GET THAT MULE OUT OF MY CHRISTMAS TREE!

This is a Christmas addendum to the following story about my cousins’ homes in the country. I promised my Cousin Jimmy I would write it the morning of Christmas Eve, but things kept getting in the way and now here it is at 12:28 AM, Christmas morning.

Jimmy remembers hearing about the incident, and I remember living it as though it were last year instead of 75 Christmases ago.

It was our custom to go to the country to select our Christmas tree. We always went the Sunday before Christmas. Daddy didn’t like having a tree in the house. To tell the truth, he really didn’t like Christmas very much at all. But more about that in another story.

On the appointed Sunday in 1941, we traveled to Aunt Hazel’s house to have dinner. Afterwards, Daddy, Uncle Melvin, Jimmy and I went into the woods to select a Christmas tree. In those days almost everyone I knew had a cedar tree. We were no exception. As usual, Daddy chose a tree much too short to suit me, and I let it be known that a taller tree was a much better choice. We had the same argument every year. We finally reached a compromise, and he chopped the tree down. He and Uncle Melvin dragged it to our car and tied it on top.

It was after dark when we left to go home. Daddy drive, of course, and Mother sat in the passenger seat holding my baby sister. I was in my favorite spot in the car when we were on a longish trip:  on the little shelf at the top of the back seat, where I could watch the stars go by. Remember, there were no seat belts in those days. We tooled down the blackness, and I was loving every minute of it. Christmas was only a few days away, the stars were close enough to touch, and everything was right with the world. I was brimming over with four-year-old wonder and joy.

Suddenly, Mother screamed and Daddy slammed on the brakes. Standing crosswise in the middle of the road was a big, shaggy, brown mule. There was nothing Daddy could do. The car hit it right in its middle. There was a frightening thud, and the windshield view was obliterated by a mass of brown hair that disappeared in an upward direction, followed quickly by another sound on the roof of the car and then a thud behind the car. When we hit the mule, it sailed up to the top of the car and rolled over the roof, Christmas tree and all. Daddy leapt  from the car and ran toward the spot where the mule had probably landed. Just as he did so, the mule got to its feet and went galloping off across a nearby field, apparently not hurt at all.

Shortly, Daddy returned to the car. I was thunderstruck, and Mother was still kind of whimpering. It took us a while to gather our composure to continue our trip home.

We lived in the big house with all our extended family at the time, and when we arrived, everyone came running out to see the Christmas tree. The three of us all talked at once telling about our adventure with the mule. I was very unhappy about the tree, because I just knew it was crushed and ruined. We would never get Daddy to go back and cut down another tree.

But Dooley, my grandmother, and the others looked the tree up and down and declared it may have been a bit smushed on one side, but never mind. We would turn that side to the wall. The Christmas tree was to be set up in a corner of the living room, and it would be just beautiful.

We took the tree inside, and Dooley leaned it against the wall in the corner. The decorating was set for the following evening. I think I was still in a state of shock. I was sent to bed right away, and the grown-ups continued to discuss the mule experience in the living room. I could hear them, and it scared me. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t like it one bit.

The next night after supper, the family gathered to decorate the tree. I usually gladly took part in the festivities, but I was quite uneasy being close to the tree. Someone teased me and asked if I thought that mule was somehow still in the tree, and everyone laughed. Of course, I didn’t think any such thing, but there was something about it I didn’t like and mostly didn’t understand. For years I asked myself why was I afraid of that tree. I don’t know. To this day, I can still work up a little shiver thinking about it. There’s no doubt in my mind it was a feeling of fear, but I have no idea where it came from.

It did, however make the Christmas of 1941 prominent in my memory. I guess you could say my personal ghost of Christmas Past was a big, brown, shaggy mule.

So, there it is. I hope if you have a mule experience with your 2014 Christmas, he was there by invitation only, and that your entire New Year is free of ghosts, past, present, and future.

Thanks for reading.

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A THOUSAND AND ONE SUNDAY AFTERNOONS

Sundays seemed a lot more special when I was a child. Now, more than not, it’s just another day.

A very long time ago, everyone was home on Sunday. The stores were all closed. Weeks before Christmas, the newspaper ads read, “50 (or so) shopping days before Christmas.”

In the south, dinner was served as soon it could be placed on the table after church. Almost everyone had a dining room, and it may have been unused for six days of the week, but in our house the table was set with the best dishes and the whole family was expected to be present when Pappy said the blessing.

My immediate family consisted of Mother, Daddy, and me. We lived in a large house in Nashville with Dooley, my maternal grandmother and Pappy, her second husband. Also in residence were my Aunt Mildred (for whom I am named) and her daughter, Dorothy Jeane. The two of them lived in the country with Aunt Mildred’s husband’s family. After he died of TB, Aunt Mildred and Jeane moved into Dooley’s house with us.

