I woke up before the sun came up and made my way to the kitchen nearly tripping over Paul who had gone to sleep on the floor outside his bedroom door. “Paulie, what on earth?!”
“I … I heard what Jude said last night. I was standing guard so you could sleep.”
“Oh Paulie,” I said bending down to give him a hug. “Look, we’ll figure it out but Jude is around so it isn’t just us anymore. Besides if you don’t sleep, how are you going to help me during the day? We have a lot to do before winter gets here … and I think we’ll start with those apple trees.”
The sound of muscles stretching and bones popping came from the other side of the sofa where he’d chosen to sleep instead of the screened porch. Jude sat up and said, “That sounds like a plan I can get behind. I gotta help Dad mow the side twenty but we lay off early in the day so we can get other things done. If he don’t need me I’ll come back here and help clear the tops out so you don’t have to climb up in ‘em.”
“How do you mow if you don’t have gas for the tractors?”
“Don’t use tractors. Mennonite family that bought that farm next door refused to get vaccinated and the whole lot of them fell to the virus. Most of their cattle went back to other Mennonites but we got some of their big draft horses cause Dad helped build all the coffins they needed. Parents, both sets of grandparents, and all eight kids; and they weren’t the only Mennonites that happened to. The mower and other attachments was our grandparents’ that Dad rebuilt to sell to an antique house but never got around to it. Now we use ‘em.”
“How awful for that family,” I gasped.
“Dad said you get paid consequences for standing on your principles … sometimes it’s good pay, sometimes not. Sometimes it all depends on how you look at it I guess. Either way there’s grits in the cabinet and some smoked hog jowl hanging in the pantry … er … if …”
“Let me wash up first. Have you been doing your own cooking since you started sleeping here?”
“If you wanna call it that. Something upset the ducks last week and they stopped laying or you’d have some eggs to go with the grits and jowl.”
“Fox?” I asked heading for the hand pump that stood at the foot of the back porch steps.
Jude shook his head, waiting his turn at the pump. “Something bigger. Mighta been a dog … or a person. Hard to tell the difference sometimes, And there weren’t any tracks left worth spit after Rochelle’s kids walked all over the area before we could get to it.”
“How’s all that going … up at the house I mean. Uncle Roe had mentioned that the girls were going to have to find their own places before we left for Phoenix.”
“And they did for a while. But when things got bad in town they all ran back out here and Mom told them to stay before Dad could say otherwise.”
“You know Uncle Roe wouldn’t have turned them away Jude.”
He said, “Oh you’re right about that … but they done got surprised that he don’t let ‘em just sit around like they used to. None of us do. You won’t recognize the girls. Rochelle and Wendalene are half the size they used to be and I ain’t joking neither. Faith … well Faith is in some kind of funk but she ain’t that pasty color she used to be from where she would never go outdoors and do nothin’.”
“What do you mean she’s in a funk?”
“Can’t explain it, she just is. Think she is having a hard time with all her plans coming to nothing like they have. She never planned on being a farm girl and hates it but the rules is you don’t work you don’t eat. The boy she took up with after you all left ain’t half bad; Dad likes him. And while he don’t know much about farming he’s a doggone good welder and seems to be teaching himself how to smith enough to fix things that break and bring in some work. My uncles found out the hard way Dad wasn’t fooling and tried to start a feud over it, but Dad stood tough. Mom don’t like the way things are going ‘cause there’s been a few times folks have gone to bed hungry, her included.”
Trying to keep any judgmentalness out of my voice I said, “They could always snitch from the pantry. I’m surprised they don’t.”
“They tried that. Once. Dad padlocked it … and the basement too. And he sleeps down there now. He caught one of Butch’s kids trying to unscrew the board off a basement window and had him thrown in the back of the pick up truck and was going to take him down to the county offices.”
“Oh Lord. Butch must have had something to say about that.”
Jude snorted, “Yeah … like have a nice life, next time follow the rules.”
“No! You’re joshin’ me.”
