The Egg and I
BETTY MACDONALD was born in Boulder, Colorado, in 1908. The daughter of a mining engineer, she lived all over the place — in Mexico City, then in Idaho, then in Butte, Montana, and finally in Seattle, where she came to rest long enough to do her schooling. She graduated from the Roosevelt High School and entered the University of Washington, intending to major in art. Instead, she fell in love and married. She was nineteen, Bob was thirtyone. With a capital investment of $450 they elected to become chicken farmers on the Northwest Coast. Betty had learned resourcefulness from her engineering father, but what she knew about chickens could be stuffed into an average-sized thimble. So her story begins.
by BETTY MACDONALD
ON THE way back from our honeymoon in Victoria, British Columbia, Bob talked of his childhood on a wheat ranch in Montana, his days at agricultural college, and his first job as supervisor for a large chicken ranch. He spoke of the wheat ranch with about as much enthusiasm as one would use reminiscing on the first fifteen years in a sweatshop, and I gathered that he thought farming hard, thankless work.
But when he began on the chicken ranch job, he sorted over the little details with the loving care usually associated with first baby shoes. He discussed at length the cost per hen per egg, the cost per dozen eggs, the relative merits of outdoor runs, the square footage required per hen, with so much nostalgia that listening to him impartially was like trying to swim at the edge of a whirlpool. And he ended by saying that he had found a little place on the Pacific Coast, where he often went on business, that was ideally situated for chicken ranching and could be bought for almost nothing. What did I think about it?
What did I think about it? Why, Mother had taught me that a husband must be happy in his work, and if he wanted to be happy in the chicken business, I didn’t care. I knew how to make mayonnaise and miter sheet corners and light candles for dinner; so, chickens or insurance, I could hold up my end. That’s what a lot of women think when their husbands start making plans for taking the life savings and plunging into the chicken business.
Why in heaven’s name does everyone want to go into the chicken business? Why has it become the common man’s ideal of the good life? Is it because most men’s lives are shadowed by the fear of being fired and not having enough money to buy food and shelter for their loved ones, and the chicken business, with each man his own boss, seems haloed with permanency? At least there are no employer-employee problems about the chicken business: if a hen is lazy, or uncooperative, or disagreeable, you can chop off her head and relieve the situation once and for all. “It that’s the way you feel, then take that!” you say. severing her head with one neat blow.
In a way, I suppose that factor alone should be justification enough for most men’s longing for chickens, But again, why chickens? Why not narcissus bulbs cabbage seed, greenhouses, rabbits, pigs, goats? A1 can be raised in the country by one man and present but half the risk of chickens. “But if the chicken don’t lay, you can eat them,” says a little shiny-eyec man who has just sidled up and glued himself to me at a party, because he has heard that I once lived on a chicken ranch.
“Eating chickens because they don’t lay is exactly the same as selling your printing press and living of the money because you haven’t any printing business.’
“Yes, but you have your living; so even if you make just a little, you are better off than, say, I am.”
Nothing I can say will do any good. The chicker business is his dream, and have it he will, if he drop dead on his own dropping boards.
Bob’s little place looked distressingly forlorn, huddied there among the great mountains, the building grayed with weather, the orchard overgrown with second-growth firs, the fences collapsing, the window gaping. It was the little old deserted farm that people point at from car windows, saying, “ Look at that pic turesque old place!” and then quickly drive by toward something not quite so picturesque but warmer and nearer to civilization. Bob halted the car to take down the rails of the gate and I looked morosely around a the mountains so imminent they gave me a feeling o someone reading over my shoulder. I thought, “Heav ens! Those mountains could flick us off this place like fly ofF their skirts, rearrange their trees a little, and no one would ever be the wiser.”
It was not a comforting thought, and turning up the drive — which proved to be a rather inadequate tunnel under the linked arms of two rows of giant trees — did nothing to dispel it. Heavy green branches lashed the top of the car, and smaller twigs clawed at the windows; the car wheels churned and complained on the slick dry needles. We drove for perhaps a quarter of a mile like this and then abruptly the trees stopped and we were in the dooryard of the farm, where a great-grandfather of a cherry tree, hoary with bloom, stood guard over the huddled buildings.
I’m not sure whether it was the cherry tree, or the purple carpet of sweet violets flanking the funny silvery woodshed, or the fact that the place was so clean, with not a scrap of rubbish, not a single tin can, but it suddenly lost its sinister, deserted look and began to appear lonely and eager to make friends — a responsive little farm that with a few kindnesses in the way of windows and paint and clearing might soon be licking our hands. While I stood in the dooryard “feeling” the place, Bob was bounding around with a hammer, pounding the walls and calling happily, “Look, Betty! Hand hewn out of cedar logs and sound as a nut.” The hand-hewn shakes which covered the sides and roof had worked loose in several places and Bob pulled them off to show me the axe marks on the cedar logs.
The house had evidently begun as a log cabin about twenty feet by twenty feet, and been added on to at either end. It was beautifully situated on a small rise of ground from which an old orchard, peering out from the second-growth fir, sloped gently down to a small lake or large pond. The original cabin was the living room, with windows on the north and south sides and a thin, rickety porch across the front. It faced south, across the orchard, to the pond and of course the mountains. The mountains were everywhere — I’d start to turn around, come up against something large and solid, and wham! there was a mountain icily ignoring me.
Opening off the living room on the right, with windows north, west, and south, we found a bedroom with roses and honeysuckle vines in heaps on the floors below the windows, as though they had climbed up to peek in and had fallen over the sills. Down three steps and to the left of the living room were an enormous square kitchen, with windows facing east and north, and a pantry the size of our kitchen in town. A very large, very surly, and slightly rusty range was backed defiantly against the north wall of the kitchen — otherwise the place was empty. The floors were warped and splintery; the walls were covered with carefully tacked newspapers, dated 1885. Under the front porch we discovered a bat-hung cellar, and to one side of the kitchen, forming an ell with the living room, an entryway and woodroom.
At first glance the outbuildings seemed frail and useless, but closer examination revealed fine bone structure in the of uprights, beams, and stringers. We were able to include in the assets of the place a very large barn, two small chicken houses, a woodshed, and an outhouse. The assets also included ten acres of land showing evidences of having once been cleared, and thirty acres of virgin timber, cedar, fir, and hemlock — some of it seven feet and more in diameter.