Part-time occupants included my step-aunt Abie, my paternal grandmother, and my step-great grandmother, Granny Karl, who was Pappy’s stony-faced mother. With all the comings and goings it was necessary to count heads before the Sunday dinner table was set.

After dinner, still dressed in our Sunday best, the extended family scattered. We either received company, or we went visiting. My very favorite place to visit was way out in the country in a settlement of sorts called Smith Springs. Never mind that the fields that were my playgrounds are now filled with suburban homes when Nashville grew so much and so fast it burst at the seams. I will always remember it as my second home in the country. It is evergreen in my memory.

Three of Mother’s cousins, all siblings, lived with their families on a large parcel of land. Mother’s cousin Hazel lived in the original homestead far off the road up a hill. Hazel’s sister, Louise, lived on one side of the property and her brother, Robert, on the other side. Their houses were located close to the road.

These four first cousins had their first babies within 10 months of each other. Hazel had Jimmy who was a week older that I. We were born in August of 1936. Mother and Hazel often joked that they ran into each other at the hospital. Hazel was leaving carrying the newborn Jimmy as Mother was hurrying in to have me. Three months older than the two of us was Marjorie, Cousin Louise and Otis Charlton’s daughter. Cousin Robert and his wife, Lola, had Ina Lou in March of 1937. She was double-named for her grandmother and for my grandmother.

(I am making an effort to not confuse you here, but I can understand if it’s clear as mud as we used to say back in the dark ages). Mother, Hazel, Louise, and Robert were all first cousins, their fathers being the Russell brothers. We firstborns, Marjorie, Jimmy, Ina Lou, and I (Mildred Ann) are second cousins.

So, it came to pass I had three country cousins, all very near my own age, Our mothers delighted in their children and in each other. We had our pictures taken constantly, I was mostly a disagreeable child, and there are no photos of me smiling just as there are none of Jimmy being still. Marjorie is shown very reserved and dignified. Ina Lou, being younger than the other three often made her distrust of her older cousins known by being heard. Believe it or not, these babyhood propensities, so often photographed, turned out to be indications of our grown-up personalities.

Four years later there was a regular population explosion when all four adult cousins plus one more who lived in town, had babies. In this second batch came our cousin Tim. He was actually Timothy Russell, III. The first Tim was the patriarch of all the country siblings, and my grandfather’s brother. The second Tim, or T.J. lived in the city with his wife, Tilly. She was from a very rich family, and was older than her husband by quite a few years. After the third Tim was born, she dedicated herself fully to him, and T.J. went along his merry way. He didn’t get to really know his son until years later.

Tilly loaded up and often brought Baby Tim to the country. In addition to the boy, she brought several changes of his clothes, extra blankets, his food, a jug of city water and a bottle of milk from a commercial dairy. In later years I often wondered what kind of germ or disease she thought may attack Tim. The rest of us were hale and hearty, and were turned loose to go and do whatever we pleased. Maybe the other grown-ups were offended by Tilly’s obvious distrust of the country environment, but I don’t think they took offense. I do think they got a laugh or two out of it. To this good day, Jimmy still teases Tim about the special treatment he received.

Certainly, off limits to Little Tim was a communal water pail just outside the kitchen door with a metal dipper handle hooked over the rim. We had the option of drinking from the dipper or filling glasses that were available nearby. I loved to drink from the dipper. It had a rolled top and tasted metallic, which somehow enhanced the coldness and crispness of the water.

The pail was outside in the “Dog Trot.” For those unfortunate souls who have no connection with southern country life, I will explain.

The Dog Trot was a common architectural fixture in the south. Nashville gets remarkably hot and humid in the summertime. To take advantage of the slightest breeze, the farm houses were constructed in two sections connected with a long hallway that was open to the outdoors at both ends. Each section of the house had a door from two rooms that opened onto the Dog Trot. I often wished our city house had been constructed the same way. We could dash to the back yard from the front porch before the grown-ups even knew we were gone.

In a few years both ends were closed, probably because the same geographical oddity that makes Nashville so hot in the summer makes it so cold in the winter. The founders weren’t kidding when they named the place “The Nashville Basin.”

When we original four left babyhood for bigger adventures, the entire acreage was our kingdom. We explored it all. The old barn was particularly intriguing for me. It seemed to have dozens of rooms filled with the most astonishing assortment of farm and mechanical implements. It took a few years until I was brave enough to venture into the barn. It was quiet and cool, and a little scary. On one notable occasion I tiptoed into a room in which a cow was escaping the afternoon heat. I screamed, upsetting the poor cow as she nearly trampled me on her way out of the barn.

