We just lost the eldest member of our clan yesterday, the last of nine siblings, the last of her generation. My Aunt Ethel had turned 102 in January; it’s not like this was unexpected, but it is still painful. Her memory carries many beautiful and unforgettable recollections with it.
I would go to my Uncle Virg’s 90-acre dairy farm in Ohio every summer when I was young. My three cousins and I would take turns every other morning, two of us rising very early, doing the milking and other barn chores as Uncle Virg also worked at Tappan to supplement their income. Aunt Ethel, I felt, had the most challenging job…more on this later.
What glorious summers those were! It seemed that each summer, there would be a slightly different assemblage of animals on the farm. There might be a mix of pigs, geese, rabbits, pigeons, sheep, goats, but always the cows, a pony, and chickens. A note about the goats: apparently, they didn’t last too long on the farm because after escaping from the field, Aunt Ethel caught them ravaging her flower beds and climbing all over the new car. I suspect they made a few good meals a very short time after that. For another blog about the farm, see: https://www.tamingjoshsdragon.com/2020/08/24/dog-days-of-summer-warm-farm-memories/
There were the cows: how my favorite (Jenny, a sweet, gentle Holstein) loved having underneath her big jaw scratched as she stretched out her neck in pure joy. I took in the sweet aroma of her breath, smelling of the corn, oats, molasses, and whatever other “snacks” she had eaten while being milked. These cows had been 4-H calves that my cousins had raised and shown at the County Fair, so they were very tame and friendly towards a “green” cousin. We would call them into the stanchion by name, and they would proceed in a calm and orderly fashion, taking their turn being milked.
Of course, the smart-aleck male cousins would con me, saying the electric fence wouldn’t hurt if you grabbed it, or you could ride a cow into the barn. I fell for the electric fence trick-THE FIRST TIME-and naturally, didn’t foresee the certainty of my cow-riding folly, slipping off her back right into a cow pie…or more accurately, multiple cow pies! You simply haven’t lived until you have cow poop squishing between your fingers and soaking through your jeans into your underwear followed by lots of hooting and hollering echoing in the background. I learned a lot about trust and practical jokes that summer. *SIGH* Obviously, there were some days when I went through more than one pair of jeans. It makes me wonder how Aunt Ethel handled washing those items.
Early in our young lives, Dean, being the older boy, had the more arduous chores like plowing, crimping hay, spreading manure, etc., and other duties that I can’t even remember or understand. Uncle Virg would have all the assignments prepared in the morning before he left for work. I was always in charge of gathering the eggs. I don’t know why I didn’t have a basket, or maybe I did, and it was overloaded, but one day I had too many to carry and put one in my pocket. Of course, it broke, but I was too embarrassed to ‘fess up. A day later, prepping for clothes washing, Aunt Ethel said, “Did an egg break in your pocket?” I could never figure out how she knew. Could it be that my jeans were so stiff they stood on their own?
Ginger, the stubborn pinto pony gelding was a farm mainstay; Bruce and usually I rode him together. Boy, I loved that pony and lived through the long winter looking forward to seeing him again, brushing him, hugging his neck and kissing his face, riding through the woods and fields when we had completed our chores. Occasionally he would give a half-hearted rump-lift, his underrated version of a bucking bronco. If we did fall off (always saddleless, mind you), he’d stand still and wait for us to hop back on, and off we’d go again.
We would play hide-and-seek and tag in the barn, foolishly risking our necks crossing on the beams far above the barn floor or hiding in a “fort” up in the highest part of the barn, among the stacked hay and straw bales. In the barns’ lower level, the boys and I would ride Ginger around the haymow. A long board extended out from the mow, about five feet above the floor. Ginger had learned that he could scrape us all off his back if he walked in close enough. He would stop, and we got back on, laughing the whole time. Ginger always seemed to be in on the joke: “Same ride, same results…dumb kids!”
I recall having the indubitable honor of several times witnessing the artificial insemination of the cows. I’m sure my mouth hung open nearly to the floor through the whole mind-blowing (for an 11-year-old) procedure. I thought I’d be forever scarred by that experience, but surprisingly enough, it was quickly forgotten after only a few short decades.
My uncle put rings in the pigs’ noses, a boisterous and physically demanding affair. The pigs seemed somewhat unimpressed yet walked away with sore noses, I would imagine. Bruce and I were responsible for the rabbits, cleaning out their cages, and feeding them. Besides giving them hay and some kind of pellets, we would go out into the fields and pull plantain weed (considered an herb) for them, which they loved. We were also in charge of “hilling up the pickles,” hoeing the soil up against the plant’s stem forming a sort of pyramid so that the rain would drain better. This was a hot, sweaty job in an 85-degree summer and definitely not our favorite summer pastime. We were sometimes assigned to walk up and down the cornrows, pulling out the nasty Jimson Weed. Periodically we rode Ginger along the electric fences to ensure tall grass wasn’t touching and impairing the shocking effect of the fence. We’d pull out the tall grass wherever needed and had a nice ride at the same time. I assure you I never fell for that story or grabbed that wire again.