“If I’m lying I’m dying Dovie, I swear it’s true. I tell you though no one has tried that a second time, especially not the kids. Don’t mean Dad don’t keep a watch to make sure it doesn’t. Dad’s a good man Dovie but he don’t take much pushin’.”
I sighed. “I can see folks are gonna be just thrilled at seven more mouths if they are already protective of what they have. I gotta get to planning … doing what Mom always talked about when we were here.”
Jude nodded cautiously. “Might be a good idea at that. I ain’t saying it can’t be done but … the gardens aren’t bringing in as much because we haven’t had the fertilizer or pesticides to keep ‘em going like in the past. Same with the field crops. About the only thing that didn’t get bugs real bad this year was tobacco and a good thing too. Folks have takin’ to smokin’ just to forget how hungry they are.”
I started water boiling to make the grits and then got the kids up and moving and told them when they were finished getting dressed to start bringing everything into the house out of the car. “Grab what you can and I’ll get the heavy stuff out, just put it neatly in the back room so I can go through it and figure out where to put things.”
“I’ll get the heavy stuff Granny,” Jude amended. “You just cook if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind … and stop calling me Granny. I’m thankful to be able to give the kids something besides crackers and granola bars.”
I was putting breakfast on the table when Jude walked in with eyes nearly as big around as the kids had been at the sight of Uncle Roe. “What?” I asked him getting worried.
“Co … co … coffee.”
I looked and realized he was carrying the garbage bag that I had collected the powder out of the vending machines in. “It’s instant.”
“Ask me if I care. Can I have a cup? Please?”
“Well goodness Jude, of course you can. What? Does Uncle Roe ration it out?”
Jude hands shook as he dipped some boiling water out of the kettle I had on the stove. “He would if there was any to ration. It run out months ago. You better keep this to yourself or you’ll have everyone up at the house down here all day long.”
“But I can’t keep it all if Uncle Roe doesn’t have any,” I told him.
He nodded. “I understand that but you let Dad decide what to do with it and you don’t tell no one until he does.” He’d finished stirring and then shivered. “Good gosh this is good.”
Nearly gagging at the remembered taste I said, “It’s nasty vending machine coffee.”
“You only say that ‘cause you ain’t had to give it up for so long.”
“I say that because it’s nasty vending machine coffee. Tomorrow I’ll perk some of the real stuff. There’s some around in those boxes and bags some place.”
“Now you’re joshin’ me.”
I shook my head. “Go wash up and then come eat.”
a bit later I was wiping Corey’s chin and telling Lonnie to stop kicking the table leg when Jude put his fork down and asked, “Where’s your plate?”
I shrugged. “I’ll grab something in a bit. I want there to be enough left to put some grits in a loaf pan so that it’ll set and I can fry it up for dinner.”
“You gotta eat.”
Paulie and Tiff said in unison, “She won’t.”
Outraged that they’d go turncoat I said, “Hey! Whose side are you on you two?!”
Tiff said, “It’s true. You don’t eat much.”
“I … I just got out of the habit. Besides, I’ve been eating those Clif bars.”
Jude made a rude gagging noise. “Gawd Dovie, those things taste like twice chewed cud.”
Getting irritated I said, “Oh yeah, and your taste buds know good when it hits them. You think vending machine coffee tastes like Heaven. I told you I’m fine … just out of the habit of eating a lot.”
“It shows. You ain’t much more than skin and bones and don’t play it ain’t true. I’ll keep an eye out while we mow and try and bag some ground hogs … they’ve been bad this year … or some of your name sakes.”
At Tiffany’s apprehensive look I said, “He means doves … birds. They’re like small chickens.”
She got a glazed look in her eyes and then said quietly, “Cornish hens … Grandmother used to call them Cornish hens.”
I nodded, “Even smaller than that but they are just as good. Now if you all are finished eating you can go play for just a little bit then as soon as I get a few things figured out we need to get to work.”
They all nodded and got up and pushed their chairs in then put their plates in the sink and filed down the hall to Paulie’s bedroom.
Jude stared after them then asked, “What’s wrong with them? They’re like Stepford kids or something.”