I loved climbing over the stile that provided access to the other side of fence down by the road. The stile negated the necessity of opening and closing the big gate at the driveway. I considered it a fantastic innovation, although I’m fairly certain it was in use by the first settlers and before. I even wandered through the tall weeds in back of the barn, much to the gastronomical delight of the resident chiggers. It was a short cut to the Charltons’ log cabin on the road.

I loved to listen to the crickets, the birds singing their hearts out, and the wind in the willow trees. I often stood still just to hear the quiet that was somehow not disturbed by the country sounds.

My cousins and I played all kinds of wonderful games: hide and seek, Red Rover, Mother may I, and kick the can. It was so much fun to have people to play with whom I knew so well. There was no need for shyness or intimidation. I could wander off by myself or play with a field full of cousins and be completely at home even in this wonderland.

Jimmy was the adventurous type, much to his parents’ consternation on many occasions. One particular adventure was had also to his own detriment. One day it occurred to him that the steep pitch of the metal barn roof would make an ideal slide. Up he climbed as far as he could on the roof. He then sat down and slid all the way to the ground. He was right. It was a fantastic slide. Unfortunately, there was an errant nail protruding from the metal surface. As he slid down Jimmy managed to find it in the worse possible way. He was bleeding profusely when he made it into the house. There was a rushed trip to the doctor’s office, and after many stitches he was sent home, having learned a hard lesson the hardest way possible.

My favorite attraction was “Old Dolly.” Old Dolly was a huge Belgian mare, a beautiful plow horse. She was, indeed, used expressly for that purpose. She was blind, but she knew every inch of the property. I was amazed that she never bumped into anything. As my daughter, Mandy, loves to relate, “Mom knows a lot about horses, and she loves them. She’s also terrified of them.”

Regrettably, she is correct. I had a horse once, and he scared me to death, but that’s another story.

I was a little scared of Dolly at first. I tried to sneak up on her when I was alone. I just wanted to get a better look. Somehow, she always heard me coming. It didn’t matter how quietly I walked, her head turned toward me and blind though she was, she looked right at me. I always ran back into the dooryard.

I don’t know how old she was, but Old Dolly is huge in my earliest memory of the place. She was never anything but “Old” Dolly. Her back could accommodate four or five of us comfortably, and whoever sat nearest her head would gently push her neck in the direction we wanted to go. She walked when we told her to go and she stopped when we told her to “whoa.” I loved her with all my heart. Citation will always live in my memory as my favorite race horse, but Old Dolly lives in my heart forever.

There was a pond nearby in the barnstead, where we were not allowed to play. Often, it had a green scum that squelched any desire we may have had to enter the water. I marveled at the animals drinking from the pond. I noticed they managed to avoid the scum.

It was an actual working farm, although all three men on the place had jobs as well. Someone arose before dawn in the winter to milk the cow, and again after work every evening. There were chickens for eggs and meat. A large portion of the fields was allotted to a garden. Every kind of vegetable and fruit was grown there.

In a pen far away from the house the families raised hogs. On a particular cold November day, the men gathered at the pen. My father was often among them. It was hog-killing day. Afterwards, the animals were cleaned and cut up into portions that were smoked in a small shed built especially for that purpose. There was lots of country ham, which is strictly a Southern delicacy. It is so salty, Yankees don’t always cotton to its taste. They often prefer the milder spiral-cuts so popular today.

Many times when we visited on Sunday afternoon, Hazel would forestall our departure by saying “Ya’ll spend the night.” Of course, Daddy had to go to work the next day, but Mother would often tell Aunt Hazel we would stay and Daddy could pick us up in a day or two. I was ecstatic.

Mother and I, and later my little sister slept in a bed just off the Dog Trot. I’ll never forget the aroma of home-smoked bacon and ham being cooked on the huge wood stove. By the time the biscuits came out of the oven, we were seated at the table. Everything was homemade. There were mounds of creamy butter (hand-churned) and the best preserves on earth. Nothing has ever tasted as good as Aunt Hazel’s breakfasts.

At harvest time, many days were given over to canning and putting other vegetables away for the winter. Near the back of the house, there were double doors built into a little hill. The doors enclosed the root cellar, where all the food was put by. When winter came it was brimming with jars of home-canned vegetables, fruits, and jams. It was also a great shelter when tornados threatened, as they often do in the south.

As the years went by, I lost contact with my country cousins. They never lost each other. In October of 2013, I was in Nashville when my sister died. My cousin Jeane told Jimmy I was in Nashville. He gave her a number and told her I better not leave town till I talked to him. I called him, and he came to see me at the hotel where I was staying. We knew each other immediately. We talked about the past and the times in between then and now. He told me the annual family reunion was in a couple weeks. I wanted to go more than anything.

