I liked going to the country, to the farm where my cousins lived, because it seemed so exotic. First of all, while I lived in Lubbock, they lived near Earth, a small farming town in the Texas Panhandle. That just sounded much better. At the farm, there were cows! They grew cotton! And even watermelon, too, one year! That summer my Uncle Donald gathered us kids on the front porch with a watermelon warm from the field. Using a machete, he hacked it into pieces and we ate it, juice dripping from our chins and elbows. At home, we’d have had to use a spoon, and couldn’t have spit the seeds at each other.
My two older cousins, Bill and Donna Beth, hovered on the edge of our trips to the farm. They were enough older than the rest of us to be disdainful of what we did.
But the other cousins, Ruth and Margaret, were almost the same ages as my sister, Laura, and me. In a fit of family unity, we even shared names. Ruth and I had the same first name, Evelyn, after our grandmother who’d died a few years before we were born. Margaret and Laura had the same middle name – Ann – but I don’t think it was as significant to the family as “Evelyn.”
Our visits to Earth, which was an always-funny family joke, seemed to occur with no sort of regularity, except for a mid-May visit to celebrate the week-apart birthdays of Laura and Grandpa. Almost the best part of the trip was that we got to skip church! Yes! A virtually unheard of thing. We’d go to Sunday School, then slip away, to Earth. By the time we got to the farm, they would be just arriving from the Earth Church of Christ. Immediately we’d break into groups. The two women would head to the kitchen to get dinner ready; in rural fashion, “dinner” was the meal served at noon. Meanwhile the men would stand around outside, if the weather was good, talking about crops, or politics, or whatever men talk about. The four cousins headed off to play until it was time to eat.
Dinner would be huge, with lots of choices: roast beef, fried chicken, biscuits, corn, limp green beans, green salad, congealed salad, cake-mix cake. No matter the occasion, Grandpa held the head-of-the-family seat at the end of the table. He would say grace, artfully blending Methodist and Church of Christ theology into a prayer that was acceptable to all of us – or at least to the ones paying attention. Bill and Donna Beth would get to sit with Grandpa and the rest of the adults at the big table and the four girls got the card table. We didn’t mind: family tradition was that we got to get our food first and we also had the pleasure of uninterrupted giggling.
The phone at the farm was on a party line, so unless it rang in a certain pattern of longs-and-shorts, no one even made a move to answer it. But I am sure that Aunt Elizabeth noted whose ring it was, so she’d know who was getting calls during Sunday dinner.
At the farm we four girls would pair off most of the time. Ruth and I liked to go for walks along the dirt roads that marked section lines around the farm. We’d walk on the hard-as-pavement dirt until a vehicle approached; then we’d scramble into the bar ditch, which seemed deep and dangerous and steep to me. After all, I was from town and our streets were rimmed by curbs and gutters. (When we’d leave the farm, I was always nervous my dad would back too far into the road – I could always picture our Ford Fairlane teetering precariously on the edge of the bar ditch before pitching us backwards into it.)
Once on one of our walks, we went into an abandoned farmhouse. It seemed like a grown-up thing to do, somehow, stepping through the door that groaned as we pushed against it. We didn’t stay long – it was dark in there! – but before we left we grabbed an old Mason jar off the floor. We were, we said, going to show it to our mothers. That way, we weren’t thieves, just juvenile anthropologists returning from Borneo with a shrunken head. Before we actually made it home with this treasure, this amazing find, we thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if we slammed it onto the hard-as-granite dirt road. I felt a pang of loss as it shattered, but that must have been offset by Ruth’s sense of relief over destroying the evidence and avoiding punishment for being in that old house in the first place.
Once when Ruth and I were walking our usual square walk, she HAD to go to the bathroom. So she squatted down in the bar ditch and took a dump. Right there. Outside. In a ditch. I was astonished. When she was done she covered the turds with some dirt clods and we continued on our way. On our next visit to the farm she confided that she’d told Bill what she’d done. He said that’s just great because it’ll decay and float in the air and every time you walk by THAT PLACE you’ll breathe tiny pieces of your own crap. We stayed in the house during that visit.
Ruth and Margaret (we said their names kind of like one really long word) always had better toys than we did – more Barbie dresses, a Chatty Cathy doll, board games that were more fun than ours. But the best thing they had was the Creepy Crawler set. It had little bug-shaped molds you could squirt variously-colored goo into, put in a metal tray, and bake for a few minutes. Then, you could carefully pop out a still-warm orange worm, or a pink-and-yellow spider, or any number of garish combinations. We’d try to scare Donna Beth and Bill with our creations but of course they never fell for it. Once, though, when Great Aunt Mary Jane and Great Uncle Roy were visiting from California, we snuck a freshly-baked spider onto Aunt Mary Jane’s thigh. I can’t imagine that she felt it through exoskeleton of her good girdle, but when she saw it she squealed in a most convincing fashion. We thought we’d really fooled her, but now I know it was the other way around.
