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Memories Tucked In My Pocket
By Brenda Dionne Lewis
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Brenda Dionne Lewis
All right reserved.
Chapter One~ Come in and Meet the Folks ~
DAD ... was born Claude Paul Dionne in 1894, married for the first time at the age of 40 but waited four years before we children began arriving in his world. He fathered the last of us when he was 49. Dad was very conservative, a strict disciplinarian, had a great sense of humor, was quiet and did not care to bring attention to himself. He allowed Mum to be the boss and rarely argued with her or anyone else. His work ethic would astound today's generation. Raised in Canada by a Scottish mother and French lumberjack father, he remained a farmer most all of his life. Dad was a worrier and would not spend one extra penny unless absolutely necessary. A great story-teller, he entertained us for hours in our younger years. With his amazing memory, he could recite long, two to three page poems he had been required to memorize in his Canadian schooling. I credit Dad fully for my love of stories and of story-telling.
Our MUM ... was born Mary Margaret Dyer in 1905 in Canada. The story goes that she had applied for a job listed in the Fort Fairfield Review, a newspaper in a small town in Northern Maine. A man and his sister had advertised for someone to do live-in care for their elderly, bedridden mother. Mum answered the ad and although very shy around men, she gradually became accustomed to her employer and they finally ended up married a couple of years later. That man became our Dad. Mum loved life, laughed easily, rarely appeared to worry, had a ton of faith in prayer and in God. She could save money like you would not believe, but differed from Dad in that she could spend it easily if she felt it would bring benefit or joy to herself or others. She was easy going on discipline with children but hard on herself when it came to keeping a clean house and her family fed and cared for. She loved to have people in to visit. Mum was the social one and whereas Dad loved to have company come, he rarely initiated get-togethers.
GERALD ... was born in 1937, the first child of Mum and Dad's, he was their only boy. He had it rougher than the rest of us I think, because the first child always catches all the static from new parents and whereas Dad was too firm, Mum was too lenient and Gerald was caught in the middle. Thinking back, I remember a day he hoisted me onto the back of a milk cow out in the field to see if we could look like we were in a rodeo ... it didn't work and the scolding we got from Dad lasted a good deal longer than my ride on the back of the cow !! Gerald was very much a loner, partly because of being the only boy but also because of the isolation that goes with living on a farm. By the time he was 5, he had 3 little sisters. Dad had to go to the hospital for a surgery and Gerald said to him, "Daddy, every time Mum goes to the hospital, she brings home another baby girl, could you see if you could get us a baby boy while you're there?" He was a hard worker, loved to draw and was an extremely talented natural artist. I used to love to watch him draw pictures. He was genius with a pencil and paper.
Donna ... was born in 1938. First daughter and Mum's main source of help for many years. She never really had a childhood. I came along when she was 3 and Phyllis was born a year after that so Donna became a little mommy at an early age. She was always good to us younger ones but made us behave just like Mum did. She always had the first look at the Sears Catalogue when it came in the mail. We assumed this to be her birth right and so Phyllis and I never questioned it, we just sat on either side of her and waited for her to turn the pages and to tell us what was really pretty and what wasn't. We trusted her taste in everything and felt she was just a short grown up. Donna, like Gerald, had a lonely life on the farm, whereas Phyllis and I had each other, she was by herself or with Mum and had little time for play. She was our social director, our singing instructor, and our fashion guru.
Brenda (the author) ... I was born in 1941 as the 3rd child and second daughter. I'm told I was always getting into things from the time I could creep and walk. Mum said I was a solemn child, rarely smiled and was especially shy and quiet. The story goes that when I just started to walk, Mum went looking for me and found me in the barn, sitting under a work horse that was tied in the stall. The poor horse was whinnying and trying not to step and could not turn her head due to her noose in the stall ... the horse "Lady" could not be approached by anyone but Dad and so Mum had to coax me out of the stall before I got kicked. Soon after, she found me up on the desk emptying the ink bottle and after she spanked my hands and was cleaning up the mess, I pushed a chair up to the sink and crawled up into the sink, opened the door to the clock and pulled out the pendulum. Do you suppose those stories could really be true? I wonder. I loved listening to Dad tell stories and told many of those stories to my children years later. This book is just a small glimpse into what I remember of my life on the farm in Maine, many years ago.