I found a flight that wouldn’t break the bank, and I decided to go to the reunion. There was Jimmy and his wife, Becky, waiting to pick me up at the airport. I saw each one of my cousins, most of their children, their grandchildren, and in Jimmy’s case, his great-great-grandchildren. I was so glad to see everyone. It was also overpowering. We tried to catch up, but it left too much to tell in one short day. I spent the night with Jimmy and Becky in their gorgeous home in Murfreesboro, and I hated to tell them goodbye.

I don’t ever want to lose touch again. Like me, many have scattered to the four winds, but they manage to still keep up with one another. I will do the same, now and for the rest of my life.

Jimmy is, of all things, a golfer. It’s hard for me to imagine Jimmy swinging a golf club, but I guess he’s pretty good at it. I asked him what kind of score he shot, and he said he could shoot his age, which, at the time, was 77.

Last June, I was in Nashville again for my 60th class reunion. I loved seeing my old friends again, and I was particularly happy to be able to spend another night with Jimmy and Becky. The next day, Jimmy had a golf tournament. He left early, giving me time to visit with Becky all day before my 6 pm flight. What a wonderful new cousin she is to me. We talked and talked about everything under the sun. I had a great time. It’s so rare for me to hit it off with someone new right away, but that’s exactly what happened with Becky.

Sometimes I despair over what the future will bring. I don’t like to look at it too closely, because it is iffy at best. I guess everybody my age likes to look at the past, and that’s certainly true of me, but thank God for my Cousin Jimmy for helping me to bring back my past, because it’s now a part of my future as well. And that can only be a good thing – a very good thing!

Here are a few photos from long, long ago taken at the Russell Family Homestead. To my knowledge it was never called that. I called it simply “The Country”.

The edge of the pond and the old barn. It was already ancient 70  years ago.

The edge of the pond and the old barn. It was already ancient 70
years ago.

The oldest of the second cousins is Dorothy Jeane, here shown riding a tricycle on the farm.

The oldest of the second cousins is Dorothy Jeane, here shown riding a tricycle on the farm.

Aunt Hazel with Jimmy, Mother with me, Aunt Louise with Marjorie, in front of the grape arbor.

Aunt Hazel with Jimmy, Mother with me, Aunt Louise with Marjorie, in front of the grape arbor.

Aunt Louise with all four firstborns.

Aunt Louise with all four firstborns.

Someone thought it would be really cute to photograph all four babies in a bassinet. Jimmy and Marjorie obviously disapproved, while I gave them my usual sneer, and Ina Lou ignored them.

Someone thought it would be really cute to photograph all four babies in a bassinet. Jimmy and Marjorie obviously disapproved, while I gave them my usual sneer, and Ina Lou ignored them.

Someone thought it would be even cuter to photograph poor Ina Lou behind the car bumper, while Jimmy and I were just glad it wasn’t us.

Someone thought it would be even cuter to photograph poor Ina Lou behind the car bumper, while Jimmy and I were just glad it wasn’t us.

This is me sucking my thumb in front of the gate that led to the barnyard. I really didn’t like to have my picture taken. Still don’t.

This is me sucking my thumb in front of the gate that led to the barnyard. I really didn’t like to have my picture taken. Still don’t.

: Jimmy saw this picture only recently. He just said, “I hated that pig. It was mean.”

Jimmy saw this picture only recently. He just said, “I hated that pig. It was mean.”

PRESENTING: TOMMY TURKEY!

tommy_3

I mentioned earlier that I was really into crochet. Here’s my grandest accomplishment. His name is Tommy Turkey, and I made him for our Thanksgiving Day centerpiece. He is a larger version of a Teri Crews Design, and I love him. Tommy is sitting in a crocheted ring decorated with autumnal decorations. This ring served double duty. It was our wreath for the autumn season.
I’m so busy making Christmas presents for my family, I haven’t had time to make our Christmas wreath. It is to be “Roses in the Snow.”
Maybe I’ll have it finished by Christmas 2015.
Hope yours is merry.
Millie
The pattern for the original Tommy if here:
http://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/cute-turkey
Teri has tons of really cute animals and other softies. Her web site is www.tericrewsdesigns.com. Take a look at it. You’ll be amazed!

Fashioning Fascinators: Q&A With Australian Designer Kai Joldeski

I’m fascinated by Fascinators. One of the reasons I’m falling behind on my web site entries is I’ve become crochet-crazy. I’m hooking Christmas presents like mad. I fully intend to write like mad after New Year’s.

OverDressed for Life

Designer Kai Joldeski contacted me after she discovered my article on fascinators. We have much in common – she, a designer of fascinators and me, an admirer

Kai lives in Melbourne, Australia and is a self-taught artist who sells her wares on ETSY. She says she doesn’t feel complete if she hasn’t created something every day.

