Tag Archives: childhood

Mercurochrome

Culling her collection of vintage treasures, my sister handed me a box of old bottles to see if I had a use for any of them. I immediately chose the Burma-Shave jar with its ribbed glass and navy blue lid. Burma Shave was a shaving cream company whose marketing campaign placed consecutive lines of rhyming advertising jingles along highways from the 1920s to the early 60s such as “Special Seats/Reserved in Hades/For Whiskered Gents/Who Scratch/The Ladies/Burma-Shave.”

Every year or so, a crew would change the signs, throwing the old boards on the ground. Because the Smith farm bordered the highway, my Grandpa Smith would pick up the discarded wood—still good lumber—to fix a shed or patch a broken window. My parents brought some of these signs to Colorado and now they hang in the Sunflower Room at Stonebridge. My sister had found the old Burma-Shave jar on the farm after my grandparents’ deaths. It seemed fitting to reunite it with the signs advertising the shaving cream that used to fill the jar.

After I picked out some medicinal vials for bottling the berry cordial we make each fall, I noticed a small bottle with a rubber stopper for a lid. When I lifted it out of the box, I gasped. Here was my Grandpa Smith’s mercurochrome bottle, the one he’d used to doctor our scrapes and cuts every summer. He’d patiently lift us up to sit on the kitchen counter, the better to “paint,” as he would say, our knees and elbows with the metallic orange-red tincture. Today mercurochrome is banned in the United States because it contains mercury but back then, we believed as much in its curative powers as we did in our grandpa’s doctoring skills.

Its label faded and torn, its rubber stopper hardened in the bottle’s glass neck, my grandfather’s mercurochrome bottle evoked another memory of childhood complaints. Mercurochrome wasn’t the only medicine in the farm’s kitchen cabinet. I remembered the smell of the medicine before I remembered its name: Listerine. Not the cool mint or citrus fresh flavors of today but the antiseptic scent of the original mouthwash my grandfather used to stop our mosquito bites from itching.

How we winced when that home remedy stung our arms and legs but it kept us from scratching the mosquito bites that plagued us those hot summer nights in the North Dakota countryside.  Like mercurochrome, it worked, but even if it hadn’t, we wouldn’t have questioned our grandfather’s authority to use it. We trusted those moments of tender curing that affirmed a grandparent’s love.

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The Natural Affinity of Children and Chickens

Yesterday was our five-week-old grandson’s first trip to the farm. He slept most of the time but we took him on a walk anyway to get some sunshine and show our oldest daughter the crops. We even tucked the baby into the hanging barn scale to see how much he’d grown. 11 pounds, including blankets! He’s getting big and strong too, holding his head up longer each time we see him and trying to scoot on his tummy with his toes.

Too bad he was asleep when we visited the chickens. Most children love watching the hens and will stand, mesmerized, for longer than anyone could imagine their attention span would last, poking a blade of grass through the chicken wire and squealing when a beak nips out to grab it. Children and chickens seem to have an affinity for each other, perhaps because they sense a mutual beneficence and similar proximity to the ground.

I had intended to clean out the chicken coop yesterday but with our grandson’s first visit, put that plan on hold until today. We have 18 chickens right now, a full coop. Most of them are older and not laying anymore so we joke that we’re running a retirement home for hens. Six of our chickens are new, though, raised this spring to replace the older ones we anticipate will die a natural death this coming winter. The new chickens haven’t started laying yet but once they do, we’ll have a good supply of eggs again.

The new chickens–silver and gold-laced Wyandottes

Once a year, John and I muck out the chicken coop. More than just the routine raking out of old, dirty hay, mucking the coop involves the red Farm All tractor with its front bucket, breathers for the dust, and a couple hours of digging down into eight or ten inches of composted hay and chicken poop and forking it into the front end bucket. That might seem gross to city folks but it isn’t as bad as it sounds. The layers of muck flake up easily and, since it’s decomposed into essentially soil, smells more earthy than stinky. John empties the tractor bucket into our big compost pile and turns it in with the vegetable scraps and leaves our CSA members have left us. With childhood memories of my grandparents’ chickens, I never mind the smell of the coop but I don’t like the dust that gets kicked up, hence the breathers and farm clothes that go straight into the washing machine when we’re done.

