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Alice C. Bateman

Being middle-aged or older at the dawn of the twenty-first century means that we have lived through many and rapid changes in our lifetimes. I was fortunate enough to have been raised on a farm. When my parents moved in, about 1951, the house had dirt floors and no running water. By the time I was born three years later, my Dad had added indoor plumbing, flooring, a bigger living room and a new kitchen; I never knew the entirely primitive home that my older siblings remember.

The eighth of eleven children from a large rural family, a Catholic mother and a Protestant father made my childhood different from those with two parents of the same faith. My Dad showed me early in life that you did not have to go to church to be a God-fearing and God-loving individual. That God can exist in a flower, a cloud, a blade of grace, in the early spring fragrance the earth gifts us with when the frost is gone.

I just made a typing error in the preceding sentence – I said ‘a blade of grace’ instead of ‘a blade of grass.’ I am going to leave it exactly as is, because I have always said to people who profess not to believe in God something to the effect of, ‘Who else could make a blade of grass?’ Something so simple, that we take totally for granted, even curse when we have to cut or maintain it, but a total wonder. No scientist or botanist or multi-faceted genius who lives could duplicate or replicate a single, simple blade of grass. How can one not believe in God? A blade of grace…

But I digress; my intention was to portray the warm and comforting sounds and smells of that early home. It changed and evolved as we grew and the family’s circumstances changed. The wood stove was exchanged for an electric one when I was perhaps ten years old, the clothes that used to freeze solid on the outside lines were dried in the new electric dryer in the kitchen beginning at about the same time.

What wonderful smells come to mind! Stiff-as-a-board clothes lying on the kitchen table, fresh from the sunny-day brilliant blues and whites of a country winter. The legs and arms of the family’s garments solid and three-dimensional, blown about by the wind and then frozen. I used to think they looked as if a ghost wore them for a time and then jumped out, leaving the clothes appearing still inhabited. The fresh smell of snow radiated from the sheets and shirts and dresses, stacked like fresh-air-smelling clean goodness on the huge kitchen table. Little puffs of steam rose from them like escaping sighs, as the pieces of clothing warmed and dried, and shrank to their usual dimensions, waiting to be ironed.

For me, that fresh snow smell was sometimes an enticement to get outside and enjoy the activities that only winter could bring to the farm. I was usually happiest indoors in the winter, curled up with a book and a kitten or puppy, but there were times when I would venture out with some of the other kids. We were blessed by growing up with about one hundred and eighty acres of evergreen and cedar woods with rolling hills, along with about ten acres or so of large, neat gardens that produced the food to see us through the winters. Two hundred acres altogether, a paradise I didn't even appreciate as a child, just took it for granted that everyone lived that way I suppose.

Three distinct and separate ponds graced the valleys indented between our hills. The Horse Pond, so named because of its proximity to the spooky horse grave stone-mounded off to the side of it; took great daring to go near the Horse Pond at night, but there it lay, had to be passed to get where we were going. I don’t ever recall a moonlight skate that took place close to that grave. I do remember skirting the far edge of that pond, the edge closest to the familiar and farthest from the buried horse. Casting skittery little-girl glances over my shoulder at the mound of rocks. Wondering just what dead horses might do in their graves, and if this one might decide to get out of it one night… Wondering why the poor horse ever had to die in the first place, breaking my little girl heart.

And then, with a big breath of relief, making our way past the Little Pond to the Big Rink. That’s where we liked skating the best, on the Big Rink. When it was frozen deeply enough, we’d sometimes also toboggan off the high hill beside the rink, and shoot far across the ice. We all knew this was only safe in deep winter, and didn't take any risks with shallow ice. Thoroughly exhilarating, shooting off the lip of the moon-glimmered, silvery hill with a push from a big brother, zooming into the stars and then across the ice! Breath-taking, heart pounding excitement!

How to portray the absolute beauty of a deep-winter night filled with grey shadows of black trees, silhouetted with a glowing outline by the silver-white full moon, or the millions of stars flowing across the Milky Way. Trackless snow ahead of us, bunny footprints denting the coldly gleaming surface here and there. And the smells, coming through nostrils with the hairs inside frozen solid! Snow, wet wool, cold skin, ice glistening in the moonlight, leather skates, skate polish, cold sweet tea in the quart jar we’d brought with us, hot when we’d begun the adventure.

The total silence broken only by the skate blades of myself and my brothers and sister, once the initial playfulness on the ice was over and the sparkling surroundings and shimmering surface became whatever arena our separate minds wanted it to become. We glided in peaceful bliss over and through the intricate designs of the life we painted with blades on an icy pond. The magic of childhood entwined with the simplicity of a natural, God-given winter night.

Although there were eleven children in my family, five brothers and five sisters, there were four of us of an age to play and grow and learn together, the two ‘little boys’ and the two ‘little girls,’ Bill and Bruce, Sheila and Alice. The times we had! The things we did! I was a ‘good’ girl, so they’d make me do things like post me as a lookout to watch and see if Mom was coming while they raided the kitchen and the basement pantry for food. Food that we would take outside to some secret place and feast on before coming back inside for our bedtime snack.

As if Mom wouldn’t have known exactly what was going on at any given moment! The thought of us now, me being posted to let the others know if Mom was coming – the horror if she moved an inch! I likely jumped a mile each time she shifted in her chair a slight bit! I so wish everyone could have lived my childhood, filled with love and intrigue, with imagination, learning and growing. In short, what real life should be about!

We had only one TV channel, and that was kept on a very limited basis, but if you’d asked me at ten years old what was the best way to grow, cook, bake or preserve any of a dozen different foods, I could have easily told you, from observation and experience. I’d have likely shown you which bugs to kill and which to encourage because they were good for the soil or the particular plant, named every weed and tree everywhere, and been thrilled to point out a hummingbird alighting on a raspberry blossom.

Thirty-five or forty years later, I am thrilled to simply have some time with any of my brothers or sisters, in our hectic and harried lives. There is nothing in this world that I would trade for a single memory of a single moment spent in my childhood, before adulthood and the big-city world took over.

Memories of our childhood together are a wonderful retreat for a tired adult; I hope by sharing them, I have given you a little of the peace and joy my heart carries with the smells, sights and sounds of those long-ago days.

© 2007 Alice C. Bateman

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