Bracing myself I turned and got to work because if I didn’t start it, I would never finish. I called Tiff over and she helped me carry a big galvanized trough over to the fire pit. I didn’t have to shovel out the snow or lay the fire because Jude had already done it for me thank goodness. All I had to do was start the fire in the pit and then Tiff and I balance the trough over it. From there we started filling it with buckets of water pulled from the hand pump. That was no small bit of work in and of itself but we had a break while the water heated. It took a bit for the water to get warm much less come to the scalding temperature that I needed it to.
While Tiff and I were filling the trough I had let Corey and Mimi play. Corey, for his part, soon tired of the cold, white stuff biting his hands even through his gloves. He crawled up to the porch and into his little fenced off area that Jude and I had contrived for him. It had a gate I could close if need be and I was actually happy to have him away from where I had a fire going. There are all sorts of disaster stories from the pioneer days where families would lose a child or two to accidents around the home and farm. There were more than a few stories of women getting their skirts set ablaze from fireplaces, cook stoves, and other such necessities; I did my best to make sure than none of my kids or myself became one of those stories.
It didn’t take long for Mimi to join Corey on the porch but she came down willingly when I asked her and Tiff to start picking up the fallen limbs and twigs that had given out in the wind or under the weight of the heavy wet snow that arrived during the night. As they piled the limbs beside me I would use a hatchet to cut them to size and then they were put in the kindling or small wood piles. Once the water was hot enough I returned to the laundry. I dipped a bucket out at a time and poured it into the ancient agitator that had belonged to my great grandmother but had been kept in nearly pristine condition by cobbling homespun repairs all these years rather than letting it sit unused and rusting.
I turned one handle – I looked like I was cranking a giant jack-in-the-box – which turned the agitator paddles. After agitating it a little I poured in a little of the slimy, homemade laundry detergent I had made from the stockpile of ingredients Mom had left behind in the basement. I agitated it a little more and then let it soak for a few minutes then agitated it again for a while. Then the dirty water was emptied and a rinse was agitated and then it usually took a second rinse for the water to run clear. I put vinegar in the last rinse to try and soften and sweeten the load but I’m not sure how much that helped all things considered.
I would use the water from the final rinse cycle to start the first agitation of the next load. For the overall order of things I started with the least dirty and most delicate items that took the least amount of time to wash and progressed through to the items that could take a serious beating and were really nasty dirty as well. While I had regular loads of laundry going I also had a few dishpans of lace doilies, antique tablecloths, and a few other old pieces of crochet and knit work soaking in cold water and baking soda. I know those items were kind of frou-frou but I was trying to wash things as I found them packed away so that they could be put into the cedar lined linen closets and chests in the house proper. I think the pretty designs of doilies and such are uplifting and brighten things up. And since they were all homemade it seemed a shame to hide them away rather than get some use out of them. One of these days I would like to have the time and talent to make pretty things like that.
My final loads were the truly grungy items like jeans and socks, some of which had been soaking in buckets of borax water to keep the stink down to a dull roar in my sinuses. Corey still had the occasional accident or skid mark so these usually got their own soak and pretreatment too before merging them together with a full load.
I had also wanted to wash some clothes that I found in the attic but the day got away from me. That’s what I get for trying to do too much in too little time. As Jude predicted the sun never came out and the sky just kept getting grayer and more depressing. The wind picked up helping to blow the wet out of the fabric but the air was so damp that it didn’t help all that much. The first loads did dry but the remaining loads merely stiffened and froze no matter how many times I ran them through the wringers.
When the first flakes of additional snow started to fall I gave up and went inside to run clothesline across the living room as close to the fireplace as I could manage. Tiff and I had to move some of the furniture and lay down a tarp on the floor to catch the drips but at least when I hung the jeans up they didn’t drag on the floor. I suppose I could have strung the lines a little higher but Tiff and Mimi were helping me so the lines had to be where they could reach them too. While they hung clothes I cleaned up everything outside.
Water dumped away from the house so there wouldn’t be ice on the walkways, trough hung back up on the side of the shed, and agitator rolled back into its place inside the shed, I used some of the coals from the wash water fire to start the living room fire place. I covered the remaining coals in the pit after using them to start a Dutch oven full of Duck Goulash.
The boys were getting good at helping to provide the occasional bit of wild meat. The previous day they had each managed to bring down a duck with their sling shots. Our Christmas meal had been a couple of pheasants thanks to Jude taking Paulie, Bobby, and Lonnie up to the old Hamner place which is further afield than they normally went by themselves. I tried really hard to have a bit of meat every day even if not at every meal but on some days it was a really small bit as we tried to save the smokehouse inventory as much as we could because when the snow truly set in, hunting would get even harder than it already was.
The rabbit and squirrel furs from their catches were always taken down to Lorne and that’s how I got the material to make fur lined collars and ear mufflers for the kids. I need to make Corey and Mimi fur-lined moccasins because both will soon be out of their shoes and I have found no shoes the next size up for them. It was at times like these that I thought longingly of the card with all the points that sat useless – at least for now – in my dresser drawer.
News from town was sparse as they were limiting travel more and more. Word had it that the transition to the new Commander was not going as well as expected and that even the current Commander was having second thoughts about his replacement. That could be wishful thinking but maybe not. You never know what to believe these days.
Certainly the news on the radio was likely to be mostly sunshine and roses even if it was raining hailstones and brimstone outside. Jude and Clewis seemed to have an inside track on things and I had to stop myself several times from asking, “How do you know that?” Jude has been depositing interesting bits and pieces down in the basement and it leads me to believe that either he is doing some clandestine trading on his own or he might be helping someone on the black market. He’s brought home things and taken them straight to his bedroom and I hear him tinkering at night or early in the morning before chores. I’m not sure what to think of it and until I do I don’t know how to ask. Plus I’m not too sure he wants me to ask any questions.
