This is summer. We are in the second week of a heat wave here in Milwaukee complete with ozone warnings. For many people summer starts with Memorial Day and ends with Labor Day. For others, it begins when school goes into recess for the summer.
When school was out back home in Western Pennsylvania, the trees had leafed out and there were usually May apples and trillium out in the woods. The May apples which we found under trees with their umbrella-like leaf and the pure, shy flower tucked under it I discovered many years later are used in folk medicine and called genseng or mandrake.
We lived in the country, so on the hottest days, there were the woods and fields to lure us. Often we would get together with cousins (yes, that was one of those places where everyone was related) and pretend we were what now is politically correct to call Native Americans. Part of the experience was to go through the woods barefoot and not make a sound. That was easy on the cool, damp clay, but took lots of concentration where there were fallen leaves and twigs. The stillness was so beautiful that you wanted to become part of it. I still get the shivers when I hear the rush of wind through a pine tree or hear the echoing call of a bird in the woods.
Bare feet and sun tan were part of summer. We would get up in the morning and make our own breakfast. Mother would supervise, but in the summer you had plenty of time to cook those eggs just right. You could lounge around the kitchen or eat outside on the picnic table if you liked.
The road by our house was unpaved. When there was a rain storm, you could wade in the mud puddles or as we got older construct elaborate systems of reservoirs and canals. We had to wear shoes to church on Sundays (often with the little white gloves, straw hat or headband with flowers for girls or the slacks, white shirt and tie for boys). Shoes felt so odd on your feet and once home, they were off and we were into shorts and bare feet before lunch was on the table.
Part of summer was having more time with our grandparents. My mother's father was still farming with horses. Most of the grandchildren could fit onto the hay wagon and Polly and Pat, the draft horses, always liked us to come by with a handful of fresh grass for them to eat. People ate well too. Often lunch would include fresh lettuce, radishes, and onions from the garden along with mushrooms that we picked in the pasture by the bucket full. They were rolled in flour and fried in butter that grandma made. The butter went on the home-baked bread too. June was a big strawberry month. We often got a dime for each box we picked and some berries were just too ripe to make the trip to the house, so we ate them on the spot. Summer is also the taste of the sun-warmed berry melting in your mouth.
Making hay was a big effort. Grandpap could cut and turn it OK, but when it came time to get it in, the whole family pitched in. The adults and teenagers forked it onto the wagon and hoisted it into the hayloft in his barn. It was sticky, hot, scratchy, dusty work but even a small child could pick up an arm full and put it on the wagon. Grandma would make jugs of cold lemonade, ice tea, or just water and the younger children would carry it over to the barn for them to drink and help grandma who was busy preparing a big meal. Young folk who still napped in the afternoon would do it in the house.
It was so good to gather around the table afterwards. Nothing like hard work and fresh air to make food taste good! You just didn't jump in though. First everyone was seated. Sometimes it was a chair, sometimes on a bench. If you were little, you might sit on several mail-order catalogs too. When everyone had settled in, there was a pause and then grandpap would say "go ahead..." This was the signal for grandma to say grace.
Bless this food to our use and us to thy service. We ask it in Jesus name, Amen.She died last November at the age of 90, but I can still hear her calm, reverent voice in the hush that preceeded the meal.
My other grandparents had a dairy farm in partnership with my dad's older brother. They were a bit more mechanized, but we could help bring in the cows from the pasture and there were calves to help feed in the barn and lots of cats and kittens. The cats would come when they heard the pump for the milkers which was followed by a dish pan full of fresh milk for them to drink. Their job was to keep the barn and graneries free of mice and rats. My other grandfather encouraged large blacksnakes to live in his barn for the same reason.
It was very busy in the morning and evening, but in the afternoons we had time to sit under the big tree in the yard and talk. Grandma and my great aunt usually had some kind of work to keep their hands busy. Often it was picking over or seeding fruit to make into jam or doing needlework. They didn't speak of Memorial Day, but Decoration Day -- when you decorated the graves of the war dead. Often the decorations were the huge peonies in pink and white that were blooming then.
Decoration Day was the time for summer fashion to start in my grandmother's youth. From Decoration Day until Labor Day, ladies wore white stockings, white shoes, white gloves and if at all possible a white cotton or linen dress amply starched to make a woman hold up in the most hot and humid weather. It must have been quite a sight to see us spread out on the grass in our bare feet (often with traces of cow manure or mud between the toes) taking it all in!
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