Mailboxes and Old Barns: My Dad’s Rocking Chair

Mailboxes along the roads and old barns set back in fields overgrown with weeds often served as landmarks in rural Montana.  These landmarks told us where we were and how far we had to go.  Sometimes they signaled “home”  and the end of the road.  At other times, barely visible through swirling snow, they told us it would be awhile.  The word pictures of those mailboxes and old barns may be about events, personalities or furniture.  

My Dad was a reader, and the big leather rocking chair in the corner of the living room was where he sat to read. He had other leather club chairs too but he rarely used those. This MBOB is about that rocking chair.   

Farm kids in the 1950s were not routinely babysat.  They were cared for by their parents until they were old enough to be left alone.  Since parents didn’t care to be trapped at home for seven years running, of course, this was the reason children learned how to behave in public from age two and going forward–until they could be left home alone.

The Age of Accountability was not just a doctrine of the church in those parts.  It was a spot in the road, a pinpoint of light cast over a child’s life when that child was made to know that henceforth and forever,  they were “old enough to know better,” “should be ashamed of themselves for acting like that,” were discovered to have been “acting like a baby,” or were expected to “act their age.”  Now that magical and powerful phrase “act your age” was quite fluid in its applications but the use of it by a parent had a couple of standard characteristics.

First of all, it had a floating definition.  Exactly what “act your age” might mean at any given time had everything to do with the behavior (sometimes called “acting up”) that constituted the moment’s violation of standards.  Secondly, it was an all-in-one imperative, with no stairstep escalation of corrective or threat.  It meant the behavior that made the phrase necessary would be corrected or cease–immediately.  Because they had been hearing the phrase directed at other children for years, any child who heard “act your age” directed at them the very first time knew they had arrived at The Age of Accountability.  It was time to get with the program.

The Age of Accountability was never discussed and it was never defined but heaven help the child who ignored his or her arrival at The Age of Accountability.  Floating definitions and ambiguous expectations aside, children who had reached their age of accountability (anywhere between age 8 and 12) were expected to be able to stay at home on their own for periods of time.

My brother and I, the only two of seven still at home, were quite young when our parents left us home alone one afternoon. Knowing they would not be back until well after dark and after our 9:30 bedtime, they explained to us the arrangement that had been made for our supervision-from-a-distance.

The first farm near us was about 3/4 mile across the fields and lay in a bit of a dip with a grove of Russian olive trees on the south and west sides, concealing their buildings from our view and concealing our house from their view.

The next farmyard 1/4 mile beyond them was  on the crown of a small hill with a bird’s eye view of the east side of our big farm house where they could see, through a clear Montana prairie night, the first floor kitchen window and the second floor windows of our two bedrooms.   It was explained to us that Walter and Nina would, at 9:30 pm, go out into their yard and look to our farmhouse, to confirm that the lights were off.  This evidence would tell them that we had gone to bed as required and that everything was as it should be.

Since none of our farms had phones, there was only one way to be sure that we were ok (if the lights in our house were not off when Walter and Nina looked). Walter would be duty bound to get his car out of his garage,  drive the mile and a half  dirt road to our house to check on us.   Such an unnecessary botheration of a good neighbor, absent an open compound fracture, was not to be tolerated and we knew it.

We sure didn’t want to give Walter and Nina any reason to think we needed checking on, so at about 9:25 (in case their clocks were fast) we turned off the kitchen light,  went upstairs to make sure the bedroom lights and hall light were off and then we retired to the living room with our books and played Sousa marches on the hi-fi.  My brother, being older, has dibs on Dad’s rocking chair and I curl up on the davenport.  [In this memory, you know, it is a davenport.  It can’t be a sofa or a couch.  Far too pretentious.]

As we settle into our reading, we forget that our surveillance of the long, long driveway from our mailbox, a half mile north of the house, was severely compromised since the living room just had one one south-facing window.  About 20 minutes later, without warning, the lights of our car sweep across the side of the big white garage and reflect across the living room window as Dad makes the final turn into the yard.

Scramble!  Hit the switch for the ceiling light!  Turn the lamp off!  Push the books into a pile!  Run for the double doors that lead to the stairs which we take two at a time in the dark.  Fly under the covers in our respective rooms.

Our hearts are pounding so hard Walter and Nina can probably hear them.  Quiet!  Lay still.  Ok….they’re in the house now.  I heard the back screen door slam shut.  Going on 45 seconds now–I think we’re good.

The stair light comes on.  Uh-oh.   Dad calls up the stairs in a slightly bemused tone, “The rocking chair is still moving….”  Neither of us answers. After a moment we hear him walk away from the stairs.

It’s hard to go to sleep. The fun of getting to stay home by ourselves has been spoiled.

In the morning we come down to breakfast feeling pretty guilty and wondering if we will be scolded.  We aren’t.

The lesson was a simple one:  it’s better to do what you’re supposed to do than have to worry about the consequences because you didn’t.  

  

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20 Responses to Mailboxes and Old Barns: My Dad’s Rocking Chair

  1. elvischupacabra says:

    As usual, a pro’s prose. Simply beautiful and evocative. Thank-you for opening up your life and reminding us of ours.

    I’m amazed that now children all have their own portable cell phone. Unlike you, we had a phone as a child, and being in the country, it was a party line. We answered with “two long rings and a short”. If there was a fire, tornado or other emergency, the thoughtful operator would ring the line several quick, short times. Then, as folks answered she’d let us know what was happening. You also never told secrets on a party line, because the busy-bodies always eavesdropped. And yes, to make a call, you just picked up the receiver, listened to see if the line was clear and tapped the cradle a few times. The operator responded as a person who knew you rather than with the ubiquitous, “Number plea-uz.”.

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    • p3p3p3p3 says:

      since you mentioned the “phone”, it was sort of a “disciplinary device”, back “then” everyone belonged to AT&T and everyone had the same heavy, black rