Can You Hear the Rooster Crow? is her first full-length work and the very personal story of her life growing up on a family farm. She pays loving homage to each member of her extended household and invites readers into the full experiences of her life-the celebrations, the missteps, and the tragedies. Inspired by her father's mantra to "help someone when you can," she learned the value of generosity-and that spirit infuses these tales, tales that will simultaneously warm and break the heart.
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Can You Hear the Rooster Crow?A Memoir of Farm Life in the Forties in a Family of Twelve
By Joann Farris
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Jaann Farris
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI have always wondered how far back other people could remember the first day of their lives. I have asked hundreds of people this question on my television shows and interviews over the years: "What age were you when you had the first memory of your life?" They have given me a variation of intriguing answers. Most, however, respond, "When I started to school." When I started this book some seventeen year ago, I wondered why everyone did not remember the same time. As infants we start rolling over, holding on to toys, sitting up, drinking from a cup, talking, and walking within months of the same age. However, we remember our lives with years of difference. I had five brothers. I was safe. I wasn't lonely. I don't remember when I started school. I remember when I was nine. How about you, how old were you?
My first memory is when my brother Ray was born on May 19, 1946, in Portales, New Mexico. It was about then when I learned about our parents. Emmett Franklin Potter was born in Silverton, Texas. Ida Alice Backues was born in San Patricio, New Mexico. When they met in 1930, they both lived in Roswell, New Mexico. Daddy was a United States Air Force pilot stationed in Roswell. With eight more credits in college, he could have been an attorney. He was twenty-seven, and Mother was twenty. They dated for two weeks before getting married, and they were married for forty-five years. They both enjoyed music, dancing, being outdoors, flowers, and homemade food. Daddy was openly friendly and outgoing. Mother was more reserved. Daddy drank alcohol, and Mother didn't drink at all. Daddy was English and Dutch with an Irish temper. He had freckles, a light complexion, dimpled cheeks, blue eyes, and red curly hair. Mother had American Indian and French ancestors, a dark complexion, dark-brown hair, and deep-blue eyes. They had seven children born in fourteen of the first sixteen years they were married. Mother was a pretty woman, and her career choice was that of a homemaker. Her wardrobe consisted of dresses, skirts, and pullover sweaters. She never wore a pair of pants or a shirt. She wore shoes that usually tied or wedges that she slipped her feet into. She didn't wear makeup but used Avon perfume. If she wanted her thick hair curled, she curled it with bobby pins in little round swirls. She could cut her own hair, and she never changed her color. Daddy on the other hand dressed in khaki dress pants or Wrangler jeans worn with pastel shirts and sometimes sported a tie, a jacket, or a pullover vested sweater. He wore dress shoes or western boots. He always wore a belt. The less you saw of him taking off that belt the better.
Daddy enjoyed large cars, such as Hudsons, Chevrolet Suburbans, or stick shift Ford pickups. He was always checking the oil and changing the filters himself and was obsessive over a clean automobile. He kept a little broom and a dustpan in the trunk. When he had people riding in his car, he would sweep the floor of his car after they got out. On the other hand, Mother did the same with the house, and her kitchen was always spotless. She cooked three meals a day and fed everyone who dropped by. We always had cheese. Daddy picked out the cheese, and we learned to enjoy the good taste over the smell. Mother maintained a large white enamel pan with hot water heated from the butane stove with a bar or flakes of her homemade soap. She knew how to make her own soap using alkali on fat. Later in years, she bought Tide for laundry and Joy for dishes. That is after she started buying from the door-to-door Watkins salesman. The Watkins seasonings were great in her desserts. Her cakes were delicious. She made fruit cakes, carrot cakes, and my favorite—spice cakes made with a peanut butter cream frosting.
