Some would have called us hillbillies, I suppose.
Swamp Yankees. In my earliest years living in the New Hampshire farmhouse my Finnish grandfather had built, it was just my normal. Normal for 4 farm kids in those days was doing our chores, picking bugs off the potato plants and pulling weeds, riding the baler and checking knots as the bales chugged away, dropping in shredded wheat bricks onto the field. It was playing in the dirt, collecting eggs, wandering around the hayloft with our cousins, falling on rusty nails and getting Tetanus shots. Our normal was filling our favourite tree across the road with kids and picking little green apples, which we ate (and generally regretted a few hours later).
Normal was a pet chicken we called Cindy who spent much of her life tucked up under one arm or another. Our beloved hen was spirited into the house on more than one occasion, much to the horror of our mother, who saw to it that she was spirited straight outside again.
Still, Cindy and I did spend some quality Roy Rogers TV time together whenever we could fly mutually under Mom’s radar, cuddled in the corner of the couch, Cindy clucking contentedly as she fluffed out and “dustbathed” on my green corduroy trousers. Ah, good times! In my 4-year-old world, there was nothing remotely unusual about any of this. I thought everyone had pet chickens. (As it happens, I still do!)
Normal were mornings spent in my mother’s arms after she had worked a nightshift at the Mary Hitchcock Hospital. It was The Saggy Baggy Elephant and Dr. Seuss while my less fortunate siblings slaved away at school. It was sneaking out of bed during naptime while my exhausted mother slept. I would quietly play in a pool of sunshine on the red and black carpet while the clock ticked away the hour until she awakened.
Our normal was a kitchen that boasted a massive wood burner, an ‘L’ of open shelved cabinets, and a gas stove situated next to the back door. This door had been ostensibly built to lead onto a porch that had never been built. Our house was only ever 80% complete, right up until the sad day last year that it burned down. The kitchen door was situated about a 3-foot distance from the ground outside, and so was never used to enter or exit the house.
Well, it was never used for human entrance or exit, that is.
In the world of my normal, I have vivid recollection of Mom, pregnant with my younger sister and barefoot, standing in the breeze of the open back door peeling potatoes. She worked the paring knife efficiently and deposited thin peelings into a pile, straight onto the linoleum at her feet. From my vantage point at the kitchen table, I watched in delight as a long, wet tongue would slide across the lino and remove the pile of peelings clump by clump. Robin, our “Kitchen Cow,” would finish her job thoroughly before daintily licking her lips and moseying back into the pasture behind the house.
In my mind, Grandpa had made the door that high off the ground for precisely this purpose. Everyone had cows licking their linoleum, didn’t they?
My sisters and I slept 3 to a bed at the time, all of us being pretty small. Bedtime was a routine of “rub, tickle, scratch” on one side, then we would in unison rotate and repeat the process. One memorable night, we smuggled 3 baby bunnies into our beds. Our mother was not best pleased with bunny raisins smeared on our bed sheets in the morning, but I tell you, that was one of the happiest nights of our young lives! There was nothing weird at all about sleeping with bunny poop. Nothing weird at all.
For us, normal was Saturday night saunas, when all of the extended Finnish family would gather for their weekly steambath, first the women and children, then the men, all together. Communal bathing was just what we did. It was the scent of hot pitch filling the air, the kindness and the laughter of family. It was a house full of kids shrieking with laughter and a table full of men drinking and playing cards. Saturday night normal was Ivory soap and Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, Prell and Old Spice. It was the names our father had branded with hot poker into the fragrant pine of the sauna, directly over the cold water barrel: Billy, Kathy, Kelly, Dorry, and later Bethy.
Normal for us swamp Yankee hillbillies was lying on the cool grass with our warm, damp hair steaming into the night air. It was the Milky Way scattered above us, a sweep of white dust on the black blanket of sky.
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