“Don’t Jude,” I told him warningly.
“Relax Dovie, I ain’t making fun of them. I mean it, what’s wrong with them?”
I sighed. “You think you know how bad it was but you don’t, not really. I’m Ok … come to terms with it. They’re just little kids and they’ve lost everything. I can’t even give them much of a family history except for what is in their medical charts that I swiped before we left that facility. They don’t have anything from the lives they had before I got them unless there are pictures in their file. Corey and Mimi don’t even mention their parents anymore. I think Lonnie might have once or twice since we left the facility. Bobby … didn’t have any to begin with; he started out as a foster kid. Tiffany … talking about her grandmother is as close to talking about her past as she has gotten in a long time, and Mimi is her biological sister by the way.”
“Like I couldn’t have figured that out with both of them having the same exact eyes and nose. Any of the boys related?”
“No. Like I said, Bobby came in from the foster care system and I think he’d been there most of his life. He latched onto Paulie like nothing I’ve ever seen and that’s how he wound up as one of ours. He’s better now but poor Paulie couldn’t even go to the bathroom without Bobby being glued to him. After the two of them connected they started collecting the other kids and I came de facto Nanny or something. And all the stuff in the quarantine camps and medical facilities and then us on the road and all they’ve seen. I didn’t have any choice but to have rules and to keep them quiet. We wouldn’t have made it otherwise. They’ll loosen up but it might take a while. None of them are real trusting outside our group. Uncle Roe got more words out of Tiff than I thought he would.”
“Well that’s Dad for you; he’s got the magic. I remember when Mom and him first started dating. I wanted to hate him but wound up praying every night that she wouldn’t get tired of him like she had all the others.” I hadn’t known that and Jude seemed suddenly embarrassed at having let it slip out. “Anywho, don’t stray from the yard today. I know you’re used to having the running of things but … but until you get your feet under you around here …”
“It’s alright Jude. You don’t boss the way Butch and Clewis do. And you tried to help with Reynolds … you know before. I know you aren’t saying it to be mean.”
He relaxed and gave me a small grin then stopped looking consternated. “Dang it. Ain’t used to … look, I gotta run but there’s some of my guns in the broom closet. Can you put ‘em where they can’t be got to? I don’t want the kids to get into them and get hurt.”
“I’ll put them in the master bedroom closet and lock it like Dad always did.”
“Good deal. I’ll try my best to bring something back but it might not be until close to supper.”
“If you can’t I know how to make do.” And I did.
After he left, a bag slung over his shoulders and a rifle in his hand, I went back to the bedroom and told the kids, “You don’t need to all sleep together like this you know.”
I watched them move together like a bunch of scared puppies. Paulie answered for them saying, “It’s all right Dovie. We don’t mind.”
I sighed then said, “Well I suppose but if you’re going to why not use the big room upstairs. There’s two beds plus a trundle under each one. There’s also a fireplace in there and it will be warmer once Indian Summer is over with.”
Paulie grinned, “We can use the big room? For real?”
I laughed, “I don’t see why not. If you want to.”
Paulie marshaled his troops and said, “C’mon. This is going to be cool!” Even Tiff looked intrigued and followed them up the stairs with some vigor. As for me, I went and sat on the porch to soak things in and think.
My raising had been a little unconventional. Dad was TDY a lot and when he was Mom tended to bring us to the farm to live or visit depending on how long he was going to be gone. Sometimes Jack and Jay would fuss about it, especially once they got into highschool and worried that it was going to keep them from graduating and getting into the military but for the most part it worked out fine. It meant I learned the skills to be both a city kid (when we were in Tampa or wherever we were stationed) and a farm kid (when we were in Bear Spring). I’d mostly been using my city kid survival skills up to that point, now it was time for me to get back in touch with my farm kid side.
I grabbed a note pad and sat in the swing that had hung on the front porch for as long as I could remember. On the pad of paper I listed: food, clothes, shoes, cooking, warmth.
We’ve got a roof over our head … does anything at the house need fixing? Is the ax sharp enough that I can chop wood with it? Need to go through the cedar closet to make sure we have enough blankets. Need to go through all the boxes that never got unpacked from Tampa.
