Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Things I learned growing up on the farm

# Life and death are constant companions

I do not want this to sound maudlin, but as a kid Brother Jim and I witnessed birth of animals and death of animals...as well as the passing of our grandmother.

By the time we were both in school at Walmo, Jim and I spent a lot of time together around the farm. There were always chickens and ducks to feed, which were our responsibilities, as well as various chores involving some hogs and six or seven milk cows.

Jonathan (Yone) Byler (our Amish hired hand) came to live with us when our oldest brother, Joe, joined the Navy after his graduation in January 1946. Brother Dave was finishing his last two years of high school at NCHS. The farm was in full tilt. Yone needed an agricultural deferment so he would not have to serve in a hospital even though he was a conscious objector. Points were awarded for so many chickens, pigs, and cattle and after adding all the points, we fit the bill.

Yone lived in the room behind the kitchen, but with only one bathroom (up stairs) space was tight so he used the privy outside and a rudimentary shower was installed in the basement between the furnace and the coal room.

Along with milking cows and feeding horses, there was always some poor animal to butcher so the  locker Mother rented on South Mill Street was filled to the brim. She was still feeding seven mouths at the time. Chickens were the mainstay, but every so often we butchered a hog and I remember only one bovine. The big animal slaughtering expert was a gentleman named Frank Jaworksi. Frank and his family were old family friends, which is another story, but they would help out when needed. They were patients of Dad's and lived on Sunny Avenue on the West Side of New Castle.

Butchering day found the men all outside stunning, sticking, scalding, scraping and cutting while the women and children with weak stomachs were in the kitchen wrapping meat and preparing such things as blood pudding. Mother Jennie Jaworski would stand at our stove and thicken fresh blood with flour and who knows what else. I remember seeing her stirring the mass in an iron skillet with 3” sides….looked better than it sounds. I do not remember eating it.

The death of a pig was inconsequential...a cow was somewhat worse because they usually had names and chickens were downright exciting to kill, but I loathed picking the feathers. We understood the cycle of life and the need to eat. Sides of bacon and smoked hams hung in the fruit cellar of the old house. There were jars of fruit, vegetables and some meat that surrounded the walls of the cellar. We understood country life, farming and cooperation.

Jim and I witnessed a cat giving birth one sunny afternoon when we heard her crying and figured out she had made a nest near some bales in the hay mow. We lay there and watched six little kittens arrive each in its own little sack, which the mom ate. We were about 7 and 10.  Calves mysteriously appeared in the pasture, but it took several more years to witness a calf being born as I recall. By that time we were much older than the cat birthing experience. Birthing was part of farm life...helping the mother, sometimes...moving the calf or just downright pulling it out of the birth canal.

We watched a favorite dog die one afternoon...very suddenly,  It seemed to us she had been poisoned which was the only explanation for such a quick demise. We dug a hole in the orchard behind the house and buried her. That’s what you did with dead pets.

But on a warm day in late May 1952 the death of a family member made a lasting impression on a ten year old. Our paternal grandmother, Sarah Ellen Covert Lutz, had been living with us for the previous two years after she fell in her Arlington Avenue home and broke her hip. She was living in the room vacated by Jonathan Byler when he left the farm, the one right behind the kitchen. A second bathroom had been added  near the room in the interim and made a nice suite for Grandma to live in. She was, however, a controversial character. She tried to rule the family as the senior member (she was 88) by invoking her interpretation of scripture to Mother and the younger kids. She would openly challenge us for playing softball on Sunday afternoon, for example. She openly criticized Mother over simple things. She did not do that with Dad.  So, there was tension.

But on the day referenced above, I was sitting at the kitchen table looking toward the back door when she appeared clutching her chest and repeating over and over….”I’m so sick, I’m so sick...get Dorothy (Mother)...I’m so sick.” She had been out hoeing in the garden and had made it to the house struggling with each step. We hit the back door and assisted her to her room not understanding exactly what was really going on. Mother took charge. Jim and I withdrew to the out of doors just close enough to be able to hear her in her agony. She summoned Jesus to come and take her home...we heard that.  To see and hear more, we crept into the kitchen when we heard Mother singing hymns...one hymn after another. We saw Mom cradling her in her arms and singing.

Here was the woman who had not treated our mother very well over the years, and now she was being “sung home” by her daughter-in-law. The picture is etched in my mind even today and brings me to tears when I think about it. Mother was a person of compassion and love. I learned that lesson well.

Dad had been summoned to hurry home, which took some time so he could cancel his afternoon appointments.  There was no ambulance and Dad had driven our only car to his office in the Greer Building on Mercer Street that day. I can still see the green Ford coming down the road;  we knew that she was gone. We felt really bad about Dad missing his mother’s final moments. The entire process took about an hour.

Our two oldest brothers were about to graduate from Penn State the following week and as a result they did not come back for the funeral because it was finals week. The five of us at home traveled to State College to witness their graduation.

It was ten years later, almost to the day, when I was summoned home from Penn State during finals when Dad died. The entire family assembled at the old farm house each dealing with grief in our own way, but knowing that this was part of life even if it was unexpected and sudden. We had all learned the realities of life courtesy of the farm and were stronger for it.

*** the picture is Yone driving the team...Queen and Tony... as they pulled the bobsled. We went all the way to town via Graceland Road, Sheridan and Delaware avenues to Leisure where our maternal grand parents lived. We turned around in the shared driveway and headed back to Valley Road. I am the smallest tucked away in the corner.

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