When I was eight, my dad built a simple summer cottage for my maternal grandparents, Keith and Bea Flesher. He poured the concrete floor, and in the porch steps I traced “1963” in the wet corner. We ate supper in the screened-in porch and at sunset watched bats dip and swoop through the yard. On cool evenings, Grandpa would light a small fire in the old tin stove. I have seen that stove glowing red, the thin lid dancing.
I remember the freshly dug pond, the dirt banks dry and smooth, waiting for the first rain to fill the hole. Dairy farmers, my grandparents milked 35-head of Holsteins morning and evening. The cottage and pond became a respite for them after evening chores. Sundown was the best time to fish.
Many of my summer days I spent on the farm two miles from town. Most days were routine. Mornings I helped bring the cows in from the field. They filed in the barn door and stood, heads already down in the stall to munch the hay we had pitched in the boxes. Grandpa clamped the stanchion shut around each cow’s neck and strapped the stainless steel milker around each strong back. Then he attached the four suction cups, one to each teat. A quiet, serene business, warm fragrance wafted off the cows, filling the hazy air in the barn. The only sound in the room was the steady hiss of the suctions cups and an occasional swish of a tail, unless a cow let loose a heavy stream, or a plop of a pile went into the trough below.
Every spring, my grandparents planted a two-acre garden and I became their free labor. I picked never-ending rows of green beans and shelled endless peas. With the dew still on the field, Grandpa picked the sweet corn. Later, he and I picked cucumbers and green peppers (he called them mangoes) and lots of tomatoes.
But it was Mrs. Powell who became my first employer and paid me for my efforts. She was a 70-year-old rich widow whose husband had been a medical doctor. She lived across from us on Half Street, and I went over to visit on occasion and sit with her in the heavy wicker porch swing. The thick cushion was nicer than anything we had at home and I made sure not to put my feet up on it. Even the painted chains creaked in good taste.
First, she hired me for ten cents to take letters up to the post office on Main Street. I rode my bike, carefully holding the precious items. I always needed spending money, not just for one-cent pink Bazooka bubble gum, but for important things like a new baseball.
When I was twelve, because I had been responsible in the little chores, she hired me to mow her yard for two dollars. Only she called it a lawn. The small front yard just inside her circle drive was fun, the back and side yard tedious, pushing row after straight row. She showed me how to trim along the edges, and watched while I worked. I picked up the weeds I had pulled, tossed them into the heavy wheel barrow and dumped them in a neat pile at the back. Now I was earning enough to save for a new left-handed mitt. (I had always used my brother’s old righty in a backwards manner.)
At age seven, I learned perseverance (see Of Turtles and Teapots); at eight, how to finish and not quit on the long, long rows of green beans; and at twelve, Mrs. Powell taught me to take pride in good work and a job well done.