The farm where I grew up in Pennsylvania stood on top of a hill overlooking the town of Gap. Who knows what the population might have been. A hundred? A thousand? Maybe more. I was 11 years old, and it was hard enough for me to keep track of how many people lived under the roof of our farmhouse as older brothers and sisters moved away and on to careers and families of their own. Five older siblings were already gone. My older sister still slept at home, but she was gone most of the time, working, sometimes late into the night, at Dutch Haven, where she was a waitress and baked shoo fly pies. That summer, if you counted my parents and older sister, nine of us still lived at home.
Gap had three streets I remember — Bellevue, Pequea, and Chestnut — but it didn’t really matter. They were not our streets. It was the nearest town, not really ours. The heart of the town, the business district if it had one, consisted of the bank, post office, and hardware store, with the firehouse down the hill.
The most important street to us was Jesse’s back lane, a farm lane running along the edge of a neighbor’s fields. It was the most direct route to walk to school, to the bookmobile that came and parked by the town clock every two weeks in summer, and to Lawrence’s Store, our main connection to town. We younger children all wanted the chore of walking down Jesse’s back lane to Lawrence’s to pick up something for Mother—root beer extract, yeast or junket tablets to make ice cream, some small thing easy for a child to carry on the mile-long walk.
Our lives, especially in the summer, were mostly limited to the farm, and, of course, anything happening at the Mennonite Church we attended. Some summers we took a one day trip to the Philadelphia Zoo. After morning milking was finished, we’d pack a lunch and set off for Philadelphia. We would often stop at a churchyard on the way to eat our picnic; sometimes we had it at the zoo. For a treat in the afternoon, we all got to buy Cracker Jacks. The surprises in the box were never as exciting as the anticipation of them—miniature books, plastic whistle rings that scarcely made a sound, miniature magnifying glasses. It wasn’t so much what it was as the surprise of it. We watched the monkeys play on “Monkey Island,” the lions and tigers pacing back and forth on the hot dirt outside their cages. In the heat, everything smelled a little like the barnyard back on the farm, but different. My older brothers stayed home to start the evening milking, and the rest of us were always home by suppertime. It wasn’t much, but back then those outings seemed exciting, and it was rare to take a break.
It was mid-afternoon. The hay was raked, and it was too early for my brothers to start the barn work. My mother, brothers, sister, and I sat on the shaded porch shelling the peas we had picked that morning, two half bushel baskets.
From where I sat on the porch, I could see Suzanne’s house on the opposite hill, beyond Jesse’s back lane, Lawrence’s Store and beyond the three streets of Gap. Suzanne was in my class at school, and she and her family lived in an almost-new gray stone ranch house on Strasburg Road. I thought her house was a mansion. I wanted to be her best friend, but I wasn’t. How could I be? Best friends played at each other’s houses, watched television together, or went to the swimming pool. I did none of those. I looked across at Suzanne’s house and wondered what she was doing. She might be inside watching “American Bandstand” with Linda, who lived a few doors down. They might have gotten popsicles from the freezer, or each of them could be sipping Coca-Cola from a green bottle. Maybe she was at Girl Scouts, wearing her pretty green uniform with all those badges she had earned, proving how many things she could do. I wasn’t allowed to join Girl Scouts.
A couple years earlier I had begged to join Girl Scouts, and Mother said no.
“What’s wrong with Girl Scouts?” I said.
“It’s not so much that anything’s wrong, as what’s the use,” she said. “Seems like a waste of time and money for all you get out of it.”
“They do lots of fun things and get badges for things they learn.”
“Just because you don’t have a badge for it doesn’t mean you don’t know how to do things. You know how to do plenty.”
I stopped asking about joining Girl Scouts. Of course, I could do things, but I was certain none of the things I knew how to do were badge-worthy. You couldn’t get a badge for gathering eggs or picking peas or peeling potatoes.
The porch chairs were in a semicircle, the empty basket for pea pods in the middle. We snapped the crisp pods open, scooped the peas into the bowls each of us held in our laps, and tossed the empty pods into the basket.
“Let’s play a game,” Nancy said. “How about ‘I’m Going to Grandma’s House?’” It was a good game, even for little kids, and made the job go faster. I was good at it, hardly ever missed a word when I tried to remember the whole list.
“All right,” Mother said. “You go first.”
“I’m going to Grandma’s house, and I’m taking an alligator,” Nancy said. She threw a pea pod at the basket and missed.
“You can leave it,” Mother said, “I’m sure it won’t be the only one.”
“I’m going to Grandma’s house, and I’m taking an alligator and a baseball glove,” Sanford said.
“You don’t even have a baseball glove,” Dale said.
“Nancy doesn’t have an alligator either. It doesn’t matter.”
