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Gardens past


A snake resided in Grandma Sickler’s garden.
We’d visit her at the farm at least twice a year. Even though Wittenberg was only a five-hour drive it was a world apart from our life in the suburbs of Chicago. There was a real barn complete with a hayloft, an outhouse, farm animals, live trout in the watering tank (Grandpa put them there) and cousins galore more than willing to show their “city slicker” relatives the ropes of the rural life.
Grandma said she liked the snake because it kept out rodents and birds. She also noted that if you didn’t mess with it, it wouldn’t mess with you.
She was practical that way. Once, another snake bit my sister on the hand when she tried to pick it up. Grandma lectured my older cousins because they failed to kill it and bring the body to her for inspection. The city kids might not know better, but she expected the farm kids to understand that wild animals that bite should be killed on the spot and the corpse brought back for inspection. What if the snake was a timber rattler? How could she know without the body?
She had good reason to warn us not to harm the serpent, who she assured was not poisonous. We were little terrors to many of the critters on the farm. No bird in particular was safe from the Fleck boys and their BB guns. We’d cock and shoot until blisters formed on our hands. Mostly we missed, but occasionally our aim was true and the world would have one less feathered friend. It was the senseless taking of a life. When judgment day comes for me I can only hope for leniency.
Another time our intent wasn’t murder but the outcome was lethal nevertheless. We’d seen on a television show that trying to catch a greased pig was considered high entertainment in some parts of the world so we decided to give it a try. Our very unwilling participant was a piglet kept in an outdoor pen. We didn’t have any grease but it was allusive nevertheless. We never caught it, at least not until it collapsed and died from exhaustion.
Grandma lived to be 93 and some say it was the only time she was seen to be angry. She was also extremely upset. That night she dressed up in her go-to-church dress and slept on top of the covers, certain that she’d die in the night and determined to look good when she met her maker.
Another garden I’d help tend on our visits to Wisconsin was the one kept by Aunt Izzy, Mom’s twin sister. While I remember Grandma’s garden as being big and tidy, Aunt Izzy’s was huge and impeccable. She had seven children to feed and was serious about growing as much food as she could.
One particular summer’s morning sticks in my mind. As the sun and the heat rose, my brothers, boy cousins and I crawled along the seemingly endless rows of cucumbers, picking the ones ready for pickling. We’d haul them by the bushel to the kitchen where the women and girl cousins washed, packed and brined. While a Wisconsin August can get hot, the kitchen steamed with pots boiling on the stove. It was perhaps my first realization that in this life, sometimes it’s good to by a guy.
And it was also good to be a nephew, as the pickles that came out of that process were, and still are, the best pickles I’ve ever had the pleasure to consume. Grandma Sickler could put up a mean quart but Izzy’s were something to dream about. Over the years, Aunt Izzy made sure that a quart or two would find its way to my refrigerator door. I even got one while stationed in Germany, but that’s another story.
Grandma Sickler passed about 20 years ago, and Aunt Izzy joined her about four years back.
Do you suppose there is spring in heaven? Gardens?