Remembering the good of it all

When all the world was sea and sky, I wandered on our beach in Maine and dreamed huge dreams in the limbo-like listening way of children. We were very poor. It was the middle of The Great Depression and all we had were our scrubby acres, a drafty, ancient farmhouse and a wheezing, vintage Buick that we couldn't afford to take out of the garage. My toys were often made from cornstalks and seashells, my pets were friendly caterpillars, and my constant companion was the sea.

At nigh, by the fire, my father read to us from David Copperfield, Tom Sawyer ,m and William Shakespeare in the light of a kerosene lamp. The fire's flame played on my mother's listening face and I was surprised into thinking how beautiful she was. When the reading was over for the night, my brother and I got into our Dr. Dentons by the warmth of the fire and sprinted to bed by candlelight. Under patchwork guilts, which my mother made from old scraps of our discarded clothing, my cold toes reached down gratefully for the warmth of the hot water bottle my mother always placed there. In the morning it wasn't unusual to find that ice had formed on my bedroom windowsill.

In spring our parents planted and hoed and raked and watered. In summer we lavishly ate the beans and peas and corn and potatoes with the lobster from the bay and clams and crab meat from the shore. Our own watermelon, or strawberries , raspberries and blueberries under heavy cream, topped off the evening meal. We had no money for luxuries like hamburger.

In autumn we harvested the abundant, remaining yield and my mother canned it all: fruits and vegetables, including apples from our orchard. The spicy aroma filled the kitchen and added to the secure sense we had of harvest and home. My brother and I had our individual tasks tailored to our size and capabilities. I picked berries in the blackberry patch out behind the barn. The sun spread its warmth across my neck as I stood in the shelter of branches and contemplated eternal enigmas as one can do only when she is 9 in a berry patch in Maine. As I allowed the fat, ripe fruit to fall into my grubby summer hands, I sampled the produce and then returned to the kitchen with another overflowing basket and a mouth stained with a spreading purple bruise.

My brother helped my father cut the fire logs in our benevolent pine woods, and he and I together every evening carried home the giant pails full of milk -- still warm from the cow -- that was supplied by our kindly neighbor-farmer down the road. There was yellow cream also, so thick you couldn't whip it, and butter and eggs. I often gathered the eggs myself from under the protesting hens. I guess we paid him what we could, but our good neighbor didn't care; he'd have thrown away the milk otherwise, since he couldn't sell it or drink it all, and his sister enjoyed churning the butter. In the summer he came to us and mowed our meadows and took home the hay for his cows. I would ride triumphantly on the broad back of his plodding old workhorse as he pulled the creaking hayrick over our fields.

My brother and I spent hours jumping into the new hay in the cow barn from the loft above it. The old cows shifted their weight with mild concern as we flew through the air, and when they were being milked we seemed to time our leaping rhythms to the silver sound as the fresh milk hit the galvanized pail.

It was a stark, intense kind of poverty -- no central heat. We had two fireplaces and one domineering, autonomous, black, wood-burning kitchen range. We had no running water, except for a hand pump in the kitchen sink, and no indoor plumbing.The outhouse on a starry night was often lit by moonlight too, and in the black, enveloping silence of winter the snow squeaked on the path underneath our feet.

Strange that I should recall, from the vast distance of the years, only warmth and a full stomach and the heritage of great literature ingested by an open fire. Perhaps children don't ever absorb hardship. Perhaps our parents struggled much too hard. I don't recall. They lived to be old together, and they never said.

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