“Let’s just play the game,” Mother said, looking up.
It was my older brother Charles’ turn. “I’m going to Grandma’s house, and I’m taking an alligator, a baseball glove, and calcium.”
“Calcium? What’s calcium?” I said. “You can’t make stuff up.”
“I didn’t. It’s an important chemical element,” Charles said. “You’ll understand when you take chemistry.” He threw his pea pod into the basket.
“I’m going to Grandma’s house, and I’m taking an alligator, a baseball glove, calcium, and a dishcloth,” Mother said.
She always said things like that when we played the game. Thimble, quilt, hoe, paring knife. If Suzanne’s mother played “I’m Going to Grandma’s House,” and who could imagine it, she’d say things like lipstick, hair rollers, pedal pushers, certainly not thimble or dishcloth.
“I’m going to Grandma’s house, and I’m taking an alligator, a baseball glove, calcium, a dishcloth, and an encyclopedia,” Dale said.
“I bet you can’t even spell encyclopedia,” Ray said.
“Maybe I can, and maybe I can’t. I know it starts with an E.”
We made it all the way to Q, where Ray added quartz to the list, but forgot to say ice cube, which I had added. He said he did it on purpose because the ice cube had melted on the way to Grandma’s house, but we all knew that was just an excuse. He had lost the game. I was glad, because he thought he was so smart.
The game was over, and my brothers left to start the barn work. They’d clean the stables and bring the cows in from the pasture to feed and milk. Nancy and I helped Mother finish shelling peas. After she blanched them, we scooped them into freezer bags. She counted the bags and wrote the number on her list before putting them in the freezer.
The week before I had asked Mother if I could go to play at Suzanne’s house. I could have walked down Jesse’s back lane, across the Lincoln Highway, up Pequea Avenue and across the bridge over the railroad tracks to Strasburg Road. I was old enough to look both ways for cars.
“We have things to do,” Mother had said. “We need to freeze these strawberries.” I had helped pick them all morning and felt like I had done enough. Why couldn’t I have time to go play at Suzanne’s or finish my Nancy Drew book?
“You know,” she said, “I almost feel sorry for those girls. Nothing to do for the whole summer.”
I knew we had lots to do. From planting the first seeds in March until we dug the potatoes and cut the cabbage to make sauerkraut in October, it never ended. And we all had to do our share. Girls were expected to help can and freeze hundreds of quarts of every fruit and vegetable you can imagine to take us through the winter. The shelves in the basement were full by fall, and when the freezer in the garage filled up, we rented space at Byler’s Lockers in town for the overflow. I knew our family didn’t have much money, and we often had to wear clothes older siblings had grown out of, but we were never lacking for food. Mother talked about people who were so poor they didn’t get enough to eat, which did not seem possible. We weren’t that kind of poor. For us, it was as if food and money had nothing to do with each other.
Sometimes I wondered, but didn’t ask, why, if we had so much work to do, my parents always had time for church. Sunday morning and Sunday evening, Prayer Meeting on Wednesday, Sewing School on Saturday, and Summer Bible School every evening for two weeks. If a special prayer meeting was called because someone was sick, my parents always had time for praying, no matter what evening it was or how busy we were or how sick the person was. If the church was open, my parents were there.
After the peas were in the freezer, I went out to gather eggs from the nests in the chicken houses opposite the hayloft. I reached under clucking, pecking leghorns to grab still-warm eggs and place them in the wire basket. I was supposed to count the eggs, but often thought about other things and forgot. I’d make up a number to give Mother, who liked to keep track. If the basket was almost full, I said it was 230, or 215, or 203, always a different number to make it sound like I had counted exactly. When I finished gathering the eggs, looking in all the nests, I went down the stairs and through the barn. Out the front barn doors, left open for summer ventilation, across the cornfield, I could see Suzanne’s house.
There was a car in the driveway. It couldn’t be her mother’s new convertible, the one Suzanne’s father got for her at the Oldsmobile dealership where he worked. She always kept the new car in the garage. Maybe it was Joyce’s mother’s car. She may have come to pick up Joyce, and went inside to chat with Suzanne’s mother and have a glass of iced tea. They’d be talking about shopping and movies, hairstyles and vacations, things Mother could never have talked about.
I’d seen the new white convertible the day Suzanne’s mother picked it up and came by with the top down to get Suzanne from school. It was the first convertible I’d ever seen up close. We never had new cars. My father had bought our somber black Buick from a funeral director in Coatesville who was one of our regular customers for eggs and fresh vegetables. We piled into the Buick to go to church on Sunday. I had to sit forward on the back seat, wedged between long-legged brothers.