In addition to making fascinators, Kai is back at university studying Internet Communications. She agreed to do a little Q&A for just for you, readers.

How did you get started making fascinators and when? 

I have been making accessories (handbags, earrings, belts, scarves, bracelets, shoe clips and brooches) since I was a very young girl for myself and my friends. Fascinators were the next natural adventure. I started only this year with fascinators and set up at Etsy in April.

Do you make hats as well?

Occasionally I will make a hat, but I prefer fascinators as they can be worn to more occasions…

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A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO MAKING MAPLE SYRUP

When the leaves begin to fall and the weather turns a bit nippy, I always think about the experience I’ll tell you about below. It is one of many from this particular “life,” not all of which were pleasant, but unforgettable nonetheless.

During the early 70s there was a great movement in this country to “go back to the land.” Much to the dismay of my two daughters, my husband and I decided to join it. We spent the summer building a cabin on 13 scruffy acres in Upstate New York, and prepared to settle in for the winter. We would study and learn self-sufficiency.

Come spring, we looked forward to tapping our Maple trees and making our own syrup. Consulting my homesteaders’ handbook, I was surprised to learn there are several varieties of Maple trees, but only the Sugar Maple’s sap has a high-enough sugar concentration to make the process worthwhile. Silver and Red Maples, which grew cheek by jowl with the Sugar Maples in our woods were never tapped for syrup-making purposes.

Although the pictured leaves indicated only subtle differences I was confident I could tell them apart when the time came. However, further reading indicated the leaves would not be on the trees when it came time to pound in the taps sometime in early March. Now, what was I going to do?

I took my tree-identification book to the woods to examine the tree trunks. Inspecting the tree bark by holding the book against each tree I suspected might be a Sugar Maple was disappointing. The results were inconclusive.

Finally, inspiration struck. I would simply take a spray can of neon paint and mark the Sugar Maples while I could still identify them by their leaves.

In the woods down a hill from the cabin, I peered high in the treetops to identify the Sugar Maples. To double-check I carefully examined the leaves under the tree. Thus assured, I spray-painted a large “X” on the side of the tree trunk facing the cabin, reckoning I would be lugging my sap collection apparatus (a minor detail not yet figured out) from that direction.

After marking 20 trees, I started back to the cabin and turned to admire my handiwork. I discovered, much to my horror, I had misidentified the first tree. From the angle I now approached it, I discovered it was a Red Maple. Fearful I couldn’t remember which tree was mistakenly marked six months later, I had to do something to stop me from tapping that tree.

Taking the spray can in hand, I drew a straight line through the “X” and underneath wrote in huge letters the word, “NO!” I could now welcome winter with no fear of the leaves falling too soon, knowing we would enjoy the fruits of my labor on our pancakes next spring.

The leaves indeed fell, the brush disappeared on the 100 yards or so down the hill where the woods began,  and there in full view of our cabin were now revealed 19 trees marked with huge reflective “Xs” and one tree shouting from the forest, “NO!”

The kids laughed, their friends laughed, my friends and neighbors laughed and then their friends and neighbors came to see and stayed to laugh. When the snow fell, the sight was even more impressive. All those brilliant red letters contrasting with the white snow made for a striking visual experience.

One day a hunter came to the door. He wanted to know why all those trees were marked in the forest. He had, he said, hunted in those woods all his life, and he had no idea anyone lived here. I assured him that yes, someone did live here, and if he didn’t get off my land, I’d set the dogs on him.

The opportunity to say that comes along but once in a lifetime if that, and I seized on it. We only had one dog, but it sounded more threatening to imply the plural.

Yes, he said he would go, but first would I tell him about the markings. No, I most certainly would not I said as I turned to whistle for the dog. The hunter skedaddled, but not before he, too, laughed.

As it turned out, the maple syrup experience didn’t go as smoothly as the homesteader handbook indicated. We tapped the trees in March and boiled down the sap over an outside fire. When the liquid started to thicken, we were instructed to pour it off into a saucepan, and finish it inside on the stove. Each time this crucial point was reached, something invariably happened to divert my attention, and the syrup proceeded from golden amber to black tar before I could say “Mrs. Butterworth.”

We tried tapping the red Xed trees the next year, and this time we managed to produce less than a pint of dark Grade C syrup that any self-respecting maple syrup maker would have thrown out before it even reached the bottle. We called it quits after that.  In time we left the cabin in the woods; the “Xs” and “NO!” were still there bright and glowing as ever. I suppose they’re there to this day.

All of which brings me to the moral of this story: never spray iridescent paint on anything you don’t plan to live with for the rest of your life. Believe me. The only way to hide it from your constant view is to move away from it.