My sister and me checking on the chickens at our Grandma and Grandpa Short’s farm in North Dakota

The best part about mucking out the coop is filling it, inside and out, with fresh hay. Today’s hay is as fresh as it gets because John mowed the pasture last week. (Hay, by the way, is cut grass; straw is the stalk of wheat or a similar grain). That hay—the season’s second cutting–will last us and the chickens all year. We fill their nest boxes with it every few days and add more to the coop as needed. In years past, we’ve stored it on the hay wagon or under a tarp, but this year John’s building a new storage box right between the coop doors to keep it fresher and handier, a small improvement but a significant one because it will save steps and make the chickens more comfortable too.

Chickens enjoying new hay from the pasture

Mucking the coop isn’t a big chore but it’s not a little one either. It’s a late summer task, one that shows up on the to-do list in July and waits until the heat wave’s over and the demands of watering and weeding relax. I might even call it a ritual because it marks another year on the farm, another season passed. Too, it’s something John and I do together each year, sort of an annual date, and doing it together makes the task more enjoyable.

This year mucking the coop became a little more urgent when I found a bull snake inside last week and realized that may have been the reason for the skimpier number of eggs we’ve gotten lately. Although with chickens, one never knows–it could be a lull between the older hens finishing their laying cycle and the new ones beginning. But if the snake’s been eating eggs, hopefully our presence in the coop today has compelled the thing to move on.

Beyond eggs and compost, I like the chickens for their company. I like taking our compost pail out to the coop each morning; I like how excited the hens get when I throw the grain and vegetable scraps in the coop yard, nudging each other out of the way to grab the piece they want and running to a corner of the coop with it in their beak to eat in private. I like that as long as we feed them, give them fresh water each day, and keep the coop reasonably clean, they’ll give us eggs.

I like, too, that the chicken coop is a convivial place on the farm for children and their parents. I like how trusting chickens are of our stewardship and how we depend on each other. Our chicken coop isn’t fancy—not anything like our friends’ beautiful chicken “palace” with the egg finial on top—but it serves our purposes for now: sheltering happy and healthy chickens laying delicious eggs.

I can’t wait for our grandson to discover the chickens, throw them kitchen scraps, and feed them grass through the chicken wire. Now that he’s here, taking care of the chickens and their coop seems even more important because we want this farm to survive for his generation and beyond. We’ll keep performing the small rituals like mucking the coop and making the small improvements that increase our productivity, efficiency, and comfort. We’ll do it all more mindful of the future and careful about the steps we take to get there. And in a year or two, we’ll get to something else that’s on the list: a treehouse for a little boy to dream in.

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Summer Heat

Of childhood vacations on my grandparents’ North Dakota farms, hot, dry winds blow through my memories of our summer visits. Days are long in that northern state; to escape the worst of the prairie heat, we’d run errands in town in the cooler mornings and spend afternoons in the farmhouse reading or playing games and drinking tall glass of iced tea. Most nights, we lay as still as possible in our stifling beds as the sound of the fan whirring in the living room held hope of catching any small breeze through the open window until the northern sun finally set hours past our bedtime.

Summer in Colorado is hot, too, although the worst heat doesn’t usually break until July and August, and hot days are broken by monsoon rains in the afternoons. But this year, May and June have been the hottest on record, with consecutive days breaking unheard of temperatures of 100 degrees, turning June into July with few clouds to shield us from the sun’s battering heat and bringing worries of drought to the state.

Every morning we check our irrigation ditch for water. We’ve received no official notice of an impending shut-down on our senior rights ditch, but rumors have us wondering how long we’ll be able to water the fields. The first thing John does in the morning and the last thing at night is set the pump, watering as much of the day as he can without wasting water to evaporation in the afternoon heat.

With little rain this spring, new grasses and plants in the foothills and mountains have not grown quickly enough to cover last year’s dry thatch, creating quick tinder for lightning strikes that spread through pine-beetle killed timber. Started by such a strike on mountain property owned by friends, the High Park fire has been burning for two weeks north of Ft Collins, destroying 8200 acres of beautiful forest land so far, with less than half of the fire contained. We can see the plume from our farm and smell the smoke, a daily reminder to use precaution in all we do.

Then this morning we woke up to thicker smoke hanging in the air and we knew the fire we’d heard about yesterday in Estes Park had worsened. This fire started in a housing subdivision near the southern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, close enough to threaten western parts of the town. 4300 people, including patrons at our favorite Estes restaurant, The Rock Inn, were evacuated last night; horses from nearby stables were relocated to the fairgrounds. Throughout the morning, the smoke seemed to shield us from the intense heat of the sun as the temperature neared 100. Thankfully, the fire was out by late afternoon, leaving 20 houses burned to the ground.