If it wasn’t so cold down in the basement I would tell him just to move his stuff down there, maybe into one of the closet sized “rooms” off of the old tunnel. There are a couple of unfinished spaces or alcoves that he could curtain off when he wasn’t using it. A lamp also wouldn’t be visible from down there which is what I always worry about should someone not family walk up to the house in the evenings without warning. I think I’ll mention it to him when I get the nerve. I just don’t want him to feel like I am messing in something I have no right to be messing in.
Speaking of odd spaces and hidden things I found out two things about this old house that not even Uncle Roe knew ‘cause I asked him. That blasted riser going into the attic, the one that I and everyone else is always tripping over, is actually a hollow space. I finally tripped hard enough on the blasted thing that I popped the step off. I shouldn’t have been able to and I was freaking out a little bit until I realized that it wasn’t the dreaded wood rot but that the top of the step slid in and out of its fittings. Inside was an old wooden cigar box and inside that was a moth eaten account book, a bottle of ink powder and nub pen, and a couple of old chewing tobacco drawstring bags that were so dry rotted that they fell apart when I tried to pick them up.
There was some rotted paper inside one bag that looked like old folding money but it was so nasty I couldn’t tell what year it was. They had George Washington on them I could tell that much but beyond that they bore little resemblance to the dollar bill I was used to seeing. The ink was brown on one side and a funky green on the other, and the serial number was red and really big. There were also what looked like paper IOUs in there; some of them literally said “IOU” then someone’s signature with a dollar amount below it though most of the signatures and amounts were illegible beyond a few letters and numbers. Some just had an “X” on them with a printed name below it; I figure those were from people that were illiterate.
The other bag held some funky, funky coins. There were old pennies … I mean old pennies as in they had Indian heads on them; a few of the pennies were all green and glued together like a blob. There were silver dollars, the oldest of which was an 1882 silver liberty. There were three different kinds of half dollars though they were all worn really bad … a sitting lady, a walking lady, and then a head but I couldn’t tell whether it was a lady or a man’s head it was so Greek looking with a leaf crown on the hair. There were some worn out dimes and nickels too … at least I’m pretty sure that’s what they are. All together it was a little more than a change purse full.
I told Uncle Roe about the hidden cavity but not about what was in it. When he asked I said a bunch of mouse turds and chewed on paper. He snorted and said, “Probably some kid’s treasure or some girls diary.” He shook his head. “Bunch of foolishness. Have Jude nail that thing down before someone breaks their neck on it.”
Of course I said, “Yes sir.”
Jude on the other hand was up in the attic investigating my finds and said, “I ain’t nailing that shut. Seems too handy though I wish you hadn’t said anything to Dad before you talked to me.”
“I know Jude. It just sort of came out. I thought he would get a kick out of it and maybe know the story of it.”
He kissed my temple even though it wasn’t a particularly clean piece of skin at the time. “Don’t worry about it. But you didn’t say anything about the rest of it did you?”
“This sliding door? Uh uh. I figured if he didn’t know about the step he surely wasn’t likely to know about a door that has been covered up with junk for who knows how long. If you upend that little stool it has the year 1918 and some initials carved into it. The back of that broken cheval mirror has the same year and same initials. It was leaning right up against the sliding panel. Looking at it I still wouldn’t have found it if I hadn’t leaned against the wall to rest and my rear bumper hadn’t gone through that papered over area. The old newspaper glued to the wall has dates from the 1910s which is I guess when they stuck it on the wood paneling beneath it.”
Jude chuckled. “I’d have given a lot to see your face when it happened.”
“Let’s just say I was … er … startled and leave it at that.”
He laughed some more and then looked inside the space that was about the size of a closet. “I haven’t got the foggiest what this was used for unless maybe it was a servant’s room. Most live-ins had their night quarters in the attic.”
“And how do you know that?” I asked.
“Stupid school project for woodshop class. Mr. Bergdorf was really into local history and rehabbing old houses. We had to do a project on some of the features of the big ol’ Victorian houses and carpet bagger mansions in the area. He fancied himself a mystery writer too and used to tell us stories about houses with hidden spaces and the like. But I don’t ever remember Dad saying that any of his family was ever rich enough to have a live in maid.”
“Actually a couple of generations back they were if I remember right. Great something or other used to bring in women to help with the housework when his wife was in child bed, which was pretty often. Knowing Uncle Roe he probably wouldn’t tell you this story anyway because about half the boys from that line were always in trouble with the revenuers and sheriff because they were stinkers and there’s reason to believe that the only reason their daddy didn’t get arrested too was because he was a better stinker. Mom used to say that generation was profligate or something like that.”
“They were what?”
“Yeah, I had to look it up too. It basically means that they were stinkers and scallywags.”
He looked at me out of the corner of his eye and asked, “You have a problem with … er … profligates?”
I shrugged nonchalantly. “Depends on why they are what they are I suppose and what they are doing to earn that title.”
He didn’t say another word but it was just more evidence that he … or he and Clewis since they were getting thick as thieves … were into or up to something.
“So what do you want to use this space for?” he asked.
“I don’t know. It’s empty for now but if we could line it with cedar it might make another good linen closet. I’m going to run out of room in the ones downstairs before too much longer. Or it might make a good space to store out of season clothes and shoes. You have a better idea for it?”
He had a thoughtful look on his face before he said, “Maybe. Let me think on it.”