Scattered over the ten cleared acres, like figures in a tableau, were the fattest, most perfectly shaped Christmas trees I have ever seen. Each one was round and full at the bottom and exquisitely trimmed with brown cones. I was caressing and exclaiming over these when Bob told me that such little jewels of trees are cut by the thousand by Christmas tree dealers who pay the farmers two cents each for them. Incredible that any one who professed a love of the soil would sanction such vandalism, and for such a paltry fee.
At the edge of the clearing and sheltered by one of the great black firs, we found an old well. It was half full of water, hut the intake was a tiny trickle instead of a robust gush which this season warranted, so Bob decided it had been abandoned and we looked elsewhere for water. We found a larger spring feeding the lake at the foot of the orchard, but it had not been boxed in and showed no other signs of use; either it was of recent origin or it suffered from summer complaint — time would tell. (It did, too, and water became one of the major obsessions of my life.)
We threaded our way through the orchard and found slender fruit trees bravely blossoming, their frail hands pushing futilely against the dark green chests of the invading firs. The firs were everywhere, big and virile, with their strong roots pulling all the vitality out of the soil and leaving the poor little fruit trees only enough food and light to keep an occasional branch alive. These were no kin to the neatly spaced little Christmas tree ladies of the back pasture. These were fierce invaders, pillagers and rapers. The more we walked around, the stronger became my feeling that we should hurry and move in so that we could help this little farm in its fight against the wilderness. Bob was overjoyed when I told him of this feeling, and we made up our minds to buy it at once.
For the forty acres, the six-room log house, the barn, two small chicken houses, woodshed, outhouse, and the sulky stove, the mortgage company was asking four hundred and fifty dollars. By pooling all savings accounts, wedding presents, birthday presents, and by drawing on a small legacy which I was to get when I became twenty-one, we had fifteen hundred dollars. We sat in the sunny dooryard under the cherry tree, used a blue carpenter’s pencil and a shingle, and decided that we would pay cash for the farm; put seven hundred dollars in the nearest bank to be used to buy and raise three hundred and fifty pullets; and use the rest to fix up the buildings. Fuel and water were free and we’d have a large vegetable garden, a pig to eat leavings, a few chickens for immediate eggs, and Bob could work occasionally in the sawmill to eke out until the chickens started to lay. Written out in blue pencil on the shingle, it was the simplest, most delighi - ful design for living ever devised for two people.
We hurried home to put our plans into action. The next morning Bob paid the four hundred and fifty dollars and brought home the deed. The following week we borrowed a truck, loaded on everything we possessed, and left for the Coast to dive headfirst into the chicken business.
THAT first spring and summer I alternated between delirious happiness and black despair. I was willing but pitifully unskilled. “If only I had studied carpentry instead of ballet,” I wailed as I teetered on the ridgepole of the chicken house pounding my already mashed thumbs and expecting momentarily to swallow my mouthful of shingle nails.
The first day, we moved all the furniture into the house and I thought that the next day we should start putting in windows, laying new floors, painting woodwork, and sheathing the walls. But the next day we started building a brooder house, because to get started with the baby chickens was the important thing. Bob cut the log stringers about twenty-five feet from the building site, hauled the rest of the lumber from the mill, and I split the shakes with a dull, chipped froe and many vigorous curses.
We built the brooder house in the prettiest part of the orchard, facing the pond and the mountains, and its newness was so incompatible with the other silvery buildings that I suggested to Bob that we plant a few quick-growing vines and perhaps a shrub or two to tone it down a little. He was as horrified as though I had suggested bringing potted plants into a surgery. “Brooder houses are built on skids so that they can be moved from place to place, because baby chickens must have new, untainted soil,” he said. This still seems an unnecessary precaution to me, for the land there was all untainted and virginal. However, the brooder house was built on runners and remained, except for the shake roof, which weathered beautifully, an eyesore.
We built two small pullet, houses and whitewashed the walls of one of the small chicken houses and laid a new floor in it so that the cockerels would be comfortable while fattening. We built the cockerels a nice yard also, and then we remodeled the other small chicken house for the baby pig — because the pig must be comfortable and protected from the cold night air and the damp day air. By the time we finished those buildings it was May — a cold, damp May with so much rain that mildew formed on our clothes in the closets and the bedclothes were so clammy it was like pulling seaweed over us.
“Now,” I thought, “we have all the livestock warm and comfortable. Surely it is at last time to fix the house.” But it was time to plow and plant the garden. I had read that the rigors of a combination of farm and mountain life were supposed eventually to harden you to a state of fitness. But by the end of two months, I still ached like a tooth.
Right after breakfast one May morning, Bob rode into the yard astride a horse large enough to have been sired by an elephant. Looping the reins over a gatepost, he casually informed me that I was to steer this
monster while he ran along behind, holding the plow . All went reasonably well until Belle—the horse — stepped on my foot. “She’s on my foot,” I said mildly to Bob, who was complaining because we had stopped. “Get her off and let’s get going!” shouted the man who had promised to cherish me. Meanwhile my erstwhile foot was being driven like a stake into the soft earth and Belle stared moodily over the landscape. I beat on the back of her knee, I screamed at her, I screamed at Bob — and at last Belle absentmindedly took a step and lifted the foot. I hobbled to the house and soaked my foot and brooded about men and animals.
Bob and I — or rather, Bob impeded by me — removed all of the big barn’s viscera. We put nests, dropping boards, roosts, and windows on three and one-half sides (the other half was the doorway). In the windows we put a glass cloth which, so the advertisements say, sorts out the sunlight and lets in only the health-giving violet rays. We built mash hoppers between the uprights, whitewashed the walls even unto the rafters, swept and scraped the hard dirt floor — and it turned out to be a very useful though unorthodox chicken house where we kept as many as fifteen hundred hens.
The first day the chicken house was finished, Bob drove to town and bought twelve Rhode Island pullets for ten dollars. We immediately turned them into the great new house, where they rattled around like peas in a pod. Being chickens, instead of laying in the row upon row of convenient new nests, they laid their eggs on the dropping boards, at the entrances of rat holes, or out in the yard.