Now, as the sun begins to set, we can hear thunder and a few small raindrops have fallen. John and I went outside to soak in the cooler air as the wind picked up around us. Without a real rain to soak the earth, the storm may be a mixed blessing. The wind may whip the fire north of us; lightning may ignite a new blaze in the tindered land. Still, the cooldown means we’ll sleep better tonight and that will be welcome. With a week left in June of temperatures forecast in the high 90s, we have another long, hot week before us to meet with caution and care.

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On Impact

The impact came from behind, bright lights and a crack like lightning striking the earth as our small station wagon was shoved along the dark residential street. “Oh Bob,” I heard my mother cry. Someone fly over my shoulder. And then the car stopped as we jolted forward and back and forward again. “Where’s Karlene?” I scrambled up on my knees to look over the seat behind me. She was there, the youngest, covered in pebbles of glass. “I have ice in my eyes! I have ice in my eyes!” she sobbed.

My sister Kari and I haven’t talked in a long time about The Accident that happened in 1972 when we were in grade school but it’s always been a backdrop to our lives. It came up recently when we were discussing car seats and how they’ve improved since we were children and even more so from my parents’ time, when car seats didn’t even exist. My father has the scar on his forehead to prove what happens when a child’s head hits the windshield of a car—and he was lucky.

“I remember Karlene flying over the seat from where she’d been sitting in the back of the station wagon with no seat belt, of course.”

“No, that was me,”  Kari said. “I somersaulted over the seat and was knocked unconscious.”

The minute she said it, I knew she was right. It couldn’t have been Karlene because we looked for her in the back. We found her sitting in a pile of safety glass rubble and were scared that she had glass splinters in her eyes. I thought I remembered Kari sitting next to me in the backseat, along with my cousin, but it had been my brother in the middle instead. Kari was in the back with Karlene; she had just laid down to sleep when a car smashed into the back of us as we turned left onto a dimly lit residential street. That car had been speeding; my dad couldn’t see it as he’d stopped at a stop sign and the other driver hadn’t seen us making the turn.

We were in Denver all those years ago to pick up my cousin who had flown from North Dakota to Denver for band camp. We were taking her to her friend’s family’s house in a residential area of the city when we were hit. Good thing we’d been going slowly. Good thing we were on a street and not a highway.

Our car came to a rutty stop in the grass of someone’s front yard and the people ran out to help. They hurried us inside, holding towels to the gashes in my mother’s and sister’s heads. I felt bad about the blood seeping into their carpet as we waited for the ambulance that quickly arrived. Because I wasn’t hurt, I became the designated seventh-grade spokesperson for our family, giving the EMTs our names, ages, and addresses and explaining why we were in Denver.

At the hospital, Karlene’s eyes were flushed, my mother’s and sister’s heads were stitched, and everyone else was checked and bandaged as needed. We were all alive and, other than gashes and bruises that would heal, we weren’t seriously hurt. In my childish attempt at optimism, I told my dad that at least Kari and I wouldn’t have to compete in the music contest the next day. “I’d rather have you do that than this,” he said.

My mother’s cousins picked us up at the hospital and took us to their house and, the next day, home. This time I had to sit in the back of their station wagon; I cringed at every car that that drove up behind us , waiting for the impact I was sure would come.

Forty years later, I’m still waiting for it. Every time I see a car rush to a stop sign or approach too quickly from behind, I flinch. I’m sure they’re going to hit me. It can happen. It did.

Not all our injuries were addressed at the hospital that night. My mother developed back trouble that lead to difficult surgeries over the years.  And lately, my sister Kari is revisiting The Accident as the source of many of her health problems. We’re both relieved that children must ride in car seats until they’re eight years old and that cars have better seat belts and better protection all around. Thank you, Ralph Nader.

Many of my college writing students over the years chose accidents to write about. I call these paper topics “the thin line” because they represent a moment when one realizes the thin line between life and death. I don’t remember thinking at the moment of the crash that we might all die; it happened so quickly, I don’t think I had time to make conscious that fear. But for anyone looking back, we all know what could have been. That’s the secondary trauma, the one we live with the rest of our lives. The one that changes us in ways we’ll never really know.

