Thursday, 19 August 2010
By Lyn Burnstine of The Lynamber Times
It was sweltering hot in southern Illinois as my childhood played out in those summer days in the 30s and 40s. We escaped the even more stifling heat of an upstairs, Main Street, small-town apartment by moving to my grandmother's farm.
That is – my mother, grandmother, sister and I did. My father joined us on weekends and for occasional midweek visits, a fact that seems incomprehensible in this day of easy and common commutes - it was barely seven miles. Perhaps he managed to be fairly comfortable with electric fans in his photo studio, Schroeder's Studio, that served double duty as our home.
We had no such luxury at Grandma’s. Connection with Rural Electrification never quite made it to her farm. For as long as my memory stretched back, the wiring had been in place and we always had hopes that it would be connected “next year.” On the hottest nights, we laid our pallets of quilts and comforters on the cool floor of the downstairs rooms or even out in the yard.
Our days and nights were shaped by the lack of electricity: our entertainment the old wind-up Victrola and the piano; our reading hours shortened by the inadequacy of kerosene lamplight; our meals made simpler by cooking on a kerosene stove tucked away at a distance from the house in the summer kitchen that stood over the cellar a few yards away from the winter kitchen door.
The closest thing to air-conditioning we had was that cellar, but frequent sightings of snakes, who also liked its damp dark coolness, discouraged our spending any time down there.
With a typical day’s temperature reaching into the high eighties or nineties, we certainly didn't want to fire up the big, old, black, wood stove that dominated the regular kitchen. Without its reservoir of hot water to draw from, baths were even skimpier - one enameled basin of water to lather up in and one to rinse in. A sometime solution - on the hottest nights - was a bath out under the open skies with plenty of cool water to splash with abandon over our sweaty bodies.
I loved the little country church - Golden Church - but I hated having to wear dresses and shoes on Sunday morning. My mother, a stellar seamstress and needleworker, kept us outfitted in beautiful clothes despite a Depression-affected, cash-poor existence.
The little sunsuits that we wore all week were soft cotton and scanty - practical and comfortable. But oh, those dresses! Mostly smocked, usually made from dotted swiss - the puffed sleeves, the higher necks and the prickly feel of the stiff fabrics were torture to me. I could hardly wait to get home and back into my sunsuit and bare feet.
From my grandma’s farm, always my touchstone during my highly mobile early childhood years, the sensory memories are amazingly strong and vivid after all these years. Many of my fondest memories are of playing in the woods, especially in the stream that ran through them. We didn’t call it a stream; it was Coon Creek, pronounced “crick.”
There were crawfish that tickled our toes as we waded in the cold, crystal-clear water, rarely deep enough for real swimming but always safe for little girls exploring the woods and stream on their own. Thick grapevines hung over the water; we swung on them, playing Tarzan.
I remember early summer days when we would go to Bluebell Island to gather armfuls of the lush blue and pink bluebells - Virginia Cowslips - from their bed on a small spit of land surrounded on three sides by the waters of Coon Creek. I have pictures of my sweet, gentle father holding a huge bouquet of the rare blossoms. I thought everyone’s father was gentle, sensitive, and nature-loving--what a rude awakening I was in for, in adulthood.
I can still smell the musky cloying sweetness of the wild honey that we gathered from a fallen tree in the woods. We played house in an old abandoned pigsty there; photographs record my older sister boosting me up a tree alongside that playhouse. (We used to howl with laughter as we recited, “There once was a lady from Worcester, who used to crow like a rooster, she used to climb seven trees at a time, but her sister used to boost her”).
Always barefoot - shoes were only for church on Sunday - so that the hot dust, the cool mud, the sharp cut-ends of weeds, the tender grass, the crunchy leaves and the icy water all impressed their lifelong sensory memories on me through the very soles of my feet.
[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]