It was late summer before we even started on the house. We laid new floors, put in windows, calcimined the walls, mended broken sills and sagging doors, put in a sink (without water but with a drain), and made other general repairs; and though it looked about as stylish as long underwear in its gray sturdiness, it began to feel like home. The kitchen had two armchairs and a rocking chair, a big square table, rag rugs, and the stove.
The kitchen was the hub of all our activities. We kept the egg records there; we wrote our checks, made out our mail orders, read our mail, ate, washed, took baths, entertained, planned the future, and discussed the past. We began the day in it at 4.00 A.M. and we ended it there about 8.30 P.M. by shutting the damper in the stove just before blowing out the lamp. The rest of the house was clean and comfortable and unimportant.
In September it rained and rained and rained and rained. It drizzled, misted, drooled, spat, poured, and just plain rained. Some mornings were black and wild, with a storm raging in and out and around the mountains. Rain was driven under the doors and down the chimney. Bob went to the chicken house swathed in oilskins like a Newfoundland fisherman, and I huddled by the stove and brooded about inside toilets. Other days were just gray and low-hanging with a continual pit-pat-pit-pat-pitta-patta-pitta-patta which became as vexing as listening to baby talk.
In case you are wondering why I didn’t take a good book and settle down by the stove, I should like to explain that Stove, as we called him, had none of the warm, friendly qualities ordinarily associated with the name. In the first place he was old and, like some terrible old man, he had a big, strong frame, a lusty appetite, and no spirit of coöperation. All attempts to get Stove to crackle and glow were futile. I split pure pitch as fine as horsehair and stuffed his ponderous belly full, but there was no sound and no heat. Yet when I took off the lids, the kindling had burned and only a few warm ashes remained. He was as mysterious as a girl in high school who ate enormous lunches without apparently chewing or swallowing.
Incongruously, things did boil on Stove. This always came as a delightful surprise, albeit I finally stopped rushing to the back door and shouting hysterically to Bob, who was quietly and competently at work, “The water is boiling!” — as I did the first few times I witnessed this miracle. But on the coldest, dreariest mornings, Stove sulked all over his end of the kitchen. He smoked and choked and gagged. He ate load after load of my precious live bark, and by noon I could have sat cross-legged on him and read Pilgrim’s Progress in perfect comfort.
Stove was actually a sinister presence and he was tricky. The day we first looked at the place, I noticed that he seemed rather defiantly backed up against the wall. Such an attitude could come with solitude, I thought, and when we moved in, the first thing I did was to polish every inch of him. And then I built my first fire, which promptly went out. I built that fire five times — then Bob came in and poured about a gallon of kerosene on top of the kindling, and Stove began balefully to burn a little. I learned by experience that it took two cups of kerosene to get his blood circulating in the morning and that he would digest bark only at night. In the summer and spring I didn’t care how slow he was or how little heat he gave out. Bob and I were outdoors from dawn to dark, we allowed plenty of time for cooking things, and all the wood was dry and the doors were open and there was plenty of draft.
AS FOR what we cooked, I accepted as ordinary fare pheasant, quail, duck, cracked crab, venison, butter clams, oysters, brook trout, salmon, fried chicken, and mushrooms. At first Bob and I gorged ourselves and I wrote letters home that sounded like pages ripped from a gourmand’s diary, but there was so much of everything, and it was so inexpensive and so easy to get, that it was inevitable that we should expect to eat like kings. Chinese pheasant were so plentiful that Bob would take his gun, saunter down the road toward a neighbor’s grain field, and shoot two, which were ample for us, and come sauntering home again.
At first, under Bob’s careful guidance, I stuffed and roasted them, but finally I got so that I ripped off the breast, throwing the rest away, and sautéed it in butter with fresh field mushrooms. It made a tasty breakfast.
The blue grouse were also very plentiful, but the salal berries which they gorged on gave them an odd, bitter taste which neither Bob nor I cared for. Quail were everywhere, but they are such tiny things that we finally passed them up for the ruffed grouse and the pheasant.
There were literally millions of wild pigeons in the valleys. They descended in white clouds when the farmers planted grain, and in self-defense the farmers shot them even though the birds were protected by Federal law. Our neighbors gave them to us by the dozen and they were simply delicious, all dark meat and plump and succulent from eating the farmers’ wheat, barley, oats, and rye. I regret to state that their illegality didn’t taint the meat one iota for me. Bob is a fine hunter and a good sport and at first he lectured the farmers and their sons on the seriousness of their offense in shooting the pigeons. But the first time he was present at grain-planting time and saw what they did to the crops, he told me he thought there should be a bounty on them. He never shot one, however, and would not admit that he enjoyed eating them.
Venison we had twelve months a year, both canned and fresh. To the Indians, who comprised a great part of the population of these mountains, and the farmers, who were part Indian, deer meat was meat, and game laws were for the city hunters who came in hordes every fall to slaughter the bucks. Our local any-season hunters said they killed only the barren does, which were easily distinguished by their color and which were a nuisance. True or false, the Indian hunters went through the woods without as much disturbance as a falling leaf, and we in the heart of the deer country had venison the year around.
Bob usually cooked the game. We underwent this little ordeal because he was of the opinion that only he, and perhaps the chef at the Waldorf, knew how to cook game. With venison he used lots of garlic, pinches of sage, marjoram, bay leaf, pepper, salt, dozens of pots and pans, Worcestershire, celery salt, onion salt, mushroom salt, and everything else he could grab with his large, floury hands. When the meat was finally in the oven he hovered around the stove, getting in my way and complaining about the quality of the wood (that same wood which he praised so highly to me and with each armful of which he guaranteed white heat). When at long last, with revoreni hands, he served me a portion of the venison steak, chops, or roast, I found that it tasted just like venison and palled after the second week. Canned with small carrots and onions, venison is delicious. The gamy flavor loses some of its identity in the preserving process, and when the jars are opened months later, the deer meat emerges as a savory stew.
The sea food on the coast is superb. The Dungeness hard-shelled crabs are the largest, sweetest, most delicately flavored crabs obtainable. In the city markets they are usually from thirty cents to seventy-five cents each, depending on the size. We bought them from the Indians for one dollar a gunnysack full. We’d go on regular crab sprees — eating cracked crab with homemade mayonnaise well flavored with garlic and Worcestershire, until it ran out our ears. We had deviled crab, crab Louis, and crab claws sautéed in butter and served with tartare sauce. We never tired of crab, and in summer we went often to the bay, an exquisite little cove which was emptied and filled by the tide, and leaned over the sides of a flatbottomed boat and with long-handled nets scooped the scuttling crabs from under seaweed. They were wonderful when boiled on the beach and eaten warm.