I took the basket of eggs into the house and wrote 211 on Mother’s list. I carried the basket down to the cellar where Nancy and I cleaned and weighed the eggs before we put them in crates to be sold, layer after layer separated by cardboard dividers.
The next day was haymaking day. The alfalfa had been mowed, crimped, and raked into rows. We’d had a string of hot sunny days, which was perfect weather for haymaking. We all knew the danger of putting away damp hay. We had seen barn fires light up the night sky. If the fire happened during a storm, it was, no doubt, a lightning strike. But, if there was no storm, and we heard the fire siren and saw the eerie glow off in the distance somewhere, Daddy would say, “Probably hot hay.” We feared the least moisture left in the hay could lead to hot hay. I had no idea how it worked, but Charles said it was like with the silage, only hotter. I had seen the silage steaming when it came from the silo.
That morning Daddy pulled the clanging baler back and forth, scooping up the rows of well-dried hay. The bales spewed out and now lay scattered over the dry stubble of the hayfield. At lunch Daddy said, “I need to go to the mill this afternoon. Mary Alice, we need you to drive the tractor to pick up bales. All you need to do is keep it going straight.”
I’d helped with haymaking before, and my job had always been to roll the bales into rows. I hated it, the heat and dust and bugs. And the dried hay scratched my arms and the part of my legs not covered by a long skirt. The bales were too heavy for me to lift, but I could roll them. I had never driven the tractor, which was always boys’ work. Up on the tractor, I wouldn’t get scratched at all.
I went out to the hayfield with my brothers, riding on the edge of the wagon while Ray drove the tractor. When we got to the field, he turned the tractor off, jumped down.
“Get up there,” he said, “if you’re gonna drive.”
I climbed up, and Ray stood on the hitch bar behind me.
“Okay. Push the clutch in far as you can.”
I could hardly reach it. I slid down on the smooth metal seat, my skirt bunching up under me. I stretched to get to the clutch, and pushed it in. Ray pulled the starter. The tractor chugged to life. He reached past me and pushed the accelerator knob to the second notch.
“Ease up on the clutch and steer. Keep it straight. I’ll help you turn when we get to the end.”
The tractor scarcely jerked as I eased my foot off the clutch and started moving slowly down the row. Ray jumped off the hitch bar and onto the wagon to stack the bales. Dale and Charles, their t-shirts already wet with sweat, tossed the bales onto the wagon. Sanford was far down the field rolling bales into rows.
At the end, Ray helped steer the tractor wide and down the next row.
From the end of the field, up on the rise, I could see across to Strasburg Road, where I thought I saw a bike coming down Suzanne’s driveway. Maybe she was going to Sandy’s house, where they’d do each other’s hair or work on a tap dance routine for the fall talent show at the Gap Fire Hall. I hadn’t started to think about what I’d do for the talent show. I’d probably bake a cake again; I might try a chocolate chiffon this time. I’d made tiptop cake the year before. How could you even compare baking a cake and tap dancing?
I kept the tractor in the second notch and steered straight. I knew how fast the tractor could go, had seen my brothers speeding down the lane. All I would need to do was push the accelerator up to the top notch, and bales and brothers would be strewn all over the hayfield. I didn’t consider doing it. My brother trusted me to keep it in the second notch.
“You think you can do the turn at the end?” Ray called from the wagon, now half filled with bales stacked four high.
“Sure,” I said.
I kept the turn wide, lined the tractor and wagon up in the next row. I had to pay attention to what I was doing and couldn’t look across to see if anything was happening at Suzanne’s house.
I did not then imagine my brothers thinking about anything but haymaking and getting it done right as they loaded the bales. Could Charles, as he tossed bales onto the wagon for Ray to stack, have already been thinking about how he might become a doctor? Might Ray have been dreaming of being a veterinarian like Dr. Breyer? And Dale, was he imagining becoming a businessman? Even Sanford, young as he was, might have had dreams. It never occurred to me, and we seldom talked about it, but, as it turned out, back then all of us must have had imaginings bigger than the boundaries of the farm, and many of them may have gone far beyond Suzanne’s hill.
Someone looking at the scene from the outside may have seen only a group of healthy, responsible, contented farm children working together to get the job done, and we were that, but there may have been more going on than I ever thought about.
In the evening after supper we made ice cream, taking turns cranking the freezer and adding salt and ice as it melted down. When the ice cream was almost finished, too stiff for me to turn the handle, my mother added fresh strawberries. We sat on the porch and ate ice cream as the fireflies twinkled beyond the morning glory vines.
From my bedroom window that night, after I had turned off the light, I could see across the valley, beyond the cornfield and the wheat field, beyond Jesse’s back lane and the streets of town. I thought I could see Suzanne’s bedroom window. Her light was still on.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Amy The Nurse