When I was a child, the highlight of the summer was vacation at Grandma's house. She only lived six miles from us, but Grandma and Grandpa kindly volunteered two weeks of their time to host the grandchildren. Back then, I thought they were doing it for the kids. Now, I know they were doing it for our moms and dads. My mom has three older brothers. Lucky for Grandma, one lived in Alaska. So his three kids were not part of the summer situation. That left her with six of us. Five girls, one boy. Ages 6-15, that one particular summer.
We were pretty much left to our own devices during the day. Grandma worked nights at the state hospital, and slept part of the day. One of the perks of working there was the opportunity to bring home giant jigsaw puzzles of seascapes and cloudless skies. Those things can keep six kids busy for quite a while. She took some vacation time to deal with us, but after years on that schedule, habits were hard to break. Grandpa worked a 7:00 to 3:00 shift in the lead mines, and came home to an early supper and work in his various gardens and hog lot until dark.
Some of the childcare duties fell to my oldest girl cousin. Things like tying shoes and getting everybody dressed and out of the house for the day. We had the run of more than fifty acres. Sometimes we split up, sometimes we stayed together. There was no four-wheel riding back then. We walked. We rode our bikes that we had brought along. We rode the ponies. We drove the tractor. My boy cousin even drove the Ford Galaxie 500 to town. Grandma didn't see any reason a 12-year-old boy shouldn't take his cousins out for a spin. Under her supervision, of course.
We all had our strengths. Boy12 drove us to town for candy. A dollar's worth for each of us. Grandma made sure we went to two different general stores to get the best from both. And that we sat down in the car. Seat belts? Surely you jest. Boy12 was also the ring leader of the Great Grapevine-Smoking Experiment. Shh...nobody is supposed to know about that. He and Girl12 were the only ones to enjoy it. The rest of us just said, "Ick."
Girl15 was good with the critters. A regular Ellie May. She's the one who found the nest of baby birds under the tractor seat, and taught the dogs their tricks, and bridled up the ponies for the Daring Bareback Riders of the Front Yard. She's the one who picked me up when I slid off the back of old Sugarfoot when he ran up the hill toward the house. And made me get back on.
Girl12 would have been voted Most Likely to End Up in Juvie if we took a vote. Which we did not. She was my fishing buddy in the hog lot pond. I think she picked me because she knew she could outrun me. When the old boar came a-chargin', all I saw was her butt going over the fence. Lucky for me, that boar found a bucket of perch more tasty than 9-year-old girl. I made my exit out the wooden loading ramp.
Girl7, my sister, was known for her tangled orange hair and boy toes. A headband took care of the former for two weeks, and we found that it was best not to mention the latter. She might have started that old wives' tale about redheads and their temper.
Girl5 found most delight in chasing Boy12, shouting, "I'm going to kiss you." He ran from sunup until sundown. In a game of Annie Annie Over, he usually volunteered to be a team by himself. And could still beat us.
We never knew a dull moment. Sometimes, Grandma organized an afternoon game of croquet. An ongoing tournament of sorts. Funny how the winner was always Grandma. She could not stand to lose. Let her catch your green wooden ball next to her red one, and she would soundly whack that sucker across the county blacktop road and into an unfenced deciduous forest. Then everybody would have to go find your ball before play could resume. Rummy, Crazy 8's, Pit, you name it, Grandma won it. She was a formidable opponent.
Sometimes Grandma took mercy on us, and called for a game of Who Can Throw the Most Hedgeapples Across the Road. We gathered them in five-gallon plastic buckets and pitched like future Cy Young Award contenders. Now I know she was just ridding her yard of hedgeapples. While Grandma snapped green beans for supper, or dug up dandelion greens with a paring knife, we busied ourselves by dropping anything not nailed down into the sinkhole by the driveway. You could hear water running down there, but not see the bottom. Funny how Grandma was not particularly vigilant about supervising us. I guess she figure that God looks out for children and fools, or in nature's way of thinning the herd.
If Grandma ventured into the nearby field to pick some dill for canning pickles, we fought over which two got to fish in the little pond. It was about the size of a round, backyard swimming pool. Green slime covered the surface. No bait was necessary. That little pond was so overpopulated that fish practically jumped up shouting, "Take me! Take me!" Toss in an unbaited hook, and two or three fish fought to attach themselves. If we were not going to cook them up, Grandma told us to throw them into the weeds.
When Grandpa got home at 3:30, we ate supper. Then we went to work in the garden. We picked food for supper the next night. Tomatoes, ears of corn, peppers, okra (which none of us were crazy about), onions, and potatoes. That was our favorite, digging potatoes out of the hills hoed up by Grandma. After gardening, Grandpa took a shower in the basement. Every now and then one of us kids got to use that cold-water shower as a treat. Otherwise, we parceled out bath time.
Evenings were spent watching a Cardinal's game if one was on TV, or maybe The Waltons, or Gunsmoke. We laid in the floor in front of the TV, some of us under the round coffee table by the sectional sofa. That's because there was a white mountain goat rug from my Alaskan uncle under that table. If you weren't the lucky one to lay on it, you could still stroke the fur. Grandma popped up some popcorn and poured real butter over it. Or we went outside and had watermelon. Some nights we had slices of Neapolitan ice cream. Other nights Grandma hand-cranked vanilla ice cream. I loved to stir mine until it was soupy, until Girl12 told me, "I don't like it that way. It turns into what it was before it turned into ice cream." We ate ours in the little silver teardrop camping trailer parked out by the carport.
Sometimes we were allowed to sleep in that little camper. Other nights, we slept in the front yard under the mimosa trees. I thought it was for fun, but now I realize that Grandma never had air conditioning. Grandpa put a couple of pieces of plywood on two sawhorses, and brought out the mattress. Some of us slept on chaise lounges with thick cushions, others on the kind with nylon webbing. We nodded off looking at the big dipper and listening to the whippoorwills.
Our parents dropped in for infrequent visits. Maybe they just showed up for hog-butchering day to get some meat. We loved to play around the severed head propped up on the carport wall. Nobody ever told us to get away. Some genius could have marketed a toy called Severed Hog's Head and made a fortune. I did not feel bad for that little piggy. We poked it with sticks, swatted at the buzzing flies, marveled at the tongue handing out the side of the mouth, looked up its nostrils, touched the coarse hairs, and never considered that it was being saved for the purpose of head cheese.
Chicken, the other white meat, was also a staple on Grandma's table. She dispatched them herself in the side yard by the water faucet. We gathered to watch. But not too close. When she was done swinging that chicken by the head to wring its neck, she chopped the body loose. We didn't want that blood-spouting poultry-corpse to run into us. It's not like it could see where it was going.
Thanks to Tammy at Message in a Bloggle for giving me this scathingly brilliant idea in a comment a few days ago.