The bay also supplied us with clams — either the large, delicately flavored butter clams which we dipped in flour after removing the neck and stomach, and fried in butter, or the tiny but strong-flavored littlenecks which we steamed and ate by the bushel.
Another form of sea food very plentiful on the Coast is the oyster. By driving fifty or so miles, we gathered both the large soup oysters and the tiny cocktail oysters by the bucketful. The first time we went oystering I was sure there was something wrong and we should all end up in the penitentiary. It didn’t seem reasonable to me that oysters, particularly the exquisite little cocktail oysters, should be scattered over the countryside free for the picking. I feared that the shifty-cycd Indian friend of Bob’s who was leading the way would probably next tell us that he knew where there was a great big patch of filet mignon that nobody owned.
We drove and drove and drove and took logging roads and cow trails and sometimes seemed to cut right through the brush, but at last we came to a stretch of beach, obviously known only to God and that Indian, where the oysters were as thick as barnacles. We went again and again and never saw another soul there.
Brook trout could be caught in the irrigation ditches about ten an hour and from seven to nine inches long. The trout were so thick in the mountain streams that the men in the logging camps caught them with strings, bent pins, and hunks of bologna. Steelhead salmon came up the streams and irrigation ditches and by trolling we caught silver, king, and dog salmon. We also caught sole.
With all the natural resources in the way of food and the ease with which you could grow anything and everything, I never in all the time I lived on the Coast had salad in any farmer’s house but my own, nor did I see meat cooked any way but fried or boiled, nor did I ever catch anyone but the Indians eating fish. Sowbelly, fried potatoes, fried bread, macaroni, cabbage or string beans boiled with sowbelly, were the farmers’ fare day in and day out. They grew heads of lettuce the size of cabbages and fed them to the chickens or the pigs; they grew celery as crisp and white as crusted snow and they sold every single stalk. They grew beets like balloons and rutabagas as big as squashes, but they fed them to the cows. They grew Swiss chard three feet high, but they cut off all the green part and fed it to the pigs, and boiled the white stems with sowbelly for hours and hours and hours, until it was a greasy strangled mass which they relished with fried potatoes aid boiled macaroni.
We could have kidneys, sweetbreads, or liver for the asking. “We don’t eat guts,” the farmers said. We did, whenever wo could get them. Lamb kidneys or veal kidneys sautéed in butter, then simmered gently with fresh basil, marjoram, and a wineglass or two of sherry, didn’t taste like guts to us. Sweetbreads creamed with fresh mushrooms bore little resemblance to guts either. But sowbelly looked and tasted exactly like its name.
Spring began with the baby chickens — they came while I was very pregnant and found getting down on my hands and knees to peer under the brooder at the thermometer a major undertaking. Bob and I scrubbed the brooder house, walls, floors, even the front porch, with Lysol and boiling water. The brooder house had two rooms — the brooder room and the cool room. In the brooder room we had two kerosene brooders which we lit and checked temperatures on for a week before the chicks arrived. The brooder-room floor was covered with canvas and peat moss and had drinking fountains and little mash hoppers scattered here and there. The cool room had peat moss on the floor and buttermilk and water fountains and mash hoppers here and there.
Then, one day, Bob drove to town and returned with ten cartons with air holes along the sides, in each of which yeeped one hundred chicks. We stacked the cartons in the cool room and then one by one we carried them carefully into the brooder room, took off the lids, and gently lifted out the little chicks and tucked them under the brooder, where they immediately set to work to suffocate one another.
From that day forward my life was a living hell. Up at four, start the kitchen fire, put the coffee on, go out to the baby chicks, come back and slice off some ham and sling it into the frying pan, out to the baby chicks with warm water, put toast into the oven, out to the baby chickens with mash, set the breakfast table, out to the baby chickens with chick food, open a can of fruit, out to the baby chicks — on and on through the day. I felt as if I were living in a nightmare, fleeing down the track in front of an onrushing locomotive. I raced through each day leaving behind me a trail of things undone.
Of course, I chose that most inconvenient time to have the baby. When I came home from the hospital after two weeks of blissful rest, everything on the ranch had been busy reproducing and I was greeted by the squealing of baby pigs, the squeaking of baby goslings, the baaing of a heifer calf, the mewing of tiny kittens, the yelping of a puppy, and the stronger, louder yeeping of the chicks. All the small eat-often screamers were assigned to my care, and I found that the feeding of them and Bob and me was a perpetual task.
THE Kettles lived to the east of us and the Hickses lived to the west of us. They were the only other farmers on our road. My first brush with the Kettles came about two weeks after we moved to our ranch and before we had bought our dozen Rhode Island Red hens. Bob had gone to the sawmill after lumber, and I in my innocence thought I would walk to a neighbor’s and arrange to buy milk and eggs.
On either side of the road were dense thickets of second growth, clear green and bursting with health and vigor. Behind these thickets rose the giant virgin forests, black and remote against the sky. Occasionally a small brown rabbit flipped into the brush just ahead of me and little birds made shy rustling noises everywhere. I trudged on until I turned a bend and came to the Kettle farm.
First there was a hillside orchard, alive with chickens as wild as hawks, large dirty white nuzzling pigs, and an assortment of calves, cows, horses, and steers. Wild roses laced the fences, and dandelions glowed along the roadside, and over and above the livestock rose the airy fragrance of appleblossoms.
Below the orchard were a large square house which had apparently once been apple green, a barn barely able to peep over the manure heaped against its walls, and a varied assortment of outbuildings, evidently tossed together out of anything at hand. The pighouse roof sported an Arterial Highway sign and the milk house had a roof of linoleum and a wooden Two Pants Suit sign. All the buildings had a ragged appearance, because any boards too long had been left instead of sawed off. The farm was fenced with old wagons, parts of cars, broken farm machinery, bits of rope and wire, pieces of outbuildings, a parked automobile, old bedsprings. The barnyard teemed with jalopies in various stages of disintegration.
