On Friday, June 13th 2012, Anna sat on a pillow on the floor in front of great-grandma Alma Hofer. She leaned back to rest gently against great-grandma’s shins. It was early afternoon on a hot Austin, Texas summer day, but the room was cool and dim with blinds pulled and air conditioning humming. Anna drew up her knees and relaxed. In her hands she clasped her favorite stuffed bunny; every so often she touched his silken ears to her lips. Quietly great-grandma began to give her a head massage. The massage was gentle, almost as though butterflies were wafting against her scalp. Great-grandma’s massages were always this way so soft that at first one doubted that it could be of any benefit, but as it continued one became lulled into a happy trance in which her touch gave exquisite pleasure. Anna relaxed and let the kind old fingers ease away her tensions and soothe her. She was glad to be old enough to be excused taking a nap like her younger sister, happy that her quiet time could be spent sitting here enjoying her great-grandma’s love.
“Tell me a story, grandma,” she asked. “Please, tell me a story about when you were a little girl.” Anna found it difficult to visualize her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents as children but she still enjoyed their childhood stories. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine great-grandma as the young girl in her photograph album rather than the eighty-nine-year-old great-grandma against whose shins she leant. She touched the bunny’s ears to her lips again as she waited in anticipation for her great-grandma’s gentle voice.
“When I was a little girl of about eight, as you are now, I had five brothers and sisters. The last two were yet to be born to bring the count to nine. We lived on a farm in South Dakota. We did all the same things that you do. We prayed, ate, slept, grew, went to school, played with the other children, and did our chores. Life was never dull, for our world was changing as fast as yours changes.
“At home we spoke German, the language that our great-grandparents had brought with them from their origins in Europe, before their century in Russia. School was conducted in English. This was hard for some like your great grand-pa who, after his first week at school, said to his mother (in German)
‘They keep pointing me and saying ‘sit down please’. What does that mean?’
“We prayed every day morning and night and at meals with a special trip to church on Sundays. When I was little we went to church with a horse and buggy and we put the horse in a special barn at the church while we prayed. Until I was five we used to stay at church all day. The families took turns in providing the lunch which was always home baked Zwieback, jam and coffee.”
“What is Zweiback?” murmured Anna.
“Zweiback is sweetened bread enriched with eggs that is baked and then sliced and toasted until dry and crisp. It is like the Nabisco teething biscuits that your mother gave you when you were a baby. The jam was whatever we had; my favorite was, and still is, ground-cherry jam. We gathered the wild ground-cherries where they grew in hedgerows and along the edges of the fields. By the time that I was six years old we had modernized and had cars and so we stopped staying at church all day.
“You like to play, little Anna, and so did I. We played hide and seek like you do; it was especially fun in the horse barns at school and at church. We played ‘Stealing sticks’. In this game there were two sides each with ten sticks. You had to steal your opponent’s sticks without getting caught. If you were caught, you became a prisoner with the opposing team’s sticks and hoped that you would be rescued by your team. We played bat and ball, a game similar to softball. We played Pump, Pump Pull-away. This game began with one catcher, and runners running from one side of the playground to the other. When anyone got caught they also became catchers, until it was impossible for the remaining runners to get across the space without being caught. In the winter we played fox and goose. In this game we drew a circle in the snow with an inner circle as the safe place for the geese. We usually had two catchers or foxes.
“My older brother Paul was a big boy for eleven, so he and one of the siblings sometimes did the hay mowing. It was fun to sit up high on the hay mower and to guide the horses as they pulled the sharp sickle over the ground, leaving a trail of sweet smelling cut grass behind. We were always careful to keep out of the path of the sickle because we knew that it was heavy and sharp. The blades could easily cut off a limb or the heavy machinery crush anyone in its path. One summer day Paul was mowing the top field with his sister when she noticed that one of the horse’s lines was caught on the horse’s bridle bit. The horses were very gentle but as you probably know, they don’t like surprises, especially surprises from the side. It is best to approach them from the front so that they can see you coming.
“Paul could see that the caught line was a problem and that it would hinder the horses when he turned, so when he got to the end of the line he asked his sister to get down and untangle it. She was comfortable up top and didn’t want to climb down and go around the horses. She looked at the tongue of the mower which went between the two horses. She knew that she was agile and proud of it. She was so agile that she sometimes showed off walking along a beam or the top of a wall with ease. She decided to walk down the tongue between the horses and to reach up and untangle the line. She was on the tongue before Paul realized what she was doing or could think about the danger. Once she was there he couldn’t say anything for fear of spooking the horses. If she were to fall and the horses moved, he knew that the mower would go over her and that the weight of the machine would crush her even if the sickle gear lever was raised.
“When she got to the tangled line she gave it a gentle pull and it came loose. She was about to edge her way back up the tongue when a bird flew overhead and squawked. One of the horses turned his head and saw the girl standing on the tongue. He panicked and began to move, which spooked the second horse, who also moved. In the next split second much happened: the girl fell between the horses into the path of the mower, and the horses took off pulling the mower behind them. Paul, still on top of the mower, hung on for dear life.
“Horses generally go for home, and this is what the frightened team did. They raced towards the barn, their hooves pounding the ground and leaving a cloud of dust behind them. The noise frightened them further, and they picked up speed. When they came to the farmyard they tried to run between two small buildings. Here, the sickle bar got caught and stopped them. The noise brought mother and father into the yard. Paul screamed,
‘My sister, my sister, the mower went over my sister.’
“Mother began to cry and ran up towards the hay field. Father and Paul followed her. They all knew in their hearts that there was little hope and dreaded the scene that awaited them. I sat up just as they arrived – for I was that little girl. I had bumped my head on the tongue when I fell but was otherwise unhurt.
“There was no easy explanation for the miracle of my escape. Mother speculated that a large stone next to where I fell had made the mower jerk into the air and thus miss me. She also said that I should take it as a lesson that showing off mars good judgment.”
I loved this story, it reminded me of my own grandmother and the stories she and my great-aunt use to tell, on hot summer days in San Antonio, Texas.
Such wonderful storytelling.
Thank you for your visit and lovely comment. I’m glad that the story brought some good memories. The grand-daughter still visits but the great-grandma is now deceased and I, as grandma, am the story teller, but I had to tell her story in her voice. Yes, it is hot; today, yet again,we have 105 forecast.
Such a lovely scene of storytelling. Do grandparents still do that? Probably the more pertinent question is…do children put down their electronic devices, sit still, and listen? As always, this story is filled with wonderful visual details that brought back memories of the farm I used to visit constantly as a small child. And zwieback! I remember babies teething on that! ( Later, my travels and interest in language brought me the realization that many cultures have a similar “twice baked” cookie….”zwei back”, “bis cotti”…etc.) This was a very charming story to read, Jane. Thank you!
The answer to your first two questions is, I’m happy to report, a resounding “yes”.
Thank you for decoding ‘Zweiback’ – as soon as I read your comment I thought ‘ah, ha’ of course! I t hank you for this insight. You didn’t mention ‘biscuit’ which has morphed into different meanings on both sides of the pond with neither relating to the ‘original’ twice cooked. Language is fascinating. Cheerio.
Wow, that story had a high stress level attached to it. Because your stories are so visual I felt all the emotion of that event.
Thank you Ian, what a nice compliment!. I tried to contrast the calm of the telling of the story with it’s inherent drama.