We grew up with cake or cookies for dessert at lunch and fresh baked pies or hot cobblers with ice cream or fresh whipped cream for dinner. Mother's favorite was pies, which she would bake in wide varieties the days prior to the holidays—from apple pies to rhubarb, mincemeat, coconut, chocolate, banana, and coconut cream pies topped with meringue. Neighbors bought pies from her for their holiday dinners. Mother made goat cheese and ice cream from goat milk, or when we received a deep northern snow, we could expect snow ice cream with Watkins fruit or nut flavor. We probably were the first ice-cream parlor. Mother was like an iron chef in her kitchen. Her recipes consisted of a pinch of salt, a dash of pepper, a handful or half a handful of this, and four shakes of that. She would stir and taste. She was like a medicine man when it came to her children's health. When we became ill, we dreaded her medicines but welcomed the cure. Her boiling concoction on the stove contained a lid of vinegar, a tablespoon of honey, and a piece of cheesecloth tied and wrapped around chopped garlic, a sprinkle of cloves, half a lemon, a dash of cayenne pepper, and a tablespoon of castor oil. After it boiled for several minutes, we were given two tablespoons. I don't know how we got well, because at first we would throw up to the stage of dry heaves. In a few hours we were feeling better. When we had indications of a cold, she gave us a Vicks rub from the bottom of our feet up to our chest and neck, and massaged temples and nose. I think this last part of the rub made us close our eyes and sleep. It was important that we maintained a perfect attendance in school. Staying well was important not only for school but also for work.
My brother Ed remembers, when he was about six, that Mother gave him a pill, but he had trouble getting it down. As small kids we learned to work and plant and grow things. We did not have toys. The games we played were outdoors. We petted and took care of baby calves, baby chickens and newborn fouls. Because we were seven kids, we had a variety of mixed personalities. The last five of us got along well and enjoyed our fun times together. We matched with strong characters. We all were happy and enthusiastic, with warmth and full of laughter, and rarely disagreed. Actually, if we did have a disagreement, Mother disciplined us all. Since there was no winner in disagreeing, we just got along. We had sparkling blue eyes, which people continually commented on, and light- or dark-blond curly hair with hints of red. Some of us had more freckles than others. We were always playing jokes on each other. Ed had a dry sense of humor, and we had a hard time of deciphering if he was telling the truth or teasing us. He was of a serious trickery nature. He was exceptionally smart and inquisitive, supplying himself with knowledge of everything. Ed was the oldest son at home and did the farmwork with the hired hands in the fields. He said he saw a flying saucer in the sky more than once.
Tom was more of a prankster, and we could always pay him back; he expected it. He was a person who found the goodness in everyone, even when there was none. He would make up an excuse to justify this person as being a good person. We had a sister, Evelyn, but I can't remember anything about her, because I was too young. She would have been around twelve. Maybe she wasn't around then. Ray was a tyrant and humorous at the same time with his mischief. I asked Ray when he could remember his first day in life. He tossed his head back and chuckled. "When you were carrying me as a baby and you dropped me," he replied. He must have been about two. Frank on the other hand was calm, quiet, and less engaged in mischief. That does not implicate that he was not involved. He was most of the time guilty by association. Frank had Mother's complexion and tanned from the sun where the rest of us sunburned. One time Frank was involved was when we had set up a cardboard box (and only heaven knows whose idea this was). But we took some string, tied it around the baby chickens' necks with a calf loop and placed three of them on the ground to race. Then we would pull the string across the top of the box and rerun the race. We thought at first they were out of breath when they would get limp. However, we killed about six baby chickens before stopping and hid them under a thirty-gallon milk can. We failed to forget we had a Sherlock Holmes in our red chow dog. A short time later he led Mother to the baby chickens. It was a horrible thing for us to do. We never considered them dead. It was done innocently as a spontaneous game of play. When we were all questioned by Mother, it became a blame game among us. When Mother asked Frank if he was involved, he answered "not much," but he was as excited to watch them race as the rest of us were. But his answer got him off for some reason. It is odd, but when we got a spanking from Mother, we sort of waited in a line like at the grocery store. And she went through each child with her swats. Frank was too young to do much work on the ranch, but he would always ask Ed if he could help out. He would help me gather eggs and feed the chickens. Frank had one habit of his own he could not break. When we had relatives visit and spend the night with us, we had to give up our bedrooms and usually sleep on quilts. Frank was small and, as I said, quiet. But he would snuggle in between the guests, sit there long enough, tap them on the arm, look them straight in the eyes, and ask, "When are you going home?"
