The way you help heal the world is you start with your own family. -Mother Teresa
Words greeted you upon entering my childhood home. “Home – where each lives for the other and all live for God,” “This house is clean enough to be healthy, but dirty enough to be happy.” Ceramic plaques were nestled on the wall with black cast iron fry pans, calico pot holders, a red metal matchstick holder and swing arm can opener greeted visitors to our family kitchen. The tiny room, barely ten foot by ten foot, warmed more than food. It was a crowded room, the barn red bead board cupboards with nailed linoleum counters lined the north wall, and a white cast iron sink overflowed with dishes in various stages of cleanliness. Every nook and cranny stored dinnerware, food and items needed to prepare meals. A four foot square metal table with three mismatched chairs lined the west wall, hosted numerous neighbors, friends and relatives as coffee, cookies and conversations were digested. The oil cloth hid the scars of the table top and added to the kaleidoscope of color. Second hand base cupboards and the family refrigerator stood guard to the gas stove that produced nourishment for our family of thirteen. Chore coats hung from nails in the far corner, next to the doorway to the dining room the oval oak table surrounded by a hodge podge of wooden chairs where our family gathered each day at the appointed times: breakfast at 6:30, dinner at noon, supper at six.
What the kitchen lacked for in size and grandeur, it made up in hospitality. From the smallest neighborhood child who looked to my mother as their other mother, to my aunts, uncles and friends, all who entered spoke the words carved into the plaque, Home where each lives for the other and all live for God,” and nodded.“This place feels like I am at home.” “I don’t feel like a stranger here.” “I feel like I can be me here.”
Yes, my parents created a family friendly environment. Mom welcomed all no matter how much she had to do. She always had time for a chat. Most Saturdays I set the table with at least one or two extra plates, squeezing thirteen plus plates, glasses, and silverware. "Throw an extra potato in the kettle," she was often heard to say. My cousin, Donald, spent most Saturdays at our house. Donald, three years older than me, had lost his mother to cancer when he was only six. Mom, his godmother, took him under her wing by allowing my Uncle Jim to drop him off early Saturday and pick him up after supper that night. This weekly ritual inspired one of our family rules.
“I don’t have to help, I’m company,” Donald stated when asked to set or clear the table, carry a laundry basket to the clothesline or do any of the unending chores we children were expected to do on a daily basis.
“You’re here every Saturday. You’re not company,” one of my brothers said.
“I am, too. I’m company,” Donald retorted.
And the family rule of inclusion was instituted: “If you have been here more than three times, you are no longer company. You are family.” Translation: You are expected to pull your weight. The rule stuck.
The revolving door of extra people who spent hours with our gang became part of us. Each summer mom watched a family with five children. In addition to caring for her own brood, she added four boys and a girl. To a stranger it appeared we had five sets of twins, each pseudo sibling matched year for year with one of us. Our oval wooden table did not hold the small army we fed daily. Mom took it in stride and made each day a picnic. Lunch was served in the shade of a nearby tree on the ten foot wooden table with two long benches. Part of my duty was to fill plates with sandwiches, vegetables, fruit, and pour the fresh, creamy milk into the rows of plastic glasses. Mom was thrifty. Most of the bowls were filled with home canned fruits and vegetables, the meat was from our own animals and the milk was direct from the cows Dad and the boys milked twice each day. When the supply was getting low, I was sent to the barn to dip another gallon out of the balk tank.
“Be sure to agitate it before dipping the milk or you’ll get all cream,” Mom instructed me. Stirring milk before using was part of my routine. The Guernsey milk cows produced high fat content milk, perfect for selling to the local creamery to be made into butter. We grew up drinking the rich milk in abundance. Milk was plentiful and we enjoyed it three meals a day and for snacks.
“I made bread pudding today,” Mom called from the laundry room as we stormed into the house, the school bus rumbled on to the next stop. “It’s still warm.” She knew how to use every scrap of food in our household. Bread pudding was a treat we enjoyed about once a week. Mom stretched the budget by mixing eggs gathered from our hens, milk from the cows, a bit of sugar and stale bread. She baked it with a handful of raisins and served it with our fresh milk. It was one of my favorite after school treats.
Summer mornings were spent growing, harvesting and storing vegetables for winter. The garden seemed to be unending space that begged to be weeded each day. Mom enticed us to work early by rewarding us with swimming in the pool in the afternoon. If chores were completed by dinner (noon time on the farm) she would drive us to Independence to the public swimming pool. A few hours of splashing, diving and swimming gave us the incentive to finish the work upon returning home. The boys headed to the barn for milking while I folded dry clothing from the line and helped prepare the evening meal.
My older sister, Audry, was gone from home by the time I was twelve. Eight brothers and three girls in our family dictated my job, Mom’s right hand. “Do I have to peel potatoes again,” I whined as I stood at the sink in our tiny kitchen. I received a nod along with “go to the basement and get another bowlful,” from Mom. Crocks stored our daily staple grown in our mammoth garden. I scrubbed and peeled at least five pounds for each meal. “Go back to the basement and get a vegetable,” Mom asked.
“What shall I get,” as I headed toward the bathroom where the door to the basement was located. I hoped she would ask for store purchased can of peas or spinach which sat on shelves attached to the underside of the stairs to the upper floor. No space was wasted in our bulging home.
“Bring up a jar of green beans,” I heard her comment as I groaned. The basement gave me the creeps. It was made of field rocks with a bare concrete floor. The shower head hung above the planks in the center of the dungeon like space and the wringer washer guarded the door to the wobbly, cellar stairs to the clothesline. Wooden shelves lined the walls, crocks sat below shelves and spider webs were plentiful. I was sure one of the residents would land on me at any moment. In spite of my fear, I made daily trips to the basement. I came to admire the neat rows of jars, hundreds of them, filled with beans, both green and wax, yellow corn; red whole tomatoes and tomato juice; beige applesauce, tangy sauerkraut, and the dark brown chunks of canned beef. These treasures of color and nutrition fed our family and the many pseudo family members for many years.
My parents fed our bodies, but also our spirit and souls. We learned responsibility, reward and sharing what we had with others. Now, when someone visits me in the home I share with my husband and comments to me, “this feels like home to me,” I think of my parents and the lessons I learned from them. I can almost hear them saying, “well done, Mona, well done.”