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What I did on my summer vacation

Food For Thought

From the time I was about 8 or 9 years old, I spent a week or two each summer at my grandparents’ farm. I don’t know what my sisters did during that time, or if our parents farmed us all out so they could have a week or so to themselves, but I doubt it. With the ambitious gardens Dad planted, and all the canning and freezing Mother would have done, that wouldn’t have been the best time for them to claim vacation time alone.
I had a cousin the same age as I was, give or take a couple weeks, and he and his mother lived with our grandparents and our two bachelor uncles on the farm. We got along pretty well, more like brother and sister, except for the fact he was an only child and had been spoiled by the five adults who surrounded him. He didn’t know how to share with siblings, and was definitely a budding chauvinist. That belief in male superiority was unknown to me at the time. My dad was very happy to have four little girls and made us all feel special, so having no brothers, we were innocent of that attitude for the most part. Until, that is, I spent a week or two in the company of cousin Gus. It was quite a few years later I recognized his chauvinistic streak for what it was rather than his inexperience regarding sibling rivalry.
I’ve written about my Grandpa in the past, so you may remember he grew up in a pioneering family and his education was spotty. That generation of hard-working outdoorsmen thought nothing of lacing their speech with a few well-chosen swear words. Nothing like some of the really disgusting ones in use today, but there were plenty of goddamnits, helluvas, and summabitches in nearly every sentence he uttered. My uncles, of course, adopted his example, so it’s no surprise, at a fairly early age, Gus had acquired a fine vocabulary of such colorful and forceful words. Even my grandma and aunt were prone to insert the occasional darn, heck, and gad into their speech from time to time. After spending a week or two in their company, I had enlarged my own use of the English language to include such less-than-ladylike expressions.
There was still a team of horses at work on that farm, even though there were also two tractors and other modern equipment. I suspect using the horses was partly due to nostalgia and the attitude, just maybe, these new-fangled machines might be just a passing fad, or there would be a severe shortage of gas during the war and it was a good idea to keep the horses around– just in case. Anyway, the men put in long days of sweaty, demanding hard work and when the workday ended there were showers in the wash house, where an elevated wash tub equipped with a piece of hose and shower head put forth tepid showers of water that had been heated by the sun all day. Then before indulging in a simple but satisfying supper, everybody relaxed on the porch with a cold beer or two.
In really hot weather, there were also frequent breaks during the workday for iced tea, watermelon, and a concoction my grandpa made, called Yankee Twitchel, which was a homemade version of today’s sports drinks flavored with vinegar and ginger. Since everybody worked hard in spite of the heat, everybody was encouraged to drink plenty of liquids as the day went on. This included the beer and the women and children were not excluded.
Even though nobody used such a term as “staying hydrated” then, there was plenty of it going on during those sweaty summer days, and the resulting necessity for visits to the outhouse. Of course, the men, being the outdoor creatures they were, never bothered with the little wooden shed at the end of the path through the side yard behind the kitchen. They simply stepped around the corner of the barn or turned their backs for a few moments, and my grandma and aunt were inclined to squat behind the lilac bush behind the garden rather than suffering the heat, flies, and distinctive aroma of the outhouse in summer. And, of course, being much less inured to such rustic hardships, I happily followed suit.
It seemed just about every year, when school started, our teachers assigned us to write an essay titled, “What I Did On My Summer Vacation.” I always had to make up some fictitious account of acceptable activities. How would it have looked if I’d written I learned to swear, drink beer, and pee behind the lilac bush?