Wednesday, November 30, 2005

"Once upon a time..."

I love those words. I have, for as long as I can remember. The promise of a story, offered to the listener, given weight by the gravity of ritual incantation.

So here is an autumn tale, just for you.

Once upon a time, far to the north, far from any wide blue ocean, there was a place where winter lasted much longer than it lasts now.

My family lived there on a farm, miles from the nearest town or village.

Nights turned cold after the garden was harvested and my mother had finished canning the apples, tomatoes, at least four kinds of pickles and the green beans; after the potatoes, onions, cabbages, and winter-squash were all stored safely away in the root-cellar; the peas, corn, and carrots bagged and stacked in the freezer.

Soon the frost would come every night, growing deeper and holding the land more firmly with every shortening day.

When the days turned cold enough that meat would keep well in the smoke-house, and the neighbor's wood-stove scented the cold air in the mornings, then it was time to butcher hogs.

My father would choose a morning and wake me long before daylight. I'd help him drive a couple of hogs up the livestock chute into the stock-rack on the truck, and we'd drive the few miles to the neighboring Hutterite colony. The defroster in the truck didn't work very efficiently, and my father would scrape a hole just big enough to see through in the the thick frost on the windshield. He'd drive with his head craned down to peer through the slowly widening clear spot.

When we got to the colony, my father would find one of the men, and together we'd unload the hogs into the holding pen. My part was really done, then. I'd wait shivering with the truck. Sometimes there was snow on the ground already. Usually, heavy frost rimed the branches of the cottonwoods, glittering in the headlights of the truck and light falling from the windows of nearby buildings.

In the frosty pre-dawn, the colony women in their long black dresses, with a bright, print aprons and head-scarves were already at work in the communal kitchens, baking bread for the day and preparing breakfast. One of them would bring me a smoking chunk of spicy homemade sausage wrapped in a warm breadroll, and a mug of cocoa. She'd offer it with a smile, and a glance at my father for his permission.

I'd stand in the pool of light from the big flood-lights on the barn, waiting. A small girl, seven or eight years old, munching soft bread soaking up hot fat from the sausage, sipping steaming cocoa.
Gradually, the sky would lighten to winter-gray. My feet so cold I couldn't feel them, by then, my father would finally come back with the men to load the carcasses--butchered, cleaned, bristles scraped. We'd drive home to breakfast, and my mother would spend the rest of the day cutting up meat. Over the next three or four days, the hams and bacons would be injected with brine and packed in sugar-cure. She'd carefully weigh the scraps and trimmings, season them, and grind the meat into sausage.

If you've never been inside a smokehouse--it's the most remarkable mix of salt, sweet, and smoke smells driven deep into the walls, season after season. Loops of sausage in natural casing, hams, and bacons hung to smoke slow, until they're all salty and pink; then all of it wrapped in heavy waxed brown paper and packed into the big chest-freezer on the back porch, stored against the long winter coming.

I don't know how to describe that feeling--the feeling of the winter's food stored against the coming dark and cold. It's not something people often experience during these days of fresh tomatoes and oranges, year-round. It seems very much to belong to a different place and time.

Once upon a time.

10 comments:

TillyLost said...

Thank you for sharing that. It was wonderful.

Joanne D. Kiggins said...

Mac,
Beautiful! I grew up on a farm and experienced some of these very same things. Living on the old homestead with Mom brings back many of these "once upon a time" memories. This year my SO and I have tried to bring back the days of old. The smiles on Mom's face is worth just as much as the old memories. :) Thanks for sharing your trip down memory lane.

Mac said...

The funny thing is, rereading this, I sound like I'm about 150 years old...and I'm not even 40.

BWAHHAHAHHAHAHAAAAA!!!!!

Jean Marie said...

I thought...huh?...long, long, long...

(JM runs for the hills)

Jean Marie said...

I thought...huh?...long, long, long...

(JM runs for the hills)

Jill said...

Mac, I hate to be so unoriginal, but my thought was the same as Joanne's - beautiful. What a way with words. Sounds like a great bedtime book story for kids, hint hint hint.

Bonita said...

I'm not a writer, but if I were, I'd wish to write as you have here - just beautiful. Thank you.

Tish Grier said...

Hi Mac...

Your farm story sounds so much like the stories my boyfriend tells of his childhood in the hills of Massachusetts (yes, we have hillbillies here--up by Vermont). There's that old-fashionedness to the tale that makes it seem like a long time ago when, in fact, growing up on a farm is more of a timeless experience....

Farm life is so very different from suburb life, probably because the things we need to keep a semblance of civilization in what feels like a giant chicken coop just aren't needed on the farm. When there are tasks to be accomplished before nature makes it impossible to do them, who needs an X-box?

Ray Wong said...

That's such vivid storytelling. I can see and smell and feel and taste everything. Lovely.

Dawno said...

Sure is different from growing up on an Air Force experimental aircraft test base in the middle of the desert. Fascinating and lovely. Thank you for sharing.