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Silos

Bedtime is approaching at our grandparents’ farmhouse. The northern twilight has lingered as long as it can; now darkness spreads across the prairie, made even blacker by the absence of the moon.

My little brother and youngest sister have already brushed their teeth with well water splashed into a basin from the long-handled pump in the kitchen. (I would be a teenager before city water would be piped to the farmhouse and we could brush our teeth with water from a faucet.) Now in their pajamas, the two are tucked into the hide-a-bed in the living room, ready for the night.

But something is missing: my brother’s stuffed bear, Gentle Ben. The house is searched, but no bear is found.

“Kayann, can you find Gentle Ben? You know where you were playing.” My mother hands me a flashlight. I am nine or ten, the oldest of four children, and it’s my job to take care of my brother and sisters. We are visiting my grandparents’ North Dakota farm, as we do every summer, and my four-year-old brother’s stuffed bear is lost someplace in the tall grass where we had been playing. Without Gentle Ben, my brother will not go to bed. He is crying now as I take the flashlight in my hand and open the screen door off the kitchen porch where my grandfather processes the milk from his few dairy cows each day.

That afternoon, my two sisters and brother and I had been down in the tall grass by the narrow dirt road that crossed the countryside in front of my grandparents’ farm.  Years later the road was paved to create a highway between the Canadian border and the county seat 25 miles from the farm, but in my childhood it remained a rural road, travelled mostly by farm families heading back from the city or by tractors coming in from the fields. In the summer, we can spot a car in the distance by the dust it raises before we can see the car itself.

The roadside seems an odd place to play, but the grass is highest where the spring rains run off the road into a ditch along the edge. The ditch is dry now but the moisture has done its work: the grass is taller than my littlest sister’s head. On hot summer afternoons until dinner, we play hide and seek by tromping the grass into shelters under which we can burrow. Gentle Ben must be there now, hiding alone in the dark.

Flashlight in hand, I step out into the darkness. Sunset comes late on the North Dakota prairie, so as kids we often go to bed before the sky is truly dark or the stars have emerged, but this night the search for Gentle Ben has delayed our bedtime and the sun has already fallen behind the long horizon.

I don’t know how far the farmhouse is set back from the road, but it surely seems longer than a city block at home. I walk from the kitchen door to the end of the stone path that meets the edge of the driveway stretching down to the road. Silent barns stand across from the house, the chickens and cows long since sleeping.

I’ve never been outside alone before, at least not like this. The night is blacker in the country where no lights can be seen. Within the glare of street lamps or the glow of a neighbor’s porch light slanting across a lawn, cities are never really dark, but nighttime in the country is complete.

Shining the flashlight across the gravel, I start toward the road and the grass where we played. In the dark, I can’t see where I’m headed, but I know which direction to walk. I swing the flashlight’s beam to the left across my grandmother’s flower garden and then right against the wheat silos standing sentry at the farmyard’s end. Acres of pasture lie beyond those silos. Wandering there, I could truly be lost, so I turn the flashlight back to the driveway and keep walking.

I don’t remember ever being afraid of the dark, even though I sleep alone in a basement bedroom at home, but inside and outside dark are not the same. Until tonight, I have never seen the sky so black nor so filled with stars. How could a universe so large consider the smallness of me worth protecting as I walk slowly toward grasses still lost from my view?

But I’m not afraid. I’m exhilarated to be alone in the world, without sisters or brothers to care for, without parents to tell me what to do. Darkness, I realize, is just a cover for sunlight. Everything at night is exactly the same as it is in the day; you just can’t see it as clearly.

When I grow up and live in the country, I’ll get a call in the middle of the night from the police asking me to check the license plate on my car. Another car with the same number has been involved in a hit-and-run accident. After verifying that it is the police who have called, I will fumble outside without caution or contacts, find my license plate intact, phone the police with the good news, and go back to bed. In the morning my partner will show me the bear prints near the back door. Maybe if I wear glasses, I will notice them.

But now another bear is waiting. As I edge down the gravel driveway toward the long grass that hides Gentle Ben, I turn off the flashlight and let the night sky conceal me in blackness. I don’t think of words like “shroud” or “cloak” for the dark and I‘m not afraid. I look back to see the light of the farmhouse shining through the curtains. Everyone else is inside that light. I am outside, alone.

Thanks to members of my ecobiography workshop at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology for feedback on this story.

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