Phyllis ... was born on 1942 ... 4th and final child born to Mum and Dad. The Doctor had told our parents that Mum would probably not survive the pregnancy and delivery, but that she should pray that this child would be a girl and very tiny and she just might pull through. Phyllis was born full term, only a tiny 5 lbs and with a full perm and manicure. She was everyone's baby. Mum said I was very gentle with her and I don't remember life without her. We shared the same bed until the night of her wedding when she left for her honeymoon. What a large hole that left in my heart and soul. I sat on the bed and cried for a long time. Anyway, Phyllis was affectionately nicknamed "Chatterbox" and it fit her well. After supper at night when we were little, she would crawl off her chair and go beneath the table and we would pretend to be tuning a radio and we'd request songs and she would sing and sing until we'd "turn off" the pretend radio ... and even that did not always silence her. She was tiny and funny and has kept me laughing since we were little. She is the most social of all of us and is the most like Mum that way.
Great Uncle Mike ... was our Dad's uncle, and brother to our Grandfather. He lived with us because he was a widower and had nowhere to go and Dad in his 50's, needed help on the farm. Uncle Mike was a grumpy old soul and I didn't talk much to him because he didn't care for children in general and the only child he seemed to tolerate or smile at was Phyllis. Uncle Mike was the one who named her Chatterbox. A hard worker and good farmer, he was also a Master Carpenter and Cabinet Maker ... a lost art now. Sometimes he whittled soft wood into toys or rattles or puppets and once he made a table with drop leaves and two chairs and a rocking chair, all in children's size for Phyllis and I. We loved it. He made us a toboggan one winter and that was great. I am sure he never felt at home in our house and looking back, I feel bad about that, but when I was little I just stayed out of his way. He was not allowed to punish us, but we understood his feelings and made it a point never to irritate him. I was told his childhood was so harsh that he ran away at the age of 6, was taken in by Catholic Nuns and when asked how to spell his last name, he was unable to tell them as he had never been taught. They decided to spell his name phonetically, Deyone, (we spelled ours Dionne) and he kept that spelling the rest of his life. He was the only one of the family with the odd spelling and it followed him to his grave. I wish I had thought to ask him more about his childhood and what his brother, our grandfather, was like.
Chapter Two~ Tribal Fire ~
I seem unable to think of walking into our farmhouse as a child that our old wood stove does not 'jump up' in my mind. So much of life in the cold Maine climate revolved around and was dependent upon a good, trustworthy woodstove. Back to basics, so to speak ... air, water, food and fire. The stove was our equivalent of the caveman's fire, necessary to sustain life.
Dad would get up early and start a fire in the kitchen stove. You must realize that old farmhouses had very little insulation and that many winter mornings found ice in the basin of our sink. A fire was started with bits of kindling which is small, soft, wood scraps for a quick start, a couple of large sticks of soft wood for rapid warm up and finally hard wood was added for the steady, hot fire needed to last through the morning meal. The stove, so ice-cold and lifeless, would begin to warm and soon much snapping and popping could be heard as sparks exploded from the wood and the metal stove expanded with the temperature change.
Dad or Mum would adjust the grate and damper to increase or decrease the draft. Heat from a good wood stove crackling away could heat a large kitchen quite quickly and soon require opening a door to the next room.
On school days in the winter, we would burrow deeper into our warm beds until the final call from our parents. If it was Dad, he would call, "it's time you birds were out of your nests!" That meant NOW! He did not tolerate any "just-a-minute' answer as Mum would.
I remember getting up, my bare feet touching that floor, so cold it felt 'hot' and with my bundle of clothes, scurrying to the area behind the stove. There was a space between the wall and the stove about one and a half feet that we could sit behind and dress for school in relative warmth. It required some very cautious maneuvering to prevent burns but we were proficient in the art of quick change at an early age.
After dressing, we would all sit at the large kitchen table. This would include Dad and our Great Uncle Mike. They had been in the barn for some time doing chores. The stove would be covered with pots of oatmeal and skillets of eggs and bacon and biscuits or pancakes and the table was laden with home churned butter, homemade breads, maple syrup from our trees, milk and cream from the cows and jellies and preserves that Mum had 'put-up' the previous summer. What a feast!!! All of these aromas were distinct and yet mingled somehow to offer the unmistakable smell of breakfast. I remember Mum at the stove much of the time, somewhat like a short order cook. She was able to prepare all of this on a wood stove. No knobs to turn. She adjusted her cooking needs with a carefully chosen stick of wood or a turn of the damper. That took know-how!
Our farm had a seemingly unlimited supply of wood. There were acres and acres of timber to be chopped down and cut up. When snow began to fall, wood chopping made a good project for stormy, winter days. As Gerald grew older, he helped in splitting the wood with Dad and we younger ones were in charge of carrying it in from the woodshed to fill the wood box for Mum.
At night, in the wintertime about an hour before bedtime and after the cows were milked, fed and bedded down, Dad would spend time in the kitchen. He and Mum would open the oven door, pull chairs around and we would sit very still and listen to them read or tell stories. With no television, a radio with only intermittent reception, storytelling and poetry reciting was a real treat. Dad had been required to memorize poetry in his Canadian schooling and could recite very long poems that we never tired of hearing.