How full is the propane tank and can we get more? How much will it cost and how do I get the money that was in the bank or the benefits we were supposed to get? If we can’t does the wood stove still work? Is there a bird nest in there like last time?
Might have to make clothes for the kids but that’s ok as there should be a ton of stuff like that still packed away. Bobby can use Paulie’s clothes that he’s outgrown. Lonnie can use Bobby’s. Corey and Mimi need clothes. Tiffany can maybe use some of my old stuff still packed away. Maybe I can use Mom’s old clothes if I sew them up in places. Might see if Jude can use some of Jack and Jay’s old things ‘cause I ain’t looking at his drawers coming out of the seat of his pants much longer. Why isn’t Aunt Frankie or his sisters looking after him?
Shoes I don’t know. Ask Jude. If he doesn’t know ask Uncle Roe. Winter boots should still be packed away in the storage tubs in the attic. Need to find them.
Food … food … food … food.
Food was the thing. We’d need a lot of it and I was no longer going to have rest stops and stores to go digging through to find some. So I flipped the page and started a new list.
Drink: water from the pump, coffee while it holds out, boxed drinks for juice, powdered drinks that I’ve been collecting. I see that the mints have gone crazy in Mom’s herb garden. Pick some and dry it to drink so that other people can have the vending machine sludge. Hide all the sodas under my bed and only have one as a treat when I absolutely can’t stand it anymore. Maybe give all the diet ones to Aunt Frankie and the girls as a peace offering so they’ll stay off my back.
Sweetening: packets of sugar, fake sugar, and honey that I’ve been collecting. The bags of stuff like that from offices and vending machines. Syrup boiling but that doesn’t happen until spring and can we do it this year if there is no propane to keep the fires lit? Honey like the Mennonites have? What else do the Mennonites do for sweetening?
Meat: ducks from the pond if they haven’t all flown south. Bullfrogs from the ponds but don’t let Jude tell them that stupid story about the legs jumping around in their stomach. Squirrels? Raccoons? Quail? Doves? Ground hogs? I don’t like possums but I’ll eat them if there isn’t anything else and just won’t tell the kids what it is. Jude said there might be some hunting but not much … what about deer? I don’t want to ask but does Uncle Roe still have his pigs, chickens, and the goats? Can I work at something somehow so that he’ll give me enough for the kids? Crows hang around all winter long. Is there really such a thing as blackbird pie like in the song Old King Cole? Maybe we don’t have to eat meat every day if the vitamins hold out. Can you eat muskrats? Are they still in the creeks?
Vegetables: need to get Jude to be ok with me walking in the woods. Take Mom’s lists and forage and try and bring back enough to can some of the greens and mushrooms. What else can I find in the woods in October? Look for that little reference book Mom used to use all the time when we were here, the one she wrote all those notes in.
Fruit: What is on the trees in the old orchard? Apples, canning pears is the only thing that would be on them in October. What about the rose hips? Did they make this year? Has a lot of Vitamin C in them and makes good tea. Those packets of lemon juice might come in handy. Sumac lemonade tastes like fruit but it isn’t (should put this under drinks).
Other: See if any home canned goods are left down in the basement closet and see what date they have on them. Or did Jude and Uncle Roe take all that stuff away? Mom’s wild grape catsup and mushroom catsup might still be in there. What about grains? I have some oatmeal left but that won’t last. Bread? Only thing I have is crackers and those meal bar things. What about medicine in case the kids get sick? Have all those first aid kits but no serious medicine if they get bad sick. Need to read Mom’s books on teas and stuff like that. How do I make bread if I don’t have flour or cornmeal? I remember when Gran was still alive we used acorns for stuff so look in Gran’s old recipe book or ask Uncle Roe if he remembers.
I could feel myself getting edgy about all the things we didn’t have. The only thing I knew to do was work with what we did have.
I stuck my head in the front door and called up the stairs, “Paulie?!”
“Need you all down here. We’re gonna start gleaning the trees.”