The walls of our rickety, drafty, two-storey farmhouse couldn’t resist the howling winds. Our family lived near Howells, Nebraska in the early 1950s, where my father worked as a farm laborer. He and my mother looked after my siblings and me––older brothers Clyde and Jimmy, and our little sister Molly. The cramped and cluttered downstairs had a living room, a kitchen and my parents’ bedroom. A narrow, creaky stairway led upstairs to where the boys slept in one bedroom and the girls in the other.
The enclosed back porch held a pile of split logs, a bushel basket of corncobs for the kitchen stove and a place for the family dog Buster to lie down. Along one wall, Dad had pounded in a few nails to hang our coats. A strip of farm machinery belt, eighteen inches long, two inches wide and a quarter of an inch thick, hung on one of these––the strap.
I slept above the living room. Every morning of my eight years, I woke to the crash of my dad firing up the potbellied stove before going out to milk the cows. Shaking the grate to loosen the ashes from the preceding day’s fire made enough racket to wake the dead. He wrapped a few corncobs with newspaper, doused them with a bit of kerosene and lit them with a match. I listened for the “woof” sound as they burst into flames. He added some chopped wood to the fire and bundled up to go out to the barn.
Before he left, he hollered up the stairs, “Clyde, git yourself down here. It’s time to go milkin’.”
“It’s too dang cold to milk them blasted cows,” Clyde grumbled. But he soon dressed and went downstairs. No one disobeyed when Dad called.
I checked the thermometer I had sneaked into my bedroom. It had shown 12˚C at bedtime, but this morning it had fallen to 1˚C.
I glanced out the window to see if it had stopped snowing, but I couldn’t see a thing. A thick layer of ice covered the glass. I scratched my name, Lizzy, into the frost. I didn’t have to be up for another two hours, so I tucked myself back under the covers and fell asleep while the house warmed.
I woke to Mom calling, “Jimmy, Lizzy, it’s time to git up for school. Breakfast is almost ready.”
I hesitated before leaving the warm pile of blankets. I grabbed a fresh set of clothes from the dresser, flew downstairs and started to dress behind the potbellied stove in the living room. I didn’t own a pair of pajamas, so I slept in the dress I had worn the day before.
“Git out of here! I’m dressin’,” I shouted. My brothers would have to stay in the kitchen for a couple of minutes until I finished. Then they would take their turns.
As soon as I dressed, Mom put me to work. “Keep this stove stoked with cobs, so the fire don’t go out. I have to help Dad run the milk through the separatin’ machine before breakfast.”
I crossed my legs. “But I have to pee, and it snowed last night.”
“Well, you can use the night pot. But hurry, ‘cause I need help,” Mom said.
We didn’t have an indoor bathroom, only an outhouse. It had three sizes of holes in the seat board, large, medium and small––for the different-sized family members. I always chose the small one so I wouldn’t fall through. That would be a disaster.
We couldn’t afford to buy toilet paper so we used old newspapers or the dull pages out of the Sears and Roebuck or ‘Monkey’ Ward catalogues. The shiny ones with pictures didn’t work well. If I crumpled the page and rubbed it together for a few seconds, it became softer. If we had no catalogues or newspapers, we could always use a corncob. We had a whole shed full of those.
Tromping out in the cold through a foot of snow—especially when I needed to hurry––presented a challenge. However, we did have a solution for that: a small pail with a lid on it, that we kept in the back porch, where we had no privacy. We were supposed to use it for going “number one.” Woe to the person who happened to leave the lid off, especially if some “idiot” hadn’t obeyed the previous rule.
I quickly peed and started stoking the fire. I tried to be careful not to burn myself, but that morning I touched the scorching hot lid and hollered, “Ow! That’s hot!”
Mom took a quick look at my hand. “Be more careful there. We ain’t got no money to take you to a doctor.”
Between stokes of the fire, I pumped water from a little hand pump by the kitchen sink and poured it into the reservoir on the end of the kitchen stove. The health department had deemed the water unsafe to drink from the cistern, but we could use it for baths and laundry. Otherwise, we had to bring in all our water from a well out by the barn.
When Dad and Clyde came in from the barn, they ran the milk through the separator and put things away. Then they came to the kitchen table. Clyde, Jimmy and I sat on a bench on one side of the table against the wall. Dad and Mom sat on the other side, with my sister Molly between them in her high chair.
Dad read a few verses from the Bible and prayed the same prayer every morning, even yawning on the same sentence each time. Then Clyde, Jimmy and I took turns saying, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. Let these gifts to us be blessed.” Then we could dig in.
We usually ate oatmeal for breakfast, as it cost little to make for a family of six. We always had lots of milk to drink. It didn’t take long to scarf it all down. Soon we would have to leave for school.
Whoever nailed the bench together put the leg boards too far in from the end, which made it tip easily. Clyde waited until Jimmy left the table, then he quickly jumped up off his end and sent me flying. He gave me an evil smirk.
Mom saw me sitting on the floor. “You’re so clumsy, Girl. Hurry up and put your coat on. It’s time to walk to school.”
“Walk? Ain’t you goin’ to drive us? It’s cold today.”
“No, Dad has to feed the cattle. Molly had another seizure last night, so I can’t take you neither.”
“Clyde and Jimmy will walk with you. It ain’t but two miles.” She lifted Molly out of her highchair.
“Can I wear my snow pants?”
“Yeah, but make sure you take them off when you git there. You know Dad won’t let you wear them at school.”
I put on my coat, but couldn’t find my mittens or hat. “Where’s my stuff?” I hollered. “I put them in my coat sleeve yesterday, so I could find them this mornin’. I’m gonna freeze on the way to school.”
Clyde tossed them at me. “Hurry up, Dummy. We’re gonna be late.”
“Where’d you hide my things?”
“None of your business.” He smacked me on the back.
By the time I finished putting my boots on, I felt frazzled, and my burned hand hurt. I didn’t relish the idea of walking to school on such a dreadfully cold, snowy day. I wondered if I would be able to keep up with my brothers, and what Clyde would do to me, if I didn’t. I had no choice, so I grabbed the one-gallon Karo syrup bucket that contained my homemade bread and jelly sandwich, and faced the long trek to District 11.