AN UNFORGIVABLE BREACH OF FIFTIES RULES

When my best friend, Robert, retired several years ago, his niece prepared a scrapbook for him. She asked me and some of his other friends to write a memory of Robert to be included in the book. Here is mine.

When people have known one another for more than 60 years, said people accumulate many memories. Some of us have zip for long-term memories; others have trouble with short-term memories. Some have no memory at all, but I’m not naming names.

Since Robert and I met in the 6th grade (he says the 7th grade) and we’ve spent much time with one another starting way back then, I thought I would plod through my recollections, knowing it would be difficult to select the best one for his scrapbook. As it turned out, it wasn’t hard at all. One memory so stands out from the rest, it was easy to choose.

The event I shall relate landed us in the soup, to say the least. Today it would be a minor misdemeanor, but in the 50s it was a felony punishable by death or at least being sentenced to a year of dish washing.

Here’s what happened:

Once upon a time around 1953-1954, Robert invited me to go with him on a hayride and cookout. He attended the Nazarene Church, which sponsored the event. I can’t remember who thought of it, but the idea appealed to both of us.

We would find some way to obtain a bottle of vodka, with which we would spike the chaperones’ Big Orange drinks when we arrived at our cookout destination. Nehi orange soda pop was stuck with the “Big Orange” appellation in those days because of a popular Andy Griffith monolog in which he referred to the drinks as Big Orange. At least that’s where I think it started.

One of our best friends was Joyce Schurman, who was the minister’s daughter. We ran the idea by Joyce, to test the waters, so to speak, to find out what she thought about it and how much trouble she thought we’d be in if we got caught. To our surprise and delight, Joyce thought it a splendid idea and asked if she could join us. So, there were now four of us, counting Joyce’s unsuspecting date, Charles, who would go along, but didn’t wish to take an active part. Never mind; more was better if it became necessary to spread the blame around.

Having no earthly way to find vodka, it seems to me we really thought we wouldn’t be able to secure it, making the caper impossible to actually fulfill, but fun to talk about. Little did we know just how easily it would fall into our hands and make our daring escapade doable.

My sister’s best friend was from a big drinking family. When my sister told her friend about our plan, she immediately took us to her mother, who obliged by filling a small bottle with vodka and sending us on our way.

That night when we gathered at the church, I had the bottle secreted in a blanket. Robert, Joyce and I referred to the blanketed vodka as “the baby.”

“Let me hold the baby.” “Would you take care of the baby for a while?” “Be sure to keep the baby covered up.” And so on.

Riding in the hay wagon, we giggled all the way to our cookout destination. When we arrived the chaperones (of which there were many, in an abundance of Nazarene caution) they began to set out fixings for a wiener roast, et al. To our giddy delight, we saw the Big Orange drinks opened and lined up on a table very near the edge of the dark woods.

It was the work of only a second to figure out how we were going to do the deed. We crouched behind the table, hidden by the trees and the darkness. One of us served as lookout while the other two grabbed a drink and poured some of it on the ground, replacing it with vodka. No one saw us, and after a while, we were able to give the drinks yet another shot of the booze. By the time the Big Oranges were to be drunk, we had completed our mission.

We stayed where we were in order to gauge the chaperones’ reaction. To our surprise and amusement, one of the drinkers said, “I think this orange drink is the best I’ve ever had.” The revelation caused us so much mirth, we had to clap our hands over our mouths for fear of being discovered.

We were very pleased with ourselves for pulling off the practical joke of the century. I think the hayride was on a Friday night, but I’m not sure about that. It was Sunday afternoon when Robert called me.

“The whole church knows about the baby,” he said feverishly.
“They’re going to make me apologize to the congregation.”

“How did they know it was you?” I asked, terrified. “How did they know it was booze?”

“I guess they tasted it. We put a lot in those Big Orange bottles. But I don’t know. Joyce said one of the girls told on us. She’s grounded for a week for her punishment. And listen to this. They know I had another girl accomplice. They also know she’s a Baptist, and they want me to tell them your name, so they can tell your church and your mother about it.”

“You didn’t tell them, did you?”

“I think it’s going to go worse for me if I don’t tell them,” he said. “If they know you go to the Baptist Church, they’ll find out it was you, so I might as well tell them.”

“No-o-o-o,” I stage-whispered into the phone. My mother was in the other room, and I tried to drag the phone into my room and close the door. The cord wouldn’t stretch that far.

“Please, please don’t tell them,” I begged. He desperately tried to convince me we would get off easier if he told them who I was, on the condition they wouldn’t tell my church and my mother. “Even if they do go for that, you will have to come to my church and apologize to the whole congregation.”

So, there it was. Damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. I pleaded with him. Some of Mother’s friends went to the Nazarene Church, and she would surely get wind of it. And after she heard about it, she would kill me.

