash water and if I was able to get it hot and could scrub the clothes clean they never dried in winter, so what?