Often, my attention wandered as is the way with little ones and though I would appear to be listening, I was instead studying the shape of Mum's hands or watching the way Dad's lips moved to form words or tracing with my eyes a pattern in the linoleum that resembled a scary face. And as my thoughts fluttered about, I wondered those things common to all children—deep, heavy thoughts concerning the validity of the story that Mum and Dad were ever actually really children many years ago. How very absurd!
I remember Dad's voice droning on and on from a book or recitation, the soothing warmth from the stove wrapping around us and the rhythmic ticking from the pendulum clock on the shelf. Soon, our breathing slowed and our heads nodded and out of a dream state we would hear Dad say, "You birds are about to go to sleep, better get up to bed". "Oh no, Daddy," we would say, arousing suddenly and trying to appear alert, "we aren't tired, honest!"
How many generations do you suppose there were before us in the long line of our people who sat and heard stories from their elders, first around a tribal fire, then the hearth and finally the wood stove?
What a loss! I expect we were the last of those children who were fortunate enough to gather around the family fire. Therein was the heart of the home, the origin of family teaching and the very source of survival itself.
Chapter Three~ Roll-Your-Own Cigarettes ~
So strange how memories lie dormant, forgotten until some odor or word or sound occurs, pulling a memory up onto a screen of thought, to replay in fleeting glimpses. Something happened or was said perhaps and I was again reliving a time in my childhood so very clearly.
In the summer, which by the way was short in Maine and cherished fully, our evenings grew longer and we children would look at the clock in wonder—amazed at being allowed to stay up after 8:00 P.M. and even more amazed that some daylight (twilight) remained. With no school for the summer, we felt liberated indeed.
After suppertime and after dishes were done, if Dad had no special chores, he would go outside and sit on the edge of the porch. We had no lawn or patio furniture so the edge of the porch was for sitting. He would be in his overalls and when I sat next to him, he would smell of cows and hay and sweat and tobacco. I remember him taking out his can of Velvet tobacco and his Zig-Zag papers to roll a cigarette. This was a slow, precise ritual that I never tired of watching. He would open the can, dig the tobacco with his finger to loosen it, tap, tap, tap some tobacco into the paper, snap the lid shut and return the can to his pocket, all while holding the delicately balanced, partially made cigarette in his left hand. Next, he would gently roll the cigarette with his index fingers and thumbs into a cylinder, just so. It was important that the amount of pressure was not too hard or too packed but not too loose. Then, he would lick the edge of the paper, press the whole thing together, twist the ends and "voila", a smokeable cigarette. He was ready for the serious business of smoking, probably his only real treat of the day. He would take a wooden match, hold it firmly, rock slightly onto his left hip and ZIP!!, —pull that match quickly along his under thigh on his overalls and SNAP!, PUFF, —fire appeared! "Oh, how very talented", I thought. Next, he would put match to cigarette, puff—puff—puff as I watched, mesmerized and the smoke and dampness of the evening would combine to give a sense of peace to my little world.
I would race around the yard, climb a tree, turn summersaults, catch fire flies, all in a frantic effort to keep Dad's attention. When I accomplished something that made him smile or chuckle, I felt honored and would gladly ignore any cuts or bruises that I acquired in my quest for fleeting stardom.
I remember the coolness of the grass on my bare feet, the sound of the frogs in the pond down near the McLain's farm, the loons calling on Little Indian Lake, lying on the grass and listening to my heart pound in my ears from running and chasing too hard, and the smell of smoke from Dad's cigarette, all mingled together in a jumble of memories. Memories that seem so clear and yet somehow fade quickly like mist or fog.
Chapter Four~ Store Bought Easter Dresses ~
Easter Is only a week away and I am reminded of Easters past, long past. I remember as a child, looking thru the Sear's Catalogue-our one and only tangible connection to "big-city" stuff. We would spend hours looking over pages to pick out a perfect Easter dress. This was no minor occurrence as whatever we chose, would be referred to as our "Easter dress' and "best-dress" for the whole year to come. Finally, after days of agonizing study, we would narrow our choice down to "the" best dress! Even though it was shown in black and white, the written description assured us that it would be "oh, so lovely"!
Mum filled in and mailed the order and the die was cast. No changing our minds, no turning back. The order was sent to the mysterious world "out-there". Whatever 'out-there' looked like, we could only imagine. However, that same great unknown was responsible for sending a catalogue right to our door, so evidently it was capable of mailing us our Easter dresses.
Excerpted from Memories Tucked In My Pocket by Brenda Dionne Lewis Copyright © 2012 by Brenda Dionne Lewis. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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