I realize this is a long-winded diatribe, and again, I'm not blaming anyone for my present circumstances. I am an adult and if I point a finger, there are four pointed right back at me. Why I feel the need to write about all of this long-ago, far-away stuff, I'm not sure, but by the time this series is over, I think it will make more sense. Especially to me. Hindsight is always 20/20.
I don't know what set him off. Something. It was always something, and it didn't have to be a big something either. He was grousing about the government, the powers that be, the weather, or some other thing which was not in his power to change. He had just finished whacking a cow with his stool for daring to take a leak while he was trying to put a milker on her. I thought his rage was spent on that activity, but I was wrong. Right back to the grousing about the unchangeable, unfixable stuff in his life.
And then it happened.
"OH.......am I BOTHERING you??!" came the dangerously quiet question.
"N...n...n..o...o...o," I stammered. I was emptying a milk pail for him at the time into the tote bucket we had parked in the alley on a cart.
"Well, if you are 'bothered' by something I said, why don't you just get the hell out of my sight? You heard me, GET OUT." This was delivered in a distinctly menacing tone, enough to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I knew what he was capable of.
I held the milk pail aloft to hand it back to him but he ignored my gesture completely. He shut down immediately, I was dead to him. Oh, how I hated this. He was officially not speaking to me now, and this would go on for days, indeed, even weeks, before he would thaw.
All because I sighed.
Why did I do it? I berated myself, oh, how stupid could I be? Didn't I know any better than this? What was I thinking? It was simply the innocent reaction to holding my breath for so long while he was beating the poor cow coupled with the hope he would now be over his anger that did me in. I sighed because I thought it was over, but it was only just beginning.
Tears welled up in my eyes, traitorous things. Nothing would set him off more than tears. I tried to blink them away and stood there, looking down at the barn alley, willing myself to stop crying.
"Are you hard of hearing, too, or just plain dumb? I said Get OUT!"
I blindly set the pail I was holding down on the cart and left then; my feet barely touching the limed alley as I made my exit from the barn and his presence. My mother was milking a cow of her own on the other side of the alley and made no comment. I knew there would be no word from her, she was as powerless as I was. She knew it wouldn't pay to get in the middle of it. There was no winning with him. He was raging on about my disrespectful attitude now; well, at least I had given him something closer to home to holler about. And there was definitely something he could do about me, so now he had a mission.
I pushed open the door of the feed room and found myself out in the November night gasping for air as the sobs I had fought finally found release. I found I'd been holding my breath as well as my tears for fear I'd say something else that would make it even worse. I made sure to distance myself from the barn in case he'd catch me crying, but then thought the better of it. He'd never look for me now so it didn't matter. There would be no more conversation between us for at least a week or two. He had the Silent Treatment down to a science. And I was his unwitting victim.
Not that we really ever had any conversations. Mostly it was one-sided dialogues just like the one that had gotten me in so much trouble had been. Him ranting about some perceived injustice, real or imagined, and me nodding in all the right places, strenuously agreeing, even when I didn't. I often thought I was the model for those bobble-headed statues you sometimes see; my head was always either nodding up and down or to and fro, depending on the topic and his mood.
He loved to rag on my mother. I don't know why. Talk about setting a kid up to be two-faced. He was always talking behind her back, she was lazy, she was slow, she was this, she was that. She was such a big disappointment to him. And so was my brother, thirteen years older than me who had left home when I was seven to enlist in the Viet Nam War. We all let him down over and over again. More than once he had grumbled, "All I have is two G-d women to work with." Yes, all the neighbors had sons and more sons to help them farm, but all Dad had was Mom and me since my brother had left. Two G-D women. Yup, that was all.
Feeling ever more sorry for myself, I started to walk slowly down the frozen gravel driveway toward the house. But then I stopped. He had told me to get out. Did that mean I was no longer welcome in the house, either? I wasn't sure what to do. My parents were still out in the barn and would be for another hour at least, but they would be coming in when chores were done. And if I was in the house, would he order me out of there, too? Somehow, I just couldn't bear the thought; so I headed off to the peace and relative serenity of the farm fields.
I walked along the frozen mud lane, finding immediate comfort in the darkness. I was a failure in so many ways, apparently fatally flawed for life. We had a rock pile up along our fence line about a quarter mile from home, the same one we still have today, and I went up there and sat down with a yet another big sigh. I wasn't crying any more, but I was forlorn. I could see the barn lights from my perch, and I knew Mom's work load would be doubled due to my insurrection. She would have to take on my work, too, and she'd already put in a long, hard day.
I had a pile of homework to do yet. Back in the day I was a fairly good student, but in fact, I could have done much better had I tried harder. I made the honor roll most of the time, even high honors, but found myself being disliked by other kids when my grades were too good, so I dumbed things down considerably. Better to be average and liked then too smart and annoying. Just like at home, my goal in life was to please people and blend into the woodwork.
