Life Now and Then ~~ Kenya/Texas

outhouseI read a wonderful piece on Readwave written by Tamsin Emma and wanted to share it with everyone. She writes about going to Kenya when she was nine years old to visit her older sister who was teaching English there. It is a glimpse into another world and it set me to thinking about how my own grandmother lived right here in Texas when I was a small child. The comparisons were not too very different. Please go and have a look at Tamsin’s article and then read on.  http://tinyurl.com/Goats-and-Footballs

When I was very young, from an infant to seven years old, my grandparents lived in a wooden shanty on a small piece of land that lay between a Santa Fe railroad track and a Texas state highway. The highway was probably less than five yards from the porch. Trucks and cars zoomed past 24 hours a day at speeds exceeding sixty miles an hour, sending hot wind in the summer and cold breezes in the winter whipping  right across the front porch where everyone spent at least half the day, depending on the seasons. In the summer, mornings were cooler on the front porch and in the winter, the front porch was warmer in the afternoons. Staying inside was not much fun any time of the year.

Being a child, the east Texas temperature extremes didn’t bother me very much, but what I remember most about the house with no A/C, no fans and no screens on the windows, was the acrid smell of burning sulfur that was used to keep the mosquitoes at bay during the hot, humid months between May and September. I vaguely remember the burning sulfur in old jar lids. It was something called “Bee Brand Insect Powder”. It was nasty.

The walls were single structure in nature (no inner walls, that is) and there was no paint inside or out. The roof was tin and the ceiling was made of tiny boards. The wiring, which was new in the late forties ran exposed over the walls to a few receptacles in the living area, which doubled as Grandma’s bedroom and a single light bulb in each room. The only ‘modern’ luxury items, I should say, was a television set that was bought for my mom’s youngest brother in 1957, a console radio with a wind-up phonograph/radio that played 78 speed records on top and a telephone next door at the store.

Baths were taken in a number 3 metal washtub. Water was heated for the bath on a huge wood-burning stove in the kitchen. The water came from a pitcher pump located near a rough wooden table equipped with a porcelain wash basin. Dinner was started about eight in the morning right after breakfast. The stove stayed fired up most of the day with a pot of coffee hovering over one of the burners. Even though my grandparents were on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, they always had people stopping by for supper and coffee. People with even less than they had were never turned away. Bums from the passing trains were given big ‘cat-head biscuits’ filled with apple butter or sometimes, just plain butter. They might repay the kindness by chopping wood for the stove or the big pot-belly heater in the living area/slash master bedroom.

The heat in the kitchen kept the kids out of it, but not the flies. Since I was a favored grandchild (meaning mom kept me clean and in line), I got to sit on the step down from the tiny dining area that held a long wooden trestle table flanked by wooden benches. and swat the flies as they zoomed around the house. The flies made it necessary to cover all the food, cooked and uncooked, with cloths. There was always a slab of homemade butter and  a pitcher of buttermilk, along with biscuits or cornbread on the table. Grandma churned fresh milk in a crockery churn and made the butter and buttermilk with mom’s help.

The cow lived out in a small pasture near the railroad track where the outhouse and tiny barn shook and shuddered with each passing train. Betsy always had company in the form of a calf or two my grandpa bought at auction to raise for butchering. The pork we  frequently enjoyed came from specially earmarked pigs that ran wild in the woods on the other side of the track. They were hunted down annually in the fall, butchered and put in the huge freezer that took up most of the room in which the dining table stood.  The freezer was always full of meat: pork, beef, venison, chicken, squirrels, ducks and a few things I never identified.

Just outside the back door was the ‘workshed’. A low-slung, scary-looking building that was home to rats and chicken snakes where Grandpa kept his old tractor. It was a walk-behind affair that took a strong set of arms attached to a muscular back just to steer it. Here, too, was housed an ancient push mover my uncle used to cut down the weeds around the front porch.

The house, itself was enclosed inside the fence that surrounded the chicken yard, so we had chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese and guineas wandering around under the house, on the back porch and in the barren yard all day, looking for bugs and worms. I loved to help feed the chickens in the mornings (and for some reason, I still love the smell of chicken feed even to this day).  This arrangement supplied an endless supply of fresh eggs, Sunday dinners and holiday meals. I used to follow my grandma and sometimes my mom, around the hen house, holding the big wicker basket while they gathered eggs.

One of the things Tamsin commented on was the homemade soccer ball the Kenyan boys played with. I had a cousin who was an ‘expert’ at making homemade baseballs. I used to watch in utter fascination as he transformed an ordinary rock, bits of cardboard, paper and old rags wrapped with big rubber bands into a baseball. The balls were only useful for maybe one or two games, but it was sufficient fun. Bicycles and little red wagons were out of the question for us. Those were the things dreams were made of and even though my uncle did have one of those fancy kick scooters from Western Auto, underlings, such as I and my cousins, were never allowed to touch it. This did not keep us from worshiping it from afar.

Along with fresh meat, homemade biscuits and cornbread, we always had plenty of fresh or home-canned veggies from grandpa’s garden. Long, summer days were spent picking, shelling, cooking,, and canning a variety of beans, peas and corn. Some of the veggies were seasonal, but I didn’t care for them at the time and thought I should not be forced to work in such a manner since I didn’t eat any of the produce, but the grandparents and mom thought otherwise. Thus I learned much useful information through painful, often tearful, experience.

The outhouse was a particularly interesting experience. It was crude, to say the least, smelly and distinctively unpleasant. The sort of mysterious place that naturally attracts the attention of precocious young children (such as myself). I received many spankings for sneaking off to the outhouse to throw various items down into the cess pit. I cannot fathom why such a thing might have seemed interesting at the time, but who can plumb the depths of the mind of a five-year-old? It was on one of these adventures, when I was around five, that one of the most harrowing of my childhood mishaps occurred. I was standing on the seat inside the outhouse, hiding from my cousins during a rowdy game of hide and go seek, when suddenly I lost my balance and fell into the pit. I only remember screaming as loud as I could and then being pulled out by a pair of strong arms. The next thing I remembered was a tremendous dousing with freezing water and a fierce-faced group of grownups scowling at me as I lay shivering on Grandma’s bed.

I am thankful for one thing above all else from those wonderfully innocent years spent at Grandma’s house and that was the intervention of the very hand of God that kept me from falling head first into that pit!!

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