There were two ponds back in the shady woods, aptly named “The Big Pond” and “The Small Pond.” The cows would hang out there in the worst of the heat and share with the deer access to a nice wade and cool drink when needed. The ponds were a source of bluegills and other assorted wildlife, which we would take home for dinner some nights. That was my first taste of frogs’ legs, which were surprisingly tasty. I believe here’s where the old adage, “It tastes like chicken,” was born. They were a whole lot better than fresh-picked green beans, spinach, or beets that I’d have to choke down, or else I wouldn’t be allowed to “ride Ginger or swim in the pool.” Uncle Virg had used some concrete silo staves to build a round pool for the kids in the orchard across the driveway from the farmhouse. Sweet, cool fun in the hot summer following hot, sweaty chores! Bruce and I scattered that fun in with occasionally lying on our backs on the lawn, picking out shapes in the clouds or tormenting the drivers of passing cars, “You’re goin’ too fast!” or, “Your goin’ too slow!”.
When it came time to bale hay, I was too small (and apparently too weak) to throw bales onto the hay wagon. I learned to drive the John Deere slowly through the field as the men and boys tossed the bales up onto the wagon. Another guy on the wagon used an interesting “weaving” technique to stack them so they would form a stable stack; there’s gotta be a technical name for that intricate and careful placement of the bales. I was so small that I couldn’t reach the clutch lever, so I had to use my right foot, barely encased in sneakers with huge holes in the toes, to engage it. Driving that John Deere tractor was fun and made me feel very useful.
Aunt Ethel was pivotal in all these new and (for me) life-altering experiences. She cooked, cleaned, canned vegetables, made the most delicious jelly, and worked her fingers to the bone (my expression, not hers). She had wondrous meals on the table and after suppertime, it seemed we finished just in time for us to walk back down the dirt lane to the barn for the evening milking. Then a bath (yuk!) followed and maybe some TV. Rawhide! During those magnificent hot summers, my aunt was my stand-in mom, understanding, stern but loving, supportive, and teaching.
Although Sandy was also there, because she was SO much older (4 whole years!), we didn’t interact much in those days; she helped more with the household chores and I was always outside. In the past 20 years, however, she and I became very close. I was her Door-Opener for Spiritualism and every time we had a chance, we talked endlessly about our discoveries, synchronicities, our books and so very many other interesting aspects of this field. For another blog about Sandy, see: https://www.tamingjoshsdragon.com/2022/01/10/tribute-to-a-phenomenal-woman/
Thank goodness I wasn’t in charge of household chores. I much rather would be in the barn, the woods, or the fields, making the finest discoveries ever, inspecting strange-looking pollywogs with legs sprouting, enjoying Ginger, reveling in wonderful new sights, the smell of the hay, and especially the horse manure that I wanted to take home because it smelled like the pony I loved.
One summer Aunt Ethel let me keep and raise a baby bunny I named “Whiskers” that had apparently been abandoned by its mama. She later told me Whiskers had hung around outside the house for the longest time after I had gone back home to Pennsylvania, telling me he was still looking for me. She also said one time when she was in the barn and mentioned my name, Ginger nickered as if recognizing my name and was missing me. I always wondered if that had really happened but thought what a kind thing for her to say because she knew how I felt about that pony. As busy as this farm wife was, she was never too busy for me, kind to me always. She was the glue that held all this chaos together, fixing big nutritious meals for the family and all the others who had helped with the big chores like baling, combining, harvesting corn, and all kinds of other difficult farm jobs.
In December eight and a half years ago, my aunt lost Uncle Virg. Four years ago she lost Dean, her eldest son, to a long, drawn-out struggle with cancer. She was so devastated to have lost a precious child. Then, only three months ago, she lost her daughter, Sandy, to an accidental fall, an emotional blow from which I believe she never recovered. This was an even more disastrous event as Sandy was her rock, organizer, cook, entertainer, and companion, taking the inevitable role reversal in stride and loving every minute of it.
Now, sweet lady, you may celebrate a life well-lived; join Uncle Virg, Sandy, Dean, “Mum”, and so many other loved ones on the Other Side, in the beauty and peace you so much deserve. Rest finally, in peace, Aunt Ethel; my heart aches. I love you and will miss you.
Aunt Ethel, two years ago, at her 100th birthday party…