I sat on the rock pile for a few hours until I could no longer feel my feet or hands. It was a very cold night. Every now and then something would rustle in the nearby woods. Though I wasn't afraid of much of anything in the dark, unless it was on two legs, I was seriously starting to wonder where my living arrangements were going to be from now on. I hadn't run away from home, I'd been banished.
Sigh. There, I did it again.....why did I sigh all the time?
Finally I gave up and walked back home. I stood outside the house for some time, observing my parents through the window. My father was seated at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper and smoking his evening cigarette. Mom was washing the supper dishes. Dad spent a lot of time at the local bars which I didn't see as a problem, since it made him easier to live with. I was hoping he would have left that night to go out, but of course, he didn't. He was parked at the table and somehow or other, I had to get by him.
Mom and I often milked cows alone at night, and even though it was a hard work, we both preferred it that way. We worked well together and life was much more pleasant. I'd turn on the radio to my favorite rock station which Mom tolerated, and we would chat as we did the chores. I could talk about my day at school and how I felt about things without being called a 'Chatty Kathy'.
Dad didn't want to hear any talk that didn't interest him. When I was in the sixth grade, we were in a bus accident on the way home from school. The brakes on our bus went out; I had noticed as we were leaving the parking lot that the driver seemed to be having problems slowing down and was pumping the brakes frantically and talking to himself. This was his first day on the route, and he was very nervous. I noticed a person's demeanor much more than most kids my age because being aware of my surroundings at all times was imperative for survival.
While the other kids on the bus were goofing around and talking, I realized we were in big trouble. We were headed down the highway at about 35 mph when the bus in front of us put his red flashers on to make a stop. Our rookie bus driver went for the brake pedal, but there was nothing there. He pumped it once, twice, three times. Still nothing, his foot went right to the floor. I saw him go for the clutch and braced myself for the abrupt downshift to first gear. He yelled, "Hang on!" as kids flew forward from the loss of momentum.
The bus in front of us was stopped on the highway, letting kids off. The children in the backseat were staring backward at our bus, flipping us off and cutting up, acting tough. All of a sudden their expressions of taunting changed to terror as they realized we weren't stopping. We plowed right into them going approximately 25 mph.
It was a nightmare and yes, it all happened so fast. Kids went flying past me, some hit their heads on the metal bars on the back of the seats and bit through their lips, some were rolling on the floor in pain, it was a mess. Since I had braced myself, I wasn't hurt too badly, but my left leg had been jammed under the steel seat with considerable force. It wasn't broken, but it was swelling. Luckily no one was killed. The kids in the back seat of the bus in front of us had some broken bones. An ambulance was dispatched and a cop showed up. Eventually two more buses were brought out about an hour later to haul the not-so-terribly injured and I finally arrived home at 6PM, limping up the driveway.
Dad happened to be home that day. They were seated at the supper table when I came in. I thought it might be ok to share my adventure with Mom and Dad since this wasn't some stupid story about playing kickball at recess. I mean, heck, I was involved in an accident! This should be something I could tell him about, right?
"That's why you're home so late? Why did the driver keep going if he knew the brakes were out? Sounds pretty stupid to me. I've heard enough, I don't have time to sit and listen to you complain all day. It's time to do chores."
He left for the barn. End of discussion. Of course, I talked to Mom about it when he left the house, and she looked at my swollen leg with concern. I changed my clothes and went out to the barn. So much for my exciting experience.
Life went on like this for years, living with alternating sarcasm, silence, violence, and at times, praise. Sometimes he seemed genuinely proud of me, and those times I cherished. I was never sure what foot I was on, it was all so confusing.
Until one night, when something changed in me.
I had always helped my father chop hay for the cows at night with a machine called a green chopper. My job would be to open the cow yard gate for him; a big, wooden structure and quite heavy, while he drove the tractor through to pick up the bunk feeder. As the tractor went through, I would shut the long gate again to keep the cows from escaping and then run to the wagon to lift up the tongue and put the pin in place securing the wagon to the tractor. Then I would run to the gate one more time, open it, wait for the tractor and wagon to pass by, and shut the gate one more time. In this way, I saved my father having to climb off the tractor a half dozen times. Usually he'd wait for me to hop on the tractor with him and we would proceed to the field where I would pull the pin releasing the wagon from the tractor for him. Then he would back the tractor up to the green chopper and I would once again put another pin in to join the two together. He stayed on the tractor while I hooked up the PTO shaft and lowered the jack that held the chopper up when it wasn't attached to the tractor. After I had the chopper hooked up, he would back up to the wagon and I would once again hold the tongue and put the pin in place. Now we were ready to chop hay.
