Every summer, until I graduated from high school, I was sent off to spend two weeks at my maternal grandparents’ farm. I suppose it started around the time my dad went into the, then, Army Air Force in 1942 or ‘43, I really can’t remember. It seems as though I had gone there every summer since my birth, but I expect that would have been a little too much to ask of my grandma. You see, Grandma’s house was overflowing with my mother’s divorced sister and her son who was my age, my three bachelor uncles (two barely out of their teens), a hired man and my mother’s youngest sister, still in high school. And Grandpa. Grandpa ruled the roost with his farmer’s loud outdoor voice, his totally unrefined vocabulary that would make a mule-skinner blush, his muscular wrestler’s build, and his red-head’s temper.
Grandpa’s temper was legend. Quick to flare, accompanied by roars and curses and fists banging on the table so hard that dishes of gravy were known to jump inches into the air and glasses of milk to spill onto unsuspecting laps. Just as quick to forgive, once the anger had been expressed, Grandpa would laugh at his own reaction, forgive the offending culprit, and his blue eyes would dance at what he considered to have been a fine joke. The product of an adventuresome branch of an otherwise old family that was here before The Revolution, Grandpa was probably the most rebellious and unconventional of all the many descendants of Hamilton Fish (actually more than one of his forefathers had borne that name). I don’t know exactly the extent of his formal education, but I do know that he was an avid reader and that he possessed beautiful penmanship. He had met and married a feisty little red-haired girl, the daughter of a retired Spanish sea captain and a rather grim Irish Catholic mother, this when Grandma was only fifteen, and they had gone off to homestead in Kansas.
Later, when they had produced three children (the first, a girl, had died shortly after birth), Grandpa went off with a brother-in-law to hunt buffalo then help build a dam somewhere in northeastern Colorado. Grandma followed, later, on the train with her babies, her sister, and what food she had managed to preserve for the journey. They homesteaded in Colorado this time but later returned to Kansas, and, eventually to Iowa. They lived for a time in northern Wisconsin where my mother attended high school and met my father, then lived in various places in Iowa where they farmed on rented land for a year or two before moving on. They spent a few years farming near Walker and Independence. At the time I was born, they lived in Clarke County on a hilly farm near New Virginia, then in Dallas County near Perry and Woodward for many years, where I spent most of those two-week summer “vacations.”
The house in Dallas County had minimal indoor plumbing. By “minimal” I mean that there was ONLY cold running water in the kitchen, period. This was provided by a large horse tank situated in the bedroom directly above the kitchen, filled by pipes running from the windmill-powered pump about fifty yards from the house. The location of this tank provided the gravity necessary to bring the water rushing out of the tap in the kitchen sink. We still had to heat the water for washing dishes and winter baths. The shower, used only in summer or laundry days in colder weather, was located in a separate building, which was heated on wash days by a wood stove. The length of one’s shower was determined by the amount of water one heated and poured into a large washtub suspended from the ceiling and equipped with a showerhead connected by a hose. Needless to say, in summer, cold showers were the rule and, after the initial shock, quite refreshing.
While I was a “guest”during those precious summer visits, I helped my aunts and grandmother with the cooking and other household chores. As a young teenager, I was fairly adept at baking, cooking and sewing, so I happily pitched in to help with preparing vegetables and deserts for the three big meals a day it took to sustain those hard-working farmers. Even though they now possessed two tractors and a goodly collection of fairly modern equipment, there was still a team of draft horses that were used for some of the farm work. The house had many windows and was fairly breezy most days but, when the weather was still and humid, the men never seemed to stop sweating. Their beds were soaked with perspiration every morning and my aunts and I changed sheets on their beds daily. Grandpa, with an insatiable sweet-tooth, expected a dessert with every meal (breakfast included)and I was delighted by his appreciation for the cookies, cakes, cobblers, cinnamon rolls, coffee cakes and fruited gelatin concoctions I made, all lavishly garnished with copious amounts of whipped cream, of course. But then, nobody had ever heard of cholesterol in those days.