Prompt For Ronovan’s Friday Fiction Challenge #6

Challenge This Week: Write about a family gathering. No Word Count limit this week, just no book lengths please.

Sunday Papers Spread Across Saturday’s Floor

Sundays are special!  We considered them a day of rest from the normal farm chores, other than milking and tending the animals. Sundays included driving to Fingal for the parish service and returning home to sit down to a meal. Mom and my sister worked long hours preparing the best meal of the week. Next Sunday was going to be extra special. Our parish priest, Father Koehler, would be coming to our farm to spend the day.

Father Koehler’s house keeper told us that he was coming. That simple statement ignited frenzy in my family’s world. There was no greater honor, than hosting the priest for a meal. A Sunday Dinner was more than mom could have imagined.

Everything would have to be perfect. We would be eating in the dining room, with the table fully extended. We brought Great Grandma’s white linen table-cloth out of the cedar chest and ironed it to perfection. The family polished the silver along with a laundry list of chores given to every member. No detail of the preparation was left to chance.

The boys washed windows, dusted lights, and polished wooden furniture. Dad caught, dispatched, plucked, and butchered three spring chickens. We dug fresh potatoes, snapped string beans, and brought canned red beets out of the cellar. Everything had to be perfect!

Saturday arrived with one last major project to be completed. The linoleum covered kitchen floor. For those not familiar with that old floor covering, it was a hard brittle surface that showed scuffs and always needed a fresh coat of wax to avoid looking dull. It was a three-hour chore that no self-respecting woman would omit. So just after lunch mom put water on the stove to heat (We had no indoor plumbing) and moved the kitchen table and chairs to the hall.

With hot water, lye based soap, and back-breaking strokes mom scrubbed and waxed the floor. To protect her work she spread newspapers all over the linoleum to keep dirty foot prints at bay. God help the man who would accidentally blunder off the newspapers and leave a track.

The day of Father Koehler’s visit had arrived. Mom’s day of rest began at sun up, with fresh pies in the oven and white bread rising on the mantle. Dad and the older boys went to milk the cows and feed the animals. An hour before mass, we did our final clean up and put on our Sunday Go-to-Meeting clothing. With the meal set to low, all eight of us loaded into Buick. We drove the five miles to church where we march down the aisle to our pew. We stood taller knowing that so many in the church knew that Father Koehler was coming to our farm after church today.

After church we hurried home to set the table and make sure the meal was ready.  Eager to be out-of-the-way, we boys waited outside for Father Koehler arrival. Our mouths watered just thinking of the food inside. We also knew that after the meal, we would clear the table to make room for the Royal Rummy Game and the piles of pennies we would bet.

Father Koehler spent the entire afternoon and most of the night laughing, talking and playing cards. By the end of the evening he had successfully cleaned out our penny supply and deposited them into his coin bag. He laughed as he thanked us for the donation to his cause that he stuffed in his jacket. It was his standard joke; everyone knew he used the money to fund the summer bible school.

Our family waved goodbye as father’s car drove down the prairie road back to Fingal.

Life on the farm was hard, but pleasant recollections stand out the best. Good food and good times are always the best memories.

-Clarence Holm


A Slap in the Face!

I believe everyone has a moment in their life when everything changes. It is the point that separates life into before and after.

For me it was the second year of fourth grade!

I had already graduated from 4th grade when the school I was attending, located in the state college, closed. It was a teacher’s training system and the entire program (1st through 12th grade) was ended. It was decided that all college student’s practice teaching could be done in the state’s regular school system.

All 250 students that attended that school were officially reassigned to their regular school district. Most were absorbed by the Valley City School Systems. Unfortunately, we lived in a border location which meant we would have to attend a one room school near our farm. (For those of you that grew up watching Little House on the Prairie, you may think this would be an ideal result. But the reality was one teacher, teaching 8 grades to 35 students of various abilities and desires. And because I had attended four years of school in the “real school” I was far ahead of my peers. Meaning I was sent out to play a lot.)

The only alternative to this was attending the private Catholic school in Valley City. Our entire family had attended it once before, but had to leave because of finances. But given the choice of scraping together the money or watching me spend the year in the sandbox, we reapplied to St. Kates.

After pledging to pay the tuition, we were allowed to attend the school, unfortunately there was a problem. The 5th grade class I was to join was overcrowded, so I was temporarily placed back with my younger brother in 4th grade. I was to be moved upstairs when room was available.

I still knew all my old classmates, so it seemed strange to watch them go to the new room without me.

I was introduced to my new fourth grade classmates and because I was older and bigger than most, some taunting began. Every group had a social order and I fought my way in, through fist fights, name calling and shunning. And, because the curriculum was a repeat of what I had already learned I tuned out.

Every recess I would go to my fifth grade friends and play with them. Every lunch time I would grab my tray and slide in with them. It only made sense, because I would soon be one of them again.

After a few weeks’ time, the situation hadn’t changed. I was still stuck in my brother’s class and I was becoming a problem. I began acting out and was subjected to discipline i.e. scolding’s, raps on the head, rulers strikes on knuckles, sitting in the corner and my personal favorite “kneeling in prayer”.

After nearly a month, I heard one of the fifth graders was transferring out to the public schools while at lunchtime.