A driveway ran by the side of the house, but there arose such a terrific barking and snarling and yapping from a pack of mongrels by the back porch that I was about to leap over the fence into the orchard when the back door flew open and someone yelled to the dogs to “stop that noise!” Mrs. Kettle, a mountainously fat woman in a very dirty housedress, waddled to the corner of the porch and called cordially, “Come in! Come in! Glad to see you!”
As I drew timidly abreast of the porch my nostrils were dealt such a stinging blow by the outhouse lurking doorless and unlovely directly across from it that I almost staggered. Mrs. Kettle kicked a little path through the dog bones and chicken manure on the back porch and said, “We was wonderin’ how long afore you’d git lonesome and come down to see us.” Then she ushered me into the kitchen, which was enormous and cluttered, and smelled deliciously of fresh bread and hot coffee. “I’ll have a pan of rolls baked by the time the coffee’s poured, so set down and make yourself comfortable.” She indicated a large black leather rocker by the stove and I sat down gratefully.
The Kettles’ kitchen was easily forty feet long and thirty feet wide. Along one wall were a sink and drainboards, drawers and cupboards. Along another wall were a giant range and a huge woodbox. Behind the range and woodbox were pegs to hang wet coats to dry, but. from which hung parts of harness, sweaters, tools, a freshly painted fender and various car parts, hats, a hotovater bottle, and some dirty rags. On the floor behind the stove were shoes, boots, more car parts, tools, dogs, bicycles, and a stack of newspapers. In the center of the kitchen was a table about nine feet square, covered with blue and white oilcloth. On it were a Rochester lamp, a basket of sewing, the Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogues, a large, thick white sugar bowl and cream pitcher, a butter dish with a cover on it, a jam dish with a cover on it, a spoon holder, a fruit jar filled with pencil stubs, an ink bottle, and a dip pen. Packed along other walls were bureaus, bookcases, a kitchen queen, worktables, and a black leather sofa. Opening from the kitchen were doors to a hall, the parlor, the pantry (an enormous room lined with shelves), and the back porch. The floor was fir and evidently freshly scrubbed — which seemed the height of useless endeavor to me in view of the muddy dooryard.
Mrs. Kettle had pretty light-brown hair, only faintly streaked with gray, which skinned back into a tight knot, clear blue eyes, a creamy skin which flushed exquisitely with the heat, a straight, delicate nose, fine even white teeth, and a small, rounded chin. From this dainty, pretty head cascaded a series of busts and stomachs which made her look like a cooky jar shaped like a woman. Her whole front was dirty and spotted and she wiped her hands continually on one or the other of her stomachs.
But never in my life have I tasted anything to compare with the cinnamon rolls which she took out of the oven and served freshly frosted with powdered sugar. They were so tender and delicate I had to bring myself up with a jerk to keep from eating a dozen. The coffee was so strong it snarled as it lurched out of the pot. I girded up my loins for the first swallow and was amazed to find that, when mixed with plenty of thick cream it was palatable. True, it bore only the faintest resemblance to coffee as I made it, but still it had a flavor that was good when I got my throat, muscles loosened up again.
As we ate our rolls and drank the coffee, Mrs. Kettle told me that seven of her children, all boys, lived at home. Several others — mixed — were married and scattered in and around the mountains. Mrs. Kettle began most of her sentences with a profane ejaculation and had a stock disposal for everything of which she did not approve, or any nicety of life which she did not possess. “Aw she’s so high and mighty with her ‘lectricity,” Mrs. Kettle sneered. “She don’t bother me none — I just told her to take her old vacuum cleaner and stuff it.” Only Mrs. Kettle described in exact detail how this feat was to be accomplished.
ON THAT first visit, Mrs. Kettle told me that she had been born in Estonia and had lived there on a farm until she was fourteen; then she had accompanied her mother and father and sixteen brothers and sisters to the United States. Somewhere en route to the Coast she had been unfortunate enough to encounter and marry Paw. Immediately thereafter she began having the children, who were all born from ten to fourteen months apart and all delivered by Paw,
Mrs. Kettle was plunging into a detailed recital of the birth of each when I hurriedly interrupted and asked about the milk and eggs. She was shocked. Sell milk? They had never considered it. They separated all their milk and sold the cream to the cheese factory.
“What about eggs?” I asked.
“Well,” said Mrs. Kettle, “Paw just hasn’t gotten around to fixing any nests in the hen house and so the chickens lay around in the orchard and when we find the eggs some are good and some ain’t.” I hurriedly said that that was all right, took my leave, and went, home, where I learned that Bob the efficient, Bob the intelligent, had already arranged with our neighbors on the other side, the Hickses, for milk and eggs.
Evidently my call was the opening wedge, for the next morning, just after I had finished the breakfast dishes and Bob and I were at work on the pig house, we suffered our first encounter with Mr. Kettle. He came careening into the yard precariously balanced on the top of a flight of steps which formed the seat of his wagon and driving a team composed of a sway-backed stallion about eighteen hands high and a slight black mare little larger than a Shetland pony. Mr. Kettle drew them to a flourishing halt just as I pictured them charging through the side of the house, and wished us a cheery good morning. Then, leaping from the leaning tower of steps to the ground with the air of a Roman charioteer who had just won a race, Mr. K. stopped and examined his steeds’ flanks, did little things to the harness, then straightened up and lit a small piece of cigar.
Bob stood transfixed, staring at the wagon and team — the small horse staggered under a pair of great brass hames while the stallion wore none; the front wheels of the wagon were iron and easily four feet in diameter, those in back delicate rubber-tired sulky wheels; the wagon itself was the body of a hayrack without the sides and garnished with the flight of steps sloping toward the rear. I was more fascinated by Mr. Kettle. He had a thick thatch of stiff gray hair, perched on top of which he wore a black derby hat. His eyebrows grew together over his large red nose and spurted out threateningly over his deep-set bright blue eyes. He had a tremendous flowing mustache, a neckline featuring several layers of dirty underwear and sweaters, and bib overalls tucked into black rubber hip boots.
Drawing deeply on his cigar butt, Mr. Kettle said, “Nithe little plathe you got here. Putty far up in the woodth, though. Latht feller to live here went crathy and they put him away.” He scrutinized Bob from under his eyebrows.
Bob laughed and said, “Well, how do I look?”