It would get so quiet that you could hear a pin drop as our parents stumbled to answer his question. They were grasping for a cover-up, saying, "Frank, you know you should not ask people that. You haven't seen your cousins for years." By that time we had a general idea of their exit plans. We were always glad he asked, and we could count on him doing so. He would slide off the couch as Mother made us go outside. We would high-five Frank at the door and laugh. I think he did it not only because he didn't want them to stay but also because we encouraged him on. He considered himself a hero. It is hard to describe yourself as others might see you. However, I am safe to say I was a competitive feisty tomboy. When my brothers worked, I worked with them. When they played, I played, and when we got into trouble, I was involved.
One afternoon during the summer, Ed and I had gotten into trouble probably over not minding or something of this nature and Mother was walking toward us with her switch. We decided to run away from her. We thought perhaps, if we just ran long enough, she would let us go. She yelled out, "If you do not stop, when I get to you, I will be madder than I am now." We just took our chances and kept running. We looked back after a bit of running to find she was still running, and she was gaining ground. We could not believe how fast she could run. I said, "Oh my God, she is still coming." Out of breath, again, "She is still coming." We started laughing and had to stop running, because it was such a funny sight to see. It was obvious that we were going to be outrun by our mother. When she caught up with us, Ed teasingly said, "Wow, Mother, you can run." She started laughing with us, and we didn't get a spanking this time. What made it so funny was that I had just won third place in the short run for 350 yards at school. Ed played basketball and could chase down wild rabbits in the open fields. But we couldn't outrun our mother. Not on this day. And we never tried another day. We walked back with our arms around her waist and shoulders. She was a cool mom.
Music came into the Potter family early. Ed received a set of drums for Christmas when he was about ten, and Tom received his first guitar at the age of seven. The two started a band, and a few years later Frank received his first guitar. The band grew from a two-piece, to a three-piece band. Frank said this is when he first remembers his life. He was seven.
A lot of time in practice was spent learning the lyrics of songs of the great Buddy Holly, George Jones, Waylon and Willie, Elvis, B.B. King, and the Everly Brothers. Tom Potter led the band to a pictorial representation of these artists. The Billboard Magazine would write about Tom in an article during an interview with the late and great Chet Atkins. Tom practiced every day, sometimes all day. I was singing harmony with Tom, but Frank niched the harmony position and played rhythm guitar. I was more engaged in the gospel hymns at church and enjoyed singing every Sunday.
Ed informed me I was spoiled and Daddy's favorite just a few days ago, stating that when Daddy entered the house at the end of the day, I would insist on being the first one to greet him. If he didn't pick me up first, I would not talk to him that night. "The boys," he said, "worked out a plan with Daddy for you to be first." I thought to myself, I can't tell if he is teasing or not.
When we lived in Portales, Mother took in outside ironing. She made her own starch and put it into spray bottles. She ironed everything, including linens. She must have enjoyed ironing. Customers were exceptionally gracious with tipping her, and they consistently bragged about her homemade starch. The blue jeans she put on stretchers could stand on their own once starched and ironed. Daddy ran a used-car lot in Portales. We lived at a small place on the edge of town and maintained a truck patch of vegetables. Because we were old enough, Ed and I helped the truckload of workers each day after they arrived at daylight to harvest the crops. We all came down with measles while here. Mother put blankets over the bedroom windows to keep the light out.
The trucks would pull away with loads of nice fresh vegetables for the local markets. We had a couple of milk cows and a few saddle horses. Our cousin Freddie Emmett Sheppard, who lived in Roswell, a few miles away, came out on the weekends. Fred was about six years old and loved to ride horses. They were well broke to ride, and he would stay on the back of these horses all day, even to a point of being reluctant to coming in for dinner.
We lived here for less than two years. Bill was the oldest and fourteen when we moved to Clovis, New Mexico. He remained living at the Owenses' house and continued working at their food market. Ed was eight, Tom five, Frank about three, and Ray one year old.
"Death" in kids' minds is very unclear, and we were told a person is gone when we heard someone had died. When Mother's father passed away she was sad and cried when she discussed him with people. We were going to our first funeral. They took pictures of our grandpa in the casket. I remember looking into the casket, but it seemed like he was asleep. And I have always wondered why they took pictures. I don't know of anyone else doing so.
Excerpted from Can You Hear the Rooster Crow? by Joann Farris Copyright © 2011 by Jaann Farris. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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