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Food For Thought

The farm near Perry and Woodward in Dallas County, was in my memory the place where my grandparents lived the longest of all the farms they had rented and worked during their life together. Possibly because Grandpa’s health was failing and he had pretty much turned the running of the farm over to his two eldest sons, his wanderlust had abated and he was content to stay in one place. Most of my farm memories take place in that oddly-put-together house, which apparently had been two houses joined into one, with a couple of small additions tacked on when more space was needed. The ceilings in the original houses were of different heights, necessitating unexpected steps up and down into various rooms both on the ground floor and the upstairs bedrooms.
A cistern pump had been enclosed outside the kitchen, providing a place for the men to wash up before meals without crowding around the busy kitchen sink just when the women were getting meals ready. The water from the cistern (rainwater collected from the downspouts around the eaves of the house) was unfit for drinking but fine for washing hands and excellent for shampoos, as it was pure rainwater– the softest water you could get before the Culligan man and his kin came along. This saved a good deal of the precious drinking water that came from the tank in the ‘spare room’ above the kitchen. This water was tested several times a year by sending a sample to the laboratory in Ames, and treated with chemicals added with every fill of the tank that served as the home’s private water tower. The water had a peculiar smell and odd taste but after a few days one became accustomed to it. Grandpa never bothered to taste the water, as he had a knack for tipping his head back, somehow holding his throat open, and simply pouring the water straight down without the need to swallow.
Because the house’s plumbing consisted of only one tap putting forth cold water in the kitchen, there was an outhouse at the end of a path leading past the clotheslines and through the ‘side’ yard outside one of the kitchen doors. The kitchen had three other doors. One leading in from the open back porch and just a few steps from the cistern room. Another led to the long dining room where Grandma’s round oak table was perpetually extended to its maximum to accommodate the hungry crowd that showed up for every meal seven days a week. Another door led to a small, windowless bedroom between the kitchen and what had once been a rather elegant parlor in the part of the house with high ceilings. This room was where my grandparents slept, next to the kitchen where the wood-burning cook stove kept them relatively cozy during winter nights and where Grandpa rested for the months before he died, close to his wife and daughters for comfort, within earshot of the news and farming business his sons discussed in their booming voices.
There were no cell phones, intercom or walkie-talkies on that farm. Everyone knew just how loud to shout when they needed to communicate between the house and the barn or the wash-house and the machine shed. The men had to shout to be heard over the noise of the farm machinery, the women learned to ‘holler’ to save steps and time when summoning the men for meals, phone calls or emergencies. No one seemed to have ever heard of ‘library voices.’
From the road in front of the house, there was an almost ‘town’ look to the view of the house. A wrought-iron fence enclosed a grassy lawn, some snowball bushes, a hedge of irises and a row of red cedar trees, which shed prickly needles onto the grass and made going barefoot painful. The front porch had two front doors – one leading to the family’s usual front room and the other opening directly into the formal ‘front parlor’ where important callers such as the local preacher or president of the ladies’ club were to be ushered in. My most vivid visual memory of this room is of an oak library table forever decorated by a large, pink and ivory conch shell that we were invited to hold against our ear and ‘listen to the ocean.’
The back yard, however, was more than slightly different. Barren of grass and even weeds--a long slope between the house and the horse barn and machine shed below--it was occupied by chickens hoping for donations of potato peelings from the kitchen, cars belonging to each of the adults (except for Grandma who never learned to drive)-six in all, plus an ancient pickup truck, an extremely fragrant Billy-goat and five belligerent geese. Oddly, I don’t remember there ever having been a dog on the premises. Cats, on the other hand, were abundant. They resided in the barns where they protected the animals’ feed and other grain from mice and rats and conned my uncles out of twice-daily rations of milk, fresh from the cows at milking time.