Mr. Kettle said, “All right tho far.” He turned to me, “The old lady tellth me you wath down yethtiddy. Gueth I mutht have went to town jutht afore you come. Too bad. Too bad.”
He continued to smoke and we all looked at each other expectantly. Mr. Kettle broke the silence. “Thingth ith putty tough thith year.” (We learned the hard way that this was his stock approach to borrowing.) “Yeth, thir. Tough! The boyth won’t help Maw and me” (his voice seemed to break bounds and rose and fell like a siren) “and we can’t do it all alone and I got two thick cowth and we wondered if you folkth would give uth a hand becauth the boyth are working in the campth in the woodth logging and I can’t plow alone and the old lady wondered if when you come down you would bring a little kerothene and a little pullet math, ten cupth of flour and a few raithins if you got ‘em.”
Innocently we agreed to everything and Paw leaped to the flight of steps, clucked to the horses, and catapulted out of the yard. From that day forward the flour, chicken feed, eggs, bacon, coffee, butter, cheese, sugar, salt, hay, and kerosene which the Kettles borrowed from us, placed end to end, would have reached to Kansas City; the flour, chicken feed, eggs, bacon, coffee, butter, cheese, sugar, salt, hay, and kerosene which they had already borrowed from the rest of the farmers in the mountains would have reached from Kansas City to New York and back to the Coast.
There was nothing anyone could do about this borrowing, though. When the nearest store was seventeen miles away, you could not refuse to lend someone coffee, flour, eggs, bacon, butter, cheese, sugar, salt, hay, or kerosene, because you knew yourself what it was like to run out of any or all of them. Paw Kettle banked on this knowledge, and the rest of us charged it off to overhead. The business of lending our time and services was something else again, and after that first initial mistake we seldom granted any of Paw’s requests for help.
Then the Kettle cows started crashing through our fences and eating our fruit trees and our gardens. Beset by flies and long-standing hunger, they became a constant menace, particularly as the Kettles were experimenting with a small scraggly garden and decided that the quick way to protect it was to mend their own barbed-wire border fences and keep their stock entirely off their property. That left the cows free to pillage the entire countryside.
After the cows had broken in for the tenth time, Bob took them home and stormed into the Kettles’ yard demanding some immediate action. The dignity and force of his entrance were somewhat impaired by the fact that as he came abreast of the back porch he found himself face to face with Mrs. Kettle, who was comfortably seated in the doorless outhouse reading the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. Instead of hurriedly retiring in confusion she remained where she was and took active part in the ensuing conversation.
Bob, much embarrassed, turned his back but continued to state his case. “I don’t want to quarrel with my neighbors and I know you old people have a hard time keeping up your fences, but by God if your cows don’t stay off our place I’ll take the car and chase them so damned far into the hills they’ll never come home! ”
Maw said, “ Why don’t you save gas and shoot ‘em?'
Paw appeared just then from the cellar, where he had no doubt been resting in the shade of the canned fruit, and launched his “The boyth won’t help me andthe old lady and I can’t do it all and we fikth the fentheth and they get out anywayth, but if you’d come down and give uth a day or two on the fentheth maybe we could keep them in —”
Maw interrupted with “It’s that damn bull, Paw. He’s did this every summer. Bob, he’s et every garden in the valley and he’s broke out of every fence and lie’s got to be shut up.”
Paw moved up to lean in the outhouse doorway and said, “Now, Maw, it ain’t the bull, itth the flieth. Perhapth, Bob, if you could give uth a hand with the manure, thay a day or tho, we could get rid of the flieth—”
Bob recognized defeat when he saw it — and anyway, it is hard to be either threatening or forceful with your back to your audience. He came home and grimly added a strand of barbed wire to our rail fences, mended the rustic gate, and — on the advice of other experienced farmers — loaded the shotgun with rock salt.
But I enjoyed the Kettles. They shocked, amused, irritated, and comforted me. They were never dull and they were always there. With misfortune constantly stalking them and with poverty and confusion always at hand, I was amazed at the harmony that existed among the Kettles. There was no bickering or blaming each other for things that happened — there was no need to, for the fault didn’t lie with them, they figured.
Politics were the Kettles’ out. When the manure in the barn was piled so high Paw couldn’t get in to milk the cows or there was no chicken feed or money to buy any, Mrs. Kettle would say, “Look! Just look what them crooks in Washington has did. They put them new fancy laws on time payments so Paw can’t get a manure spreader. They’re payin’ the farmers not to raise chicken feed and the price is so high I can’t git the money to buy it. If you want to know what I think” — she would take another strengthening gulp of the coffee, then glare at Paw and me — “I think them politicians can take their crooked laws and their crooked bribes and stuff ‘em.” We would all nod wisely. The blame had been put squarely where it belonged and nobody on the Kettle farm had to go sneaking around feeling guilty.
THE Hickses, our other neighbors, lived a few miles down the road in the opposite direction from the Kettles. They had a neat white house, a neat white barn, a neat white chicken house, pig pen, and brooder house, all surrounded by a neat white picket fence. At the side of the house was an orchard with all the tree trunks painted white, but aside from these trees there was not a shrub or tree to interfere with the stern discipline the Hickses maintained over their farm. Mrs. Hicks, stiffly starched and immaculate from the moment she arose until she went to bed, looked as if she had been left in the washing machine too long and wore dippy weaves low on her forehead and plenty of “rooje” scrubbed into her checks. Mr. Hicks, a large, ruddy dullard, walked gingerly through life, being very careful not to get dirt on anything or in any way to irritate Mrs. Hicks.
When we first moved to the ranch, we were invited to the Hickses’ to supper and to an entertainment at the schoolhouse. For supper we had a huge standing rib roast boiled, boiled potatoes, boiled string beans, boiled corn, boiled peas and carrots, boiled turnips, and spinach. Mrs. Hicks also served, at the same time as the meat and vegetables, cheese, pickles, preserves, jam, jelly, homemade bread, headcheese, fried clams, cake, gingerbread, pie, and tea. This was supper. Dinner had been at eleven in the morning. Mrs. Hicks, a slender creature, ate more than any logger, but as she took her third helping she would remark sadly, “Nothing sets good with me. Nothing. Everything I’ve et tonight will talk back to me tomorrow.”