As soon as the load was full, all of the above steps were reversed one more time and we came back home with the load of hay in tow. I didn't mind this routine; in fact I enjoyed all field work of any kind, anything to do with a tractor was a delight for me. As long as Dad was happy, I was happy.
What I hated about this job was when he waited to chop hay until after dark, after he got home from the tavern. He didn't want the neighbors to know we were working late at night, so we couldn't use any headlights. After the dew falls, the hay would be wet and as you may know, mowing your lawn doesn't work too well when it's damp, and neither does chopping hay. The blower would get plugged up and he'd keep going until the drive belts were smoking before he'd shut down the power. Then it would take us an hour or more to pull the wet and sloppy chopped hay out of the machine. Sometimes he'd command me to stick my hand in the blower while the machine was running to clear the chute. It's amazing I have both my hands yet. I can still feel the breeze from the steel paddles rushing by. Just a tad lower and I wouldn't have a hand to worry about. I was lucky.
As I got older I started to see things in a clearer light. I knew this routine was ridiculous. One night he came home from the bar three sheets to the wind and though he wasn't talking to me again, I dutifully went out to help him like I always did, opened the gate, shut the gate, and went to the wagon to hold up the pole. Instead of backing up slowly as he usually did, he came back at a high rate of speed, and just like those kids on the bus, I realized he wasn't going to stop. I aimed the wagon pole for the back tire of the tractor and when the two collided, I went flying backward with the wagon, sliding for a good ten feet through cow manure and mud. Even though it was dark out, I heard him laughing hysterically as I got back on my feet.
I was covered in crap.
And he was laughing.
Something snapped in me. I walked to the gate, crawled over the fence and kept going.
This was the last time I was going to put myself in danger to help him. He was on his own that night.
I felt justified being disobedient. Some time before this, Mom and I had made plans to go to a movie in our little town on a Sunday night. The movie theater was tiny and it was only showing old films by that time, but there was a 'nature film' Mom wanted to see and she decided we were going to go for a treat. We milked cows that night as fast as we could, starting early so we'd be on time for the curtain rising. Mom asked Dad if he wanted to come along, and at first he entertained the thought, but as the days went by he was against it. Why would we want to see a dumb movie? But it was in color, and we only had a black and white TV. How I looked forward to this day. As chores drew to a close, Dad wasn't speaking to either of us.
Nevertheless. we raced to the house, cleaned up, got in the Buick and headed for town. The movie was really good, I don't remember much about it, but it was in color and I was with Mom. The seats were red velvet and so were the curtains. Everything was was so exotic. Afterward we stopped at a restaurant for a chocolate malt. Gosh, that was fun.
Until we got home.
Upon our arrival back at the farm at around 10PM, the house was dark. And the doors were locked. We only had one house key in those days, in Dad's possession. His truck was home, so he must be, too. Now what? Mom tried knocking on the door, and when that didn't work, she pounded on the kitchen window and then the bedroom window. No response. We stood there, looking at each other. We were being punished for having fun.
Not to be outsmarted, Mom pried open a side window and since 'fat' eleven year old me wasn't all that fat, I squeezed through the tiny opening and opened the door from inside the house. There. We'd made it in. Dad was sitting in the living room in the dark in creepy silence. I quickly changed into my pajamas and ran upstairs to bed. I felt guilty, but I didn't know why.
Knocking me down in the cow yard was the last straw. I finally came to realize my safety, heck, my life and well-being was now in my hands. I'd grown up enough to know my father wasn't well. And what was I going to do about it? I took on the hay chopping and any other chores I could handle by myself. I was thirteen years old and Mom was terrified.
"I don't know if a girl should be doing this alone," she said from her perch on the tractor fender the first day of my emancipation. "What if something goes wrong? I don't want you to get hurt."
"Don't worry, Mom, I'm safer doing this alone than I am working with him," I replied.
Mom went along with me the first time out of parental concern, but she relaxed when she realized I knew what I was doing.
When Dad came home from the bar that night, he told me it was time to chop the hay.
I was washing the udder of a cow when I answered, "It's already done."
"What do you mean, 'it's already done'? Who did it?"
"What did you chop? Was it hay? Or did you run into the oats?"
"It was hay."
"I can't wait to see what the field looks like in the morning. I bet you were all over the place," he taunted.
I said nothing. The next morning dawned and he didn't say a word about my performance.
I handled the evening green chopping by myself for the next seven years.
But the night he kicked me out of the barn had come long before my Emancipation Proclamation. I was much younger then, and had no choice but to slink into the house as quietly as possible and see what would happen. When I got to the top of the kitchen stairs I took a deep breath and quietly walked in. The newspaper he was sitting behind never moved. I changed my clothes in the bathroom and went past him up to bed. I would usually kiss him goodnight on his forehead, but I wasn't going to tempt fate.
Climbing into my bed, I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
There I go, again. Sighing.