There were many whispered conversations on the phone that Sunday. I was able to talk Robert out of telling them my name, and I didn’t want to even whisper about it further. That sucker had to be buried alive or dead. I don’t remember how it turned out, but I think he was forced to apologize. I escaped with my “good girl” reputation intact.

But the episode wasn’t over. I was not discovered, but I wound up confessing it to Mother anyway.

Mother had a mental list of “Boys Who May Not Be Dated.” At the top of the list was — I’ll call him –- Bob. Patricia, my sister, had been explicitly forbidden to go out with him for some reason now forgotten. But Patricia had subterfuge in her soul as well. Bob would send a friend to our house to pick up my sister. She would then be delivered to Bob, and when they came home, he would let her off at the corner, and she always said whomever he was had a deadline to get home, and he was running late.

I worried about her telling those lies, and I thought I had to let Mother know what was going on. I knew if I told on her, my sister would tell Mother about that damned “baby.” There was nothing for it but to tell Mother myself what I did, so I could then reveal my sister’s deception freely, and she would have no such power over me.

Mother, of course, had a conniption fit! She and her family were world-class criers. This time, I thought she was never going to stop crying. She wept buckets and paced the floor while I just stood there totally taciturn.

“No wonder Mrs. Young won’t speak to me,” she wailed. Mrs. Young, a Nazarene, was our next-door neighbor. “I’ll never be able to hold my head up again. I’m ruined. You’ve disgraced the whole family.”

When the tears slacked a little, I broke the news to her about my sister.

More tears. More anguish. More consternation. But what was this? She wasn’t upset about the Bob lies. She was still furious with me.

“You should be so ashamed of yourself to say those awful things about your sister. Don’t you tell your daddy that, and don’t confess your own sin to him. It would kill him. Oh, where did I go wrong?”

A deluge. More tears. More threats. More accusations. More everything.

On further reflection, perhaps I should have fessed up to the Nazarenes with Robert. It might have gone down better, and by then I would have come out smelling like a rose.

But it was not to be, thanks to my postponing my just desserts; it was my lying, no-account sister who was smelling like a rose. I was stinking to the high heaven, into which my mother said I would never see.

Sinners of my ilk were drop-shipped directly to the devil himself.

IF IT WAS GOOD ENOUGH FOR HEMINGWAY,

IT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR….(well, maybe not)

Well, I finally did it. I’ve always been curious about it, but I considered it a morbid curiosity. Because I love Mexico, I want to understand its people and its customs. I may not adopt the Mexican way of life, but I won’t shun it until I experience it myself.

So, as it happened, I was sitting on a bench in the Jardin at San Miguel de Allende when a young girl gave me a flyer. It announced there was to be a bullfight that afternoon. I had been speaking with a Mexican man who was sitting on the bench beside me. He was watching me as I looked at the flyer. In answer to my question, he told me had seen many bullfights. He was not an aficionado, but he attended the occasional bullfight. I told him I had never been to a bullfight, and I asked him what it was like. He thought about it a second and finally said there was a lot of blood. He was surprised to find there are no bullfights where I live.

“Don’t you have bulls in your country,” he wanted to know. I set him straight about USA bulls. He told me all bulls are dangerous, but the bulls that fight are highly trained. I don’t know how one trains a bull to fight. I suppose it’s a reverse obedience school where the teachers are mean to them, and probably flap red capes at them till the poor bulls are nervous wrecks.

I was staying at my friend, Joyce’s, house. When I returned to her casa, I asked her if she had ever been to a bullfight. Joyce, an expat from New York, said she had never gone to a bullfight, and she would not consider going to such a barbarous event. She let me know she was surprised  I would even consider going. I told her why I wanted to go, which she branded as pure hogwash. It was spitting rain, and she gave me an umbrella, telling me I needn’t feel obligated to describe the event if and when I managed to get home, but she would appreciate the return of the umbrella.

So, trying to ignore Joyce’s disapproval, I set off down the rocks that comprise the street in front of her house. Somehow I remembered the location of the bullring although I had never been there when I was in San Miguel 20 years ago.

I wound my way through throngs of people celebrating the Fiesta of St. Miguel, the town’s patron saint. At the bull ring’s ticket window, I was surprised to learn there were two kinds of tickets. If one wished to watch the bullfight in the shade, a ticket to the side of the bullring that was not exposed to the sun cost 150 pesos (about $15 at the time).However, I opted for  the sunny side and only paid 100 pesos. My ticket was marked SOL. It didn’t make any difference given the fact the whole city was socked in under heavy gray clouds.