After Mrs. Hicks and I had washed the supper dishes we retired to the tiny living room to sit in a self-conscious circle on the golden-oak chairs around the golden-oak table and the Rochester lamp while Mr. Hicks fumbled fruitlessly with the radio and Mrs. Hicks firmly snipped off between her teeth any loose threads of conversation. Occasionally she would glance sharply at Mr. Hicks and I felt that one false move and she would take him by the collar and put him outside. After one silence so long that I could feel the tidies of the chair sticking to my neck and arms, Mrs. Hicks called Mr. Hicks into the kitchen and I don’t know whether she twisted his ear or what, but he announced that he was not going to the entertainment, as one of the cows was expecting a calf.
Bob elected to stay and help with the delivery, and Mrs. Hicks and I set off for town in her car. I learned about Mrs. Hicks’s liver and her bile, neither of which functioned properly; and though she had been to countless doctors and had had several “wonderful goings-over,” she had to take pills all the time. Her liver was so sluggish that it had constantly to be primed in order to make it pump her bile, according to Mrs. Hicks. Just before we went into the auditorium of the schoolhouse, she took two of the priming pills and I was much disappointed not to hear her liver’s motor start and a cheery chug-chug-splash as it pumped Mrs. Hicks’s bile into her bilge or wherever bile goes.
During the drive home Mrs. Hicks entertained me with her many miscarriages, her sisters’ many miscarriages, her cows’ many miscarriages, and her chickens’ blowouts. The internal structures of Mrs. Hicks and of all her connections were evidently so weak that I was relieved when we reached home without having the crankcase drop out of her car. When we got in the house, Bob and Mr. Hicks were celebrating the arrival of a heifer calf with a bottle of beer. Mrs. Hicks’s disapproval stuck out all over like spines—but when I lit a cigarette she turned pale with horror. “It’s not that I mind so much,” she told me later; “I know you’re from the city; but I’d hate to have you smokin’ when any of my friends come in, because they might think I was the same kind of woman you was.” Mrs. Hicks was good and she worked at it like a profession.
I was surprised when I learned that Birdie Hicks had a mother — she was so pure I thought perhaps she had come to life out of the housedress section of the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. But one warm evening that spring, I left Bob with the egg records and the baby and boldly struck out for Mrs. Hicks’s to stitch some curtains on her sewing machine. When I arrived, Mrs, Hicks, her mother, and Cousin June were sitting on the front porch, slapping at mosquitoes and discussing their miscarriages.
After the introductions had been made, I sat down for a while before opening my brown-paper parcel and exposing the real reason for my visit. This was considered good manners, for in the country, where people only call to borrow or return or exchange, and everyone is hungry for companionship, it is considered very impolite to transact your business hastily and leave. You must exchange views of crops and politics if you are a man, gossip if you are a woman, then state your business, then eat no matter what time of day it is, then exchange some more politics or gossip, and at last unwillingly tear yourself away.
I had sat on Birdie Hicks’s front porch for perhaps two minutes when I realized that, hungry as I was for companionship, this visit was going to be an ordeal, for Birdie’s mother, a small, sharp-cornered woman with a puff of short gray hair like a gone-to-seed dandelion, tried so hard to be young that conversation with her was out of the question and her ceaseless activity was as nerve-racking as watching someone blow up an old balloon.
When we were introduced she said, tossing her head about on its little stem, “Bet you thought I was Birdie’s sister instead of her mother. Sixty-four years young next Tuesday and everybody guesses me under forty. He, he, he! Everybody does. It’s ‘cause I’m so active.” Whereupon she shot out of her chair and leaped off the floor after a mosquito. Coming down with the astounded mosquito in her little claw, she landed softly on the balls of her feet, bent her knees so that she was almost squatting, then snapped into a standing position, turned, and winked at me.
1 m not able to wink, and nothing else seemed adequate, so I just sat. Cousin June, a plump, middleaged woman, turned to Mrs. Hicks and said, “Honest to gosh, Birdie, she’s like a little kid.” Mrs. Hicks said rather testily, “For heaven’s sake, Ma, set down. You make me nervous.” Mother finally perched on the edge of the porch railing but kept her eyes darting, head bobbing, and foot tapping. I felt that she was coiled ready for the next spring.
Cousin June laid down her tatting, rolled back her upper lip exposing enormous red gums sparsely settled with nubbins of teeth, and began an interminable story of a supposedly funny incident that had taken place at the grange meeting. She laughed so much during the telling that it was difficult to understand what she said, and either I missed the point or, as I suspect, there wasn’t any. It sounded like “And — ha, ha, ha — ho, ho, ho — he, he, he, — ow-o-o! Well, anyway this fellah says to me — ho, ho, ho — he, he, he — ha, ha, ha — I thought I’d die — he, he, he — ha, ha, ha. It’s about time you got here — ha, ha, ha, ha, ha—” Mother and Birdie were wiping their eyes and urging her to go on, and I felt as left out as though they had all suddenly begun to speak Portuguese.
In desperation I began unwrapping my package, but this also proved embarrassing, for they stopped dead in the middle of a neigh, thinking I had brought Birdie a present. Mumbling apologies, I slunk in to sew my seams, but apparently their disappointment was short-lived. Above the whirring of the machine I could hear “Hehehehehehe, hahahahahaha, this fellah says—” — “Go on, Junie, what did he say? Hahahaha!” — “Well, hahahahahaha, hohohohohoho— ” and the thuds of Mother leaping about after mosquitoes and being young.
When I had finished my curtains, Mrs. Hicks served coffee and heavenly fresh doughnuts. Out of kindness and to explain my stolid dullness, she said to Mother and Cousin June, “She reads.”
Mother, who was in the act of hurling herself at the stove to get the coffeepot, stopped so quickly she almost went headfirst into the oven. “Well,” she said, “so you’re the one. Birdie’s told me all about you and I’m saving my old newspapers for you.”
1 started to say, “Oh, I can’t read that well!” but Mr. Hicks came in then and Mother leaped to his shoulders pickaback fashion, which evidently delighted him, for his heavy face glowed and he said, “You look younger’n Birdie, Maw. Might be her daughter!” I felt that it made no difference how young Mother looked; for my money, she had lived much too long.