Back then cotton was picked by hand, partly by migrant workers and partly by the farmer’s family and fieldhands. To Laura and me, pulling fluffy cotton bolls off dry stalks looked like a lot of fun, and not too hard, either. One year during harvest Uncle Donald hired us four girls to help. I know now that Ruth and Margaret weren’t as seduced by the 25¢ pay as Laura and I were, but we each got a long canvas bag, slung it over our shoulders, and set to work pulling cotton and poking it into the sack. We kept at it for a long time, too. The sacks were starting to pull down on our shoulders, we were tired, but we knew we’d helped a lot with the harvest. Only we’d covered about ten feet of the half-mile long row and the bulges of cotton in our sacks weren’t even noticeable!
Cokes. That was biggest treat at the farm. My parents didn’t allow soft drinks at our house. At the farm, though, there were always a couple of wooden cases filled with glass bottles of Cokes on the service porch. The bottles were always gritty from dirt that blew under the door or around the windows. Beside the cases of full bottles, there were usually one or two cases of empties, waiting for the next trip to town when the deposit on them could be applied to a new case of Cokes. Once, Donna Beth had proclaimed – in the throes of adolescent huffiness – that IF YOU TOOK A COKE FROM THE REFRIGERATOR REPLACE IT WITH ONE FROM THE PORCH. She’d even posted a sign on the refrigerator door. We deliberately ignored the proclamation, just because we were pesky. And we even drank extra Cokes that day, just to show her.
Uncle Donald was quite outspoken on the subject of my family’s camping trips. His family had a pop-up camper – which we oxymoronically called a “tent trailer” – and he just couldn’t believe the foolishness of my family camping in tents! Bears? Weren’t we afraid of bears? Or mountain lions? Or snakes? That was all my mother could take; in the only known example of her back-talking anyone, she whirled on Uncle Donald and snapped, “Snakes? SNAKES? Since when can snakes open tent zippers?” Wow – we were impressed; we had no idea she had that kind of fire in her.
My last visit to the farm was in February of my junior year of high school, on the day of Grandpa’s funeral. Grandpa had been in the hospital in Littlefield for a few weeks before he died; he was 88. When Aunt Elizabeth went to his house after he died, she found his suit laid out with a note pinned to it, saying that was the suit he wanted to be buried in. He’d written the note while he waited for the ambulance, which he’d called himself, to come get him.
We gathered at the farm before the funeral. Donna Beth and Bill were both married by this time, so there was significant shift in the family dynamic. While we waited to go to the Methodist church for the service, Bill entertained us by taking extreme close-ups of us with his new camera – a front tooth, an eyebrow. It was the most attention he ever paid us and maybe it was how he dealt with grief.
At the little Methodist church, the pews were filled with Eastern Star ladies and Rainbow Girls, and people I didn’t know. Our minister from Lubbock gave the sermon, though I can’t recall why. Nor can I recall what he said. Grandpa was the first grandparent I’d lost and I was trying to figure out my role in the universe, or something, and didn’t listen to whatever words of comfort were offered. After the service, I rode with Ruth and Uncle Donald and Aunt Elizabeth for the 30-mile trip to the cemetery in Littlefield.
Just north of Littlefield, we passed the house where Grandpa had lived for many years, the cedar windbreak he planted decades earlier grown enough to nearly obscure the house. Seeing the house was sadder than the funeral had been.
The only other things I can remember are that it was bitterly cold, that I wore an extremely short dress, and that Ruth cried (in my opinion) more for effect than in mourning.
The graveside service was on a windy, cold hill in the cemetery in Littlefield, where Grandpa was laid next to my grandmother Evelyn. I’d never been to the cemetery before, and I learned then that my grandmother had died on Christmas Eve, another sad fact to stack with the rest that I’d begun to accumulate. After the graveside service, we got in our car and returned to Lubbock. It took me three days to get warm again.
The family gatherings tapered off after Grandpa died. At some point, Donald and Elizabeth built a new house in town; I guess one of their farmhands lives in the old one. The last time that I saw Ruth was at my wedding, in 1978, when she elbowed her way through the other unmarried female guests and caught the bouquet. Supporting the bouquet-catching tradition, she was the next one to get married, to a crop-duster from Muleshoe.
My mother tells me that Aunt Elizabeth brags “too much” about her grandchildren, which I take to mean that she is overwhelmed by Aunt Elizabeth’s higher grandchildren census.
She also says that Uncle Donald “drinks.” But I think she’s still mad about the snake comment.