I was overjoyed! I was so excited that I ran up to Sister Monica (the Fifth Grade Nun) and said I was so happy I would finally get to rejoin my friends. I was literally jumping up and down in front of her.

Without hesitation she slapped me across the face and announced to the room that I would never be part of the class again. She walked away leaving me sobbing on the floor. Thank heaven for the lunch room ladies who picked me up and sat me in the corner.

I learned hate that day and it consumed me. My grades fell along with my self-confidence.

My parents never understood what happened to me. They only knew that the nuns had tried their best to get me into their school and it didn’t quite work out. Small sacrifices had to be made.

Over 50 years later, I still feel that nun’s slap in my face.

Restraint runs in the family

Most of my family is descended from Swedish, German and Polish Pioneers. These were the people that decided to settle on an open treeless prairie. A land which had temperature extremes that went from 110 degrees to -40 degrees Fahrenheit and thought “That’s not so bad!” My ancestor’s survived grasshoppers, draughts, prairie fires, Indian wars, blizzards, and diseases that weaned out all but the strongest. To say they were “hardened” was an understatement. These people were resigned to a tough life and did not waste energy on showing emotion.

Our particular combination of stoic skepticism was passed down through generations and was refined into a culture that was described as “restrained”. The mantra of my family was “We’ll see!” and my people did not appreciate foolish displays of sentiment. To this group “uff-da” was overkill.

For example, I can’t recall my maternal grandparents or even my parents displaying any overt signs of affection. It wasn’t that there was no kissing, hugging or hand holding allowed; it just wasn’t in the thought process. This did not mean we weren’t a functioning family! My “restrained” ancestors routinely produced families of 8-16 children (or whatever it took to man the farm.)

That restraint was evident in the females of the family too. I remember when I riding in the car with my mother and we passed a couple holding hands. My mother’s immediate response was “Yechh!” It was plain she thought any display of that sort should be kept hidden and was not for civic consumption. She believed we all knew we were loved and there was no sense in bragging about it to her children or the public.

This did not mean that there was no room for nurturing. If one of us came down with an illness, the combined knowledge of potions and cures were brought to bear on us. The family remedy for a cold was legendary. Grandma Holm’s formula involved water, chocolate, cinnamon, mustard, and pepper heated to just below boiling and served in a huge mug with clouds of steam rolling over the brim. I had seen it with my own eyes, that when faced with drinking that simmering brew a miraculous healing would occur. The stricken child would beg to return to chores or school before the drink hit their lips.

Grandma Holm’s knowledge of medicine was not limited to potions. Her understanding of the physical nature of pathogens was inspirational. For instance, when faced with the daunting task of lancing a boil, she would calmly explain that the “mean-ness” needed to be let out. When asked what caused the white spots on fingernails, she expertly replied that it was caused by lying. Grandma instinctively knew that disease was nature’s retribution for past acts.

Now combine this background with a Midwestern Catholic School upbringing and you had a system guaranteed to wring out ardor. The nuns patrolled their schools with a vengeance and looked to snuff out any type of emotional outbreak. When tending to the students who were occasionally injured, it was common to overhear the nuns say “Offer the pain up for the poor souls in purgatory!” or “Stop crying, this pain is nothing compared the burning fires of hell!” Now I didn’t know much about the pain of purgatory or the fires of hell, but I did know you didn’t go crying to a nun with an injury, unless your bleeding was messing up the school hallways. It was not surprising that one of the first religious lectures taught during the school year was based on the Stoics and their philosophy.

Once a year, our school took part in a religious retreat. It was a time of self examination and reflection. For some odd reason sex education was also incorporated with this experience. Because of that subject matter, the participants were divided by sex, with the boys’ lectures being led by the priests and the girls being lectured to by the nun’s.

I don’t pretend to imagine what experiences the nun’s had to share with the girls, but I can divulge some the thoughts shared by the priest on the subject of sex. We were exhorted to control impure thoughts that could consume our minds. We were to offer our personal struggle up to heaven. To help us, we were given blessed holy cards to focus our thoughts on. I’ve got to admit praying to a picture of the Sacred Heart with blood dripping from it did seem to have the same effect as a cold shower.

If a young Catholic boy were to select a saint to control our impure thoughts, if might have been appropriate to bend a knee to St. Christopher. St. Christopher was the patron saint of travelers and even more importantly, bachelors. Most Catholic had his image placed in their car to prevent accidents (even though, as we told by the nun’s, over 60 mph his intervention did not apply). If there ever was a need for a divine supplication, it would have been by a Catholic boy getting past first base in a car with a girl whose morals had been pledged to a life devoted to God by the Catholic Sisters and reinforced by the Sodality Club.

The last afternoon of the retreat, we were all brought back together with the boys on one side of the church and the girls with their heads covered with pieces of lace on the other. After being led through the Rosary, a special guest priest was brought in to conclude the event. I don’t recall the priest’s name or much of what he said, other than that the nuns were all aflutter. I do recall his last advice addressed to the girls concerning what to do if a boy offered them alcohol. “Drink! … Drink it all! Then, throw up all over them!” With that we were thrown back into the secular world, better prepared for any adversity.

With all that praying, chanting and drinking going on, it is no small wonder that most of us found happiness in mates who were from other religions. Restraint had its place, but now and again a little uff-da was nice.