ONE of the most prosperous farms in the district belonged to the Maddocks. Six hundred acres of peat, drained and under cultivation; a herd of eighty-six Guernsey cows; a prize bull; pigs, rabbits, chickens, bees, ducks, turkeys, lambs, fruit, berries, nuts; a brick house; new, modern barns and outbuildings; their own water and light system; and a wonderful garden had the Maddocks. They had also five sons who had graduated from the State Agricultural College, and Mrs. Maddock herself was said to be a college graduate.
We drove past their beautiful ranch on our way to and from town, and one day, seeing a sign on the mailbox, “Honey for sale,” I persuaded Bob to stop. We drove through the gateway and up a long graveled drive which swept around the house and circled the barnyard. We stopped by (he milk house, and a large, hearty man in clean blue and white striped overalls came out, introduced himself as Mr. Maddock, and invited us to go over the farm. The farm was everything we had heard — the essence of self-sufficiency. The cows gave milk to the chickens, the chickens gave manure to the fruit trees, the fruit trees fed the bees, the bees pollenized the fruit, trees, and on and on in a beautiful plan of everything doing its share.
It was the exact opposite of that awful cycle of the Kettles’, where Peter robbed Paul to pay George who borrowed from Ed. The Maddock livestock was sleek and well-cared for. The barns were like Carnation Milk advertisements — scrubbed and with the latest equipment for lighting, milking, cleaning, and feeding; the bunkhouses were clean, comfortable, and airy; the pig pens were cement and immaculate; the chicken houses were electric-lighted, many-windowed, white and clean; the duck pens, beehives, bull pens, calf houses, turkey runs, rabbit hutches, and the milk house were new, clean, and modern.
Then we went to the house. The house had a brick façade and that was all. The rooms were dark, the windows small and few. The kitchen was small and cramped and had a sink the size of a Pullman washbasin. In one corner on a plain sawhorse was a wooden washtub. Mrs. Maddock was as dark and dreary as her house — and small wonder. She told me that she hadn’t been off the ranch for twenty-seven years. When we said good-bye, Mr. Maddock shook hands vigorously. “Well,” he asked proudly, “what do you think of my ranch?” At last I understood Mrs. Kettle. There was but one suitable answer to give Mr. Maddock — and I was too much of a lady.
Our first spring on the ranch we had few callers because few people knew we were up there. We had little that they could borrow and we were not experienced enough to be sought out for advice. Those are the reasons for calling — the time for calling is between four in the morning and seven in the evening, and the season is springtime. Summer is too hot, too busy; fall is for harvesting; winter is too wet and rainy. Spring is the time for building, planting, plowing, reproducing, and the logical time for calling and borrowing. No one told me this; 1 learned by experience.
I remember well how, the night before, I had been awakened by that taut stillness which presages mountain rain. I lay there in the thick dark, at once alert and unreasonably teetering on the edge of terror. No sound, no movement anywhere. Curtains poised in the middle of a sway, half in and half out the window. Shades gone limp. A trailer of my climbing rose clutching the window sill to keep from twitching. Breezes on tiptoe. Trees reaching. Trees bent listening. Everything in the mountains playing statue.
Then the signal. Tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. A great, soft sigh spread through the orchard, across the burn, over the mountains, everywhere. A frog croaked, the curtains bellied, a shade rattled, an owl hooted apologetically, and the rain settled down to a steady hum.
I got up the next morning to a dreary world of bonechilling air, wet kindling, sulky Stove, and a huddled, miserable landscape. It took me from four o’clock until seven-thirty to care for my chicks, and to get Stove awake and breakfast cooking. Each time I went outdoors I was soaked to the skin by the rain, which
was soft, feathery, and scented — but as penetrating as a fire hose. After using up three sets of outside garments, in chilly desperation I put on my flannel pajamas, woolly slippers, and bathrobe until after breakfast. What luxury to be shuffling around in my nightclothes, getting breakfast at seven, after all those months of a busy day in full swing by 4.15 A.M. with breakfast a very much to the point interval at 5.00 or 5.30. When Bob came in, he acted a little as if he had surprised me buttering the toast stark naked. I patiently explained the reason for my attire and was defiantly pouring the coffee when a car drove into the yard. Dear God, I prayed, not callers at 7.30 and on this of all mornings! But it was.
It was a dairy rancher and his sharp-eyed wife, a Mr. and Mrs. Wiggins. Mr. Wiggins wanted some advice on fattening fryers and she wanted to look me over. It was very natural on her part, as she had probably heard from Birdie Hicks that I smoked and read books and was a terrible manager, but she didn’t have to sit on a straight chair in the draftiest corner of the kitchen with her skirts pulled around her as though she were waiting for her husband in the reception room of a bad house.
I implored Bob, with every known signal, not to leave me alone with this one-woman board of investigation, but Bob went native the minute he saw another rancher and became a big, spitting, bossy man and I was jerked from my pleasant position of wife and equal and tossed down into that dull group known as womenfolk. So, of course, Airs. W iggins and I were left alone.
I tried to sidle into the bedroom and slip on a housedress and whisk everything to rights before the baby awoke, but the puppy chose that moment to be sick. He became hysterical and ran around and around the kitchen belching forth at intervals and mostly in the vicinity of sharp-eyed Mrs. Wiggins. She pulled her feet up to the top rung of her chair and said, “I’ve never liked dogs.” I could see her point all right, but it didn’t improve the situation. Then our large Chesapeake retriever, Sport, managed to squeeze past me when I opened the back door to put the mop bucket out, and bounded in to lay first one and then the other large muddy paw on Mrs. Wiggins’s starched lap. She screamed and, of course, waked the baby. As I retrieved Sport and wedged him firmly behind the stove, he and I exchanged reproachful looks. I wiped up his many dirty tracks, sponged off Mrs. Wiggins, and picked up small Anne. As I bathed the baby, Mrs. Wiggins handed me flat, knife-edged statements as though she were dealing cards, on how by seven o’clock that morning she had fed and cared for her chickens, milked five cows, strained and separated the milk, cleaned out the milk house, cooked the breakfast, set the bread, folded down the ironing, and baked a cake. It took all the self-control I had to keep from screaming, “So what!”
Mrs. Wiggins, no doubt, had a juicy morsel for the next basket social. But I had learned my lesson, and from that day forward I was ready for Mrs. Roosevelt at 4.07 in the morning.
(To be continued)