I took a seat and waited. There was a band playing across the way, and seated on the front row was a girl in a mantilla and her ruffled skirt draped over the side of the ring. In front of her was a semi-circle flag marking her place. I’ve seen such an arrangement in the movies, and I suppose it is preserved as a tradition. Nobody seemed to pay it much attention.

I began to think about Hemingway and his love of bullfights. Suddenly, a big black bull dashed out of a gate, interrupting my muse. There were six matadors stationed around the ring; the bull swerved toward the matador directly beneath where I was sitting. The matador quickly ducked behind a little partition, which the bull crashed into making the “sol” side of the ring shutter from the impact.

I noticed the bull had a red ribbon attached to his side. It seemed to be stuck to him. I made a mental note to find out what that was all about. One by one he ran at the other matadors, all of whom jumped behind their little partitions.

There were a few surprises. For one, I didn’t know the fight commenced with six matadors. They took turns taunting the bull. This continued for a few minutes, then the gate opened again and two picadors (I think that’s what they’re called) on blindfolded horses wearing heavy padding entered the ring.

The bull immediately lost interest in the matadors and went for the horses. While the bull aimed its horns at the horse’s side, the rider, who wore armor on his legs, stuck a long sharp stick into the bull’s shoulders. The man in the jardin was right. There was a lot of blood.

bull_fight_1Then the matadors, who were dressed in beautiful suits, stood in the middle of the ring and when the bull ran at them, they poked ruffle-topped pointed sticks into its sides. More blood. The crowd cheered.

The band played a fanfare and THE matador strutted into the ring. His suit was considerably shinier than the others. In fact, if the sun had been out, everyone in the stands would have been temporarily blinded. He threw his matador hat down, exhibiting defiance toward it. Curious. Maybe it was because the hat looked like a Mickey Mouse hat with the ears misplaced. Below his shiny knickers, he wore pink stockings and black ballet shoes. That would have been enough right there for my grandsons to give rout to the matador’s macho demeanor.

His cape was redder than the others, and he tormented the bull much closer than the apprentice matadors. He made a big deal about hiding his sword under the cape. Everybody knows bulls take offense when threatened by a sword! At last he managed to sink it into the bull’s shoulders.

After a while he toyed with the bull a bit more. Blood poured from its shoulders into the dirt. When it was about done for, Senor Shiny Suit turned his back on it, and disdainfully strode away. What bravery! The crowd loved it. Never mind that the bull was too weak to move, let alone charge.

It wasn’t long after that when the bull collapsed. Everyone involved in the massacre either assumed the bull was dead, or they didn’t care. Two draft horses in harness came into the ring and were driven toward the bull. A couple guys attached the bull by its neck to the pulling thing on the harness. While the harness was being attached, the secondary matadors pulled out the sticks from the bull’s apparently lifeless body. Someone cut off its ear and the main matador paraded around the ring holding the ear aloft as he graciously accepted the boisterous adoration of the crowd.

I don’t remember how many fights were scheduled, but I left after the first two. I was hoping if I stayed for one more fight, I might get to see the bull win. I would have given almost anything to see one or more of the matadors tossed into the air by the bull, if not fatally gored. The bull in the second fight had a tiny victory. As another shiny suit went for his sword, the bull charged and sent the sword and the cape flying. The onlookers exhibited displeasure without actually booing. They’re much too polite to boo.

bull_fight_2So now my curiosity is satisfied. I hope when I indulge the next whim, death won’t be involved.

The sun was setting when I walked to the jardin to watch some traditional dancing in front of the parroquia. The Arc Angel St. Miguel fiesta was winding down, but not before fireworks shot high in the sky, and there was dancing in the parroquia courtyard. People were packed in the street shouting and singing. Over the crush of people, a neon banner proclaimed “Viva Mexico.”

Have I mentioned I do so love Mexico, whether deserts, mountains, beaches, cities or countryside? All I can do is agree with the San Miguel celebrants:  Viva Mexico!

An Afterthought

The above was originally written in 2007. To tell the truth I have forgotten where it was published. Most of the time, I keep everything in whatever computer I used to write it in the first place. As I reread the “Hemingway” piece just before it was posted, I realized some people would wonder how I could be in love with a place that condoned a practice so brutal as a bullfight.

I gave it some thought, and came to realize that every country or every place indulges in practices that I consider heinous. A large contingent of our own U S of A is addicted to NASCAR, wrestling, or whatever that “sport” is called where two people climb into a cage and try to kill one another, while onlookers scream and encourage the participants to hit or kick harder.

Even widely-accepted sports are becoming increasingly dangerous. More and more football players are suffering concussions that sometime lead to permanent disability or death.

Given all this brutality, it’s unfair to condemn an entire country because a portion of it enjoys a blood sport. I think we should be able to enjoy what the rest of the country has to offer, after giving the “Sporting” events a pass.