A pandemic evening in front of the the TV. For entertainment I watched a scary movie on Netflix and that got me thinking about the marriage of fear and fun.
The journey sent me back into childhood, to Sundays spent on a farm in Wisconsin where my great aunt Mary and Uncle Fel lived in the spartan, self-sufficient style of the pioneers.
The white clapboard house stood on the crest of a hill – at the end of a steep, winding, eroded dirt road. It was there that the adventure began as my grandpa maneuvered ditches that threatened to swallow our two-door Chevy coup and our family inside. My grandmother sensed the danger.
“Now, just take it easy, Frank,” she would order from her navigator’s seat. She braced herself against the dashboard. “We’re in no hurry. Slow, slow.” We bounced and slid through cavernous ruts, and my grandma muttered a prayer.
It was a slippery climb to the top where the house, a leaning barn, and chicken coop meant we’d made it. Our arrival was loudly announced by a collection of barnyard animals, punctuated by threatening barks from Shep, collie-in-charge.
After submitting to hugs from my aunt Mary, a robust, soft woman never seen without an apron, my little brother, Mark, and I were free to roam the homestead. The chicken coop was a dilapidated shack with perches and nests inside, illuminated only by sunbeams peeking in through generous cracks in the walls. Dirt and hay covered the ground, and the chickens raised concert-worthy cacophony when we peered inside. I was timid around them, having the impression that virtually everything on the farm was bred to attack children.
This included the passels of wild kittens. Fluffy little balls of fur with flesh-piercing talons, living under the front porch. Useless kittens, I thought, because if they were not for petting, what good were they?
The cow was similarly unfriendly and Uncle Fel, while he milked her, liked to tell us how one kick from Bessie could “ …put a hole clean through a man’s belly.” The working-class menagerie included Shep who not only barked but also bit; too many bats to count; slithering snakes hiding in the outhouse, and killer wasps that only stung children.
Inside, where nothing resembled life in the 1950s as we knew it in the city, the adventure continued. Aunt Mary cooked and baked on a woodstove. Her home was illuminated with kerosene lamps affixed to the wall and heated by a potbellied stove in the dining room. A cast-iron hand pump in the yeard filled buckets and pots with water for household needs.
Beneath the one-bedroom house was a root cellar, far too scary to explore, and above the kitchen was an attic. A haunted attic. I’d look up the wooden stairs and know that should I climb high enough, I would be sucked into the belly of a spirit too evil to contemplate. Sometimes, I could feel it following me as I made the circle from the kitchen to the dining room, through the bedroom with its high brass bed and, turning the corner, past the stairs that led to the attic,
I was grateful that Aunt Mary had hung crucifixes in every nook and cranny of the house. I treasured the images of saints and martyrs she’d pinned to the walls and dipped my right hand into the tiny containers of holy water she’d place in each room. All these religious artifacts were my talisman to ward off the evil lurking in the attic. There were also, oddly, scary in themselves.
By late afternoon, I was possessed by multiple fears and looking for a safety zone. The kitchen was my sanctuary. By the Aunt Mary was busy. She’d disappear into a tiny pantry studded with canning jars, bright white eggs, and sacks of white sugar and flour.
She’d shove scraps of wood into the top of the stove, and soon, baking and cooking sent aromas of comfort throughout the house. Home-baked bread, sweet-churned butter, fresh vegetables from the garden, and a once vicious chicken as a main dish. Our early evening dinner would be crowned by a big wedge of her chocolate cake – rich with thick, creamy frosting.
It made me forget the kitty scratches, the rebuffs from Shep, the evil eyes from the chicken and cows, and, even, the devil in the attic.
Later, she’d hug us goodbye and hand my brother and me a holy card. More than once she said, “I had a dream. I saw the Virgin Mary, and you were on her right hand, and Markie was on her left. It was real as day,” and she’d bury us in her puffy side for a goodbye hug.
For some reason, that scared me all over again, and I could barely wait for the next Sunday to roll around.
From under the cedars, watching for bears, breathing mountain air and being grateful for landing in the Sierra, till next thought hits me like a pine cone thrown by a giant squirrel, be safe, be smart and stick with me ...
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