When my parents married in 1962, they moved to the old farmhouse where my dad had grown up. Actually, he’d never left home and, at eighteen, wasn’t fully grown either. My grandparents had upgraded to a used Liberty single-wide trailer and relocated within walking distance of the home place. True love could be the only reason my mother began this new chapter of life in this antiquated house. Mom had been raised in town with social amenities, such as running water and an inside bath. This decrepit house lacked both. Its four walls and roof also provided shelter to spiders, mice, bats, and an occasional farm animal with temporary special needs. After lugging soiled cloth diapers into town to be washed week after week, they finally got running water inside.
I was born nine months to the day after my parents married. My brother followed a year and nine days later and my sister the following year; three under the age of three. But it wasn’t because we were a good Catholic family. We were Norwegian Lutheran. It was then that my parents must have discovered birth control, or were too exhausted or angry to touch each other since there is a six-year gap between us three older siblings and the two youngest girls.
The two-story farmhouse had two bedrooms upstairs; one for Mom and Dad and the other for us kids. The enclosed narrow stairway was steep, and the distance between steps caused us to climb them on all fours, like climbing the ladder propped against the oak tree we used to jump off and onto the swing. Once upstairs, falling asleep was never an easy task. The walls lacked insulation, and on a typical winter night, each exhale released a little puff of smoke into the frigid air. The only heat source was a wall furnace in the living room below. A hole had been cut in the floor of our bedroom to allow the heat to reach us. If heat really did rise, it was escaping elsewhere. The three of us huddled together in a metal-framed twin bed with a painted wiener dog on it, combining our blankets for added warmth and shared body heat.
In the summer it wasn’t any easier to fall asleep. We were sent to bed before sunset and nightly complained of this injustice. There was no window covering to trick us into darkness since none was needed so far from the road. The window would be open anyway in hopes of a breeze, and if the wind wasn’t blowing, or more often than not, if from the wrong direction, our sweaty skin would stick to our dingy sheets, adding to them another day’s play.
The eighty acres Dad farmed never yielded enough to provide for his family so he also worked a rotating shift at Tube Co., a metal tubing manufacturer in town. It was there that he acquired his stub finger, but as children, we loved to hear him tell of how it was bitten off while fighting a ferocious tiger in Africa. When he worked the night shift it was even more difficult than usual to fall asleep. Not seeing him for days on end added to our list of grievances. Crying only made us hotter and our bed a bath of sweat and tears. Eventually, we gave in to sleep, having worn ourselves out and been calmed by the serenading night songs of crickets.
One of our favorite sounds was the rhythmic puttering of the John Deere tractor coming in from the field. The put, put, put growing louder and faster the closer it got until Dad shifted gears as he turned into the driveway. If we’d been quick enough to meet him, he’d stop and lift us onto his lap. We’d take hold of the steering wheel and pretend to drive; our tightly gripped hands jerking right and then left, pulled by the wheel, and our bodies lurching from side to side with the back and forth tilting of the tractor as its tires dipped into one pothole after another. But whether we got to ride the tractor or not, we were most excited that Dad was home.
One sweltering afternoon Dad came in from the field early, his overexposed skin hard to distinguish from the black film of topsoil sticking to his sweat. Mom had a church-ladies meeting at the neighbor’s and put him in charge of us kids. As she drove off in the Chevy, Dad hopped into the bathtub. We were relieved it wasn’t Saturday when we all took turns in the tub sharing the same water, all except Dad who always got his own. Curiously afterward, we’d inspect with pride his accomplishment of transforming clean water into the resemblance of weak coffee.
Elicia, the older of the two youngest sisters, was a toddler just learning to walk. Clad in only a diaper because of the heat, she waddled back and forth between the kitchen and bathroom while Dad was in the tub. He splashed at her playfully as if chasing her out. The bathroom door was never locked; the latch at the top, higher than the reach of little arms, was of no use since the door was warped and wouldn’t close. Elicia waddled in one last time and slipped in a puddle of water. The thud of her head hitting the floor resounded throughout the house and we all ran to see what had happened. That’s when we saw Dad—bare-naked—running through the kitchen with Elicia unconscious in his arms. His eyes screamed panic as he bolted out the front door, heading for the trailer, hollering, “Maaaa! Maaaa!”
We stood frozen in the kitchen, wanting to chase after but didn’t, for fear that when we caught up to him we’d see him naked again. It wasn’t long before he and Elicia returned home, both conscious, Dad wearing a pair of Fruit of the Loom briefs that he must have borrowed from Grandpa. No one dared ask.
Dad, Mom, and Elicia got to stay up all night—doctor’s orders. Although feeling slighted, we didn’t view this as another injustice. We lay quietly in bed, reflecting on the day, remembering the look on Dad’s face and the emotion that had sent him running naked. Even though he had never said the words, we had somehow suspected that we were loved. The events of that day gave us one more reason to believe we were right.
© 2012 First published in Lake Region Review Number 2