Ma was a tall imposing woman with broad shoulders, strong hands and deep brown eyes. She’d been blinded in her right eye as a result of a winter game played when she was a child. During a snowball fight, one of the boys that she was playing with had hidden a rock in his snowball and hit her in the eye. She also had two perfectly formed round bumps on her forehead. She’d take our hands and hers and guide them slowly over the bumps, telling us that she had been a devil when she was young until her parents had cut off her horns.
Ma walked with a cane to steady herself. She was no stranger to hard work, having done it since she was just a child. Her father had been in some sort of accident when she was a young girl and lost both of his hands. She and her siblings had to hand feed him. She grew up fast and left Hungary when she was barely seventeen years old. She had arrived in New York at Ellis Island from Austria/Hungary stating that her final destination was Bloomington, Illinois, the home of her sister, Anna.
Ma spoke German and Magyar (the native language of Hungary). She could read and write Magyar, but she could only speak German. She often confused me when I was a child by telling me on one occasion that she was a Hungarian Jew and then telling me on another that she was a gypsy. I had always been told by her own children that she was a German Catholic.
She was a fascinating woman, mysterious in her own way. Every night she’d undo the long braids that were always wound around her head. Sitting alone in her room, she would carefully brush and re-braid her long gray hair before turning in. She absolutely mesmerized me. She’d take hairpins out of her braid and place them in her pierced earlobes in place of earrings during the night.
Her usual daily attire was Oshkosh B-Gosh overalls, a man’s flannel shirt, and work boots. If anything had to be done, Ma could do it. She wasn’t afraid of walking on a roof in it needed patched, or repairing a tool and she had the ability to construct most of her own furnishings, both inside and outside the house. Her motto was, “If I can’t get it on my own, I don’t need it.” Even though Daddy spent a lot of time helping her, she treasured her independence. Ma was a true immigrant—bullheaded, stubborn, and as capable of swinging a hammer as cradling a child. We loved her dearly.
After marrying our grandfather, she raised six children on her own without the aid of charity. Our grandfather, whom we never knew, had been an alcoholic and Ma said he only came home long enough to create another young life or discover the gender of their last child. He never claimed any children until his sons joined the military during WWII, at which time he attempted to apply for an allotment from each of them. The clerk at the courthouse, one of his drinking buddies, simply laughed at him and sent him on his way. I don’t know what it was in that man’s life that made him travel the path he took. He had been a carpenter in the trunk shops in Chicago in the 1920s. He must have been a talented man because all of his children were gifted in one way or another. Even though he was an absentee father and husband, his children never spoke ill of him and Ma admitted that she would love him until the day she died.
Immigration records show that our grandfather arrived in the United States with his mother from Russia, but according to the 1920 census, he and his mother listed their place of birth as Poland and their native tongue as Polish. While the information seemed conflicting at first, the best I can gather is that they were Russian Poles.
Listening to family members describe my grandfather’s mother, she was a slight woman with a fiery temper. My cousin, Juanita, told about one time when my dad had cornmeal cooking to make dog food for his dogs one morning.
His grandmother came over to the stove, leaned over the pot and asked him, “What are you doing?”
“Making some mush for my dogs.”
Pointing at the pot she said, “That’s for your dogs?”
She leaned over the pot that he was stirring and spat into it.
“Whaddyah do that for?”
“I wanna make sure nobody eats it.”
Juanita said that the woman was so mean that she lived to be 112 years old.
Ma lived in an old two-story farmhouse with high ceilings and long windows. Lacing the gable roof were lighting rods that had been placed there during a time when salesmen convinced people that these metal rods could divert the angry attack of the elements, not attract them. They stood as silent sentinels while the clouds in the heavens boiled and roiled on the horizon, as if searching the skies for the storm that was sure to follow as the air between the house and barn became so charged that you could smell the impending tempest in the crackling, crisp, coppery air.
The summer following our move, Harriette and I spent most of our time in an old galvanized washtub full of water behind the house and Ma acted as though she absolutely hated it. She was always yelling at us to get out of her chicken water. You see, Ma had a fenced in yard behind the house that had a small kitchen garden in it where she’d let the chickens roam free because they’d be easier to catch if they were close to the house. Early in the morning she’d start a fire under a pot of water and when it was ready she’d sit on a low bench and corral the chickens that she had selected for dinner. One by one, she’d lean over, reach out, grab a chicken, twist its scrawny neck to kill it, dip it in the vat of boiling water and quickly pluck its feathers off. She’d finally singe the pin feathers off by rotating that naked bird over the fire and turn to drop it in the washtub to clean it only to find that Harriette and I were sitting in her clean chicken water. We were used to hearing her yell, “Get out of my chicken water,” but never paid her any mind. All we wanted to do was play in water, any water, and be close to Ma. We figured we could splash and watch Ma at the same time.
During our stay with Ma, Harriette learned that her chubby little legs could run, so running away from home became her favorite pastime. Mama resorted to putting cowbells on Harriette’s shoes to keep track of her, but even that didn’t slow Harriette down – she found out that if she stripped down to the skin as she ran she could get away faster. She’d begin her game by running down the main highway and take off every stitch of her clothes as she ran, including her shoes and cow bells. More times than not, it was a neighbor, Louie Arnst, who would bring her home—picking up her discarded clothes while she sat on his shoulders just as naked as the day she was born. Good thing he was an honest and caring man—things could have turned out much differently otherwise.
Daddy worked in Chicago and drove to the city on Monday mornings and wasn’t home until late Friday night, leaving Mama alone once again with five daughters in the midst of a family and a town that she knew virtually nothing about. After about a year of work, he managed to find employment in a munitions plant in Baraboo. He used to tell us about a man at a wheelbarrow plant who used to push a wheelbarrow full of straw out of the plant every Friday. The guard would dig through the straw, convinced that the man was stealing parts from the plant. After finding nothing in the straw, he let him pass. It took him months to realize that the guy was stealing wheelbarrows.
Our brother, Buddy (Robert), was born in November of 1952. He got his nickname because regardless of how hard she tried, Harriette could not say “brother.” It sounded more like “butter” so it was naturally shortened to Buddy (just because we lived in the dairy capital of the world was no sign that we had to name our brother after a milk byproduct). His birth was not too spectacular an event except for the fact that he was the FIRST BORN SON (can’t you hear that Heavenly Choir?) following five daughters. He was also only the second child to be born outside the state of Florida.
Bobbie, Sissie and Normie were grouped as the “Older Three,” or the “Bigger Kids,” while Harriette, Buddy and I comprised the “Younger Three” (or “The Little Ones”). They had six kids in seven years, but the division between older and younger made it appear to us as though we were two separate families. We younger siblings never felt smart enough, old enough or wise enough for the older three, no matter how old we became.
When it came to trouble, what one of us didn’t think up, another did. Bobbie and Sissie went to school in Wisconsin. Harriette and I occupied most of our time by getting into trouble. I’d tell you that I was The Good Child, but I doubt that you’d believe me. Ma threatened us with all kinds of punishments– everything from sending us all to bed without our shoes on if we didn’t behave to selling us to the gypsies. We took her seriously.
When we weren’t getting into trouble, Harriette occupied most of her waking hours torturing me. She was left-handed and I right-handed and at meals, she insisted that I sit on her left side so she could keep me in line with her left elbow. It’s a wonder that I managed to ever get any food in my mouth at all. She was forever poking me in the ribs every time I lifted my spoon (and to think that Mama was worried about me because I was a skinny child!)
Ma’s kitchen had a long table with benches on either side. It was on a bench at that table that I became acquainted with Ma’s ability as miracle worker. One evening at supper I was crying and generally making a pain of myself complaining about my finger hurting and Mama was trying to get me to “hush.” Ma came over to me and told me to show her my sore finger. I raised my hand and pointed the offending finger toward the ceiling, showing her the hangnail that was causing me such pain. She gently grasped the hard, painful skin between her fingernails and quickly pulled. After removing the hangnail, she rubbed my small hand in her large one and patting it she said, “That’s better.” It was.
Harriette insisted we sleep together, play together and get into mischief together. I felt as if I was a physical extension of her instead of being my own person. Even so, I thought she had the most brilliant mind of anybody I knew. When she spoke to me, I felt as if I had been selected to receive some sort of divine wisdom. It was only during those times that she didn’t say anything that I knew that I must have been guilty of some terrible wrongdoing and was being punished for it. I would often wish that she’d just bop me over the head, get her anger out of her system and go back to playing with me. To this day I can’t stand being given the silent treatment.
Like Ma, Harriette was bullheaded from birth and really began to display this trait in 1952. She was becoming a feisty child and totally determined to rule me. It did no good for anyone to argue with her, “No” was her favorite word. She had to have the last word even if it consisted of vigorously shaking her head and saying “Un huh.” It didn’t matter that she was only ten months older than me either, she could have just as easily had been ten or twenty . She was still my big sister and never let me forget it for one minute. Not being very talkative, she’d wait until she did have something to say, and then let me know in no uncertain terms that I had better listen (and listen good!). However, at those times when she’d make me cry, she’d immediately come over to me and put her arms around me and gently pat my shoulders. “Don’t cry baby sister,” she’d say, and from that first time until the day she died, I have been her baby sister.
We continued to grow closer as the landscape of Wisconsin changed its colors and summer turned to fall. As the cold winds started to blow in from Canada, scattering the leaves far from the trees where they had once clung, Daddy knew it was time to install storm windows. He carried those windows to the front of the house, neatly stacking them next to the stairs. One by one, he would lift a window from the stack, wipe it off with the rag he had tucked in his belt and take it to the far reaches of that old farmhouse, careful not to let it drop from his large hands. That’s how I remember him always doing things – in a way that was both conservative and thorough. Bobbie had been watching me and Harriette in front of the house, playing with us to keep us occupied and out of Daddy’s way. She’d stand on the side of the stairs and jump over the stack of storm windows while Harriette and I watched. At some point Harriette convinced me that I could fly over the entire stack of them just as easily as Bobbie did. Knees bent and arms held high I took off. I imagined myself sailing, secretly thrilled at the prospect of landing on the other side just as she had. That exhilaration was short lived, however, when just a brief moment later I landed in the middle of that carefully stacked pile of windows, shattering every pane on my way to the ground. My arms were still positioned high above my head with only my fingertips visible to the outside world. I was afraid to move. Bobbie screamed, and Daddy rushed around the house only to find that one of his daughters appeared to be missing. As he got closer though, he could see the tips of my fingers above the top window frame. He gently lifted me out by the tips of my fingers to check for any mortal wounds. One shard of glass had gone completely through my lower lip just below my mouth. I still have a thick scar inside my lower lip and a thin white scar on the outside of my lower lip to prove that little girls can’t fly. Unfortunately, not a single one of those storm windows survived my maiden flight.
During that winter the snow drifted so deep that it was an exercise in futility just to try to walk. Daddy carried Harriet and me outside on his shoulders one morning and stood us one at a time in the snow. We disappeared, not being able to see each other or anything but white all around us. I guess he figured that if Harriette saw that she couldn’t make it to the highway, she wouldn’t try to run away (at least not until Spring). After waiting for some time he lifted us back out of the snow and set us each on a shoulder and carried us back to the warmth of the house.
During that first winter Ma would tell Bobbie and Sissie not to play around on their way to the school bus because if they did, they’ve have to stay home all day with her and bake cookies, which is why I believe we’ve all developed a love for homemade Snickerdoodles.
Mama would take us sledding down a nearby hill after bundling us up so tightly in our snow suits that our arms refused to rest at our sides. I imagine we all must have looked like over puffed marshmallows packed into those bright red suits. Bobbie and Sissie straddled the sled, backs straight and poised, tucking Harriette and me snugly between their knees and holding us tightly around our waists so they could hold the ropes and steer with their feet. Mama would stand behind each sled, give us one good shove and off we’d go. After we reached the bottom Bobbie and Sissie had to gather everything together and climb back up the hill again. Two duck-like sisters, dragging us with one hand and the sled with the other. We’d waddle along behind them up the hill again so we could fly down over and over again until the afternoon sky turned gray and we’d have to head back home again.
Life for us was good but somewhat confusing. We now had a grandmother who spoke with an accent that wasn’t quite German but certainly not American, and definitely not of that long southern drawl type of Pop’s or Little Mama’s that we had grown so accustomed to, and we had a Daddy that was home more often.
Relatives would often appear at that old farm house to discuss politics and farming techniques – subjects such as whether Black Angus were better than Herefords or Herefords were better than Guernseys – and if Senator McCarthy really believed that what he was doing was right or if he was just some kind of nut. Black Angus usually won out for best beef, Guernseys for best milk, and the nut opinion usually won when it came to McCarthy. Of the many relatives that came to the house, there were few that I knew then or remember now, but the talk always seemed heated and animated and I loved to listen. One of the aunts would usually spot me, click her tongue and say “Little pitchers have big ears,” but nobody bothered to send me on my way. I always loved it when Auntie Olga would make a contribution to the conversation, her arms would go flying through the air to accentuate some point she was trying to make. Someone once commented that if she had to sit on her hands she’d never utter another word.
In early Spring of 1953, I remember Daddy carrying me on his shoulders out to the barn. He pulled at the rusty hasp that secured the contents of the barn and swung those heavy doors wide, their hinges screeching with every inch of movement. The inside of that old barn smelled like weathered hay, axle grease, and ancient machine oil. He lifted me up into the seat of a well-ridden Ford tractor. My perch was so high I imagined I was looking out above the fields into the rest of the world. Quite a change from the laid back life of the south, the north is a beehive of activity long before the ground warms.
The seasons of Wisconsin hold their own memories—timothy grass, sweet and tangy, and the incessantly pungent odor of manure (even in the dead of winter). The sounds of the Indians as they beat their drums and sang their chants long into the night on a summer evening. And I will never forget the sight and smell of the raw earth that was being turned under for planting and replanting or the feel of the winter’s clean frozen air that burns the inside of your nose as you breathe or the image of hoarfrost that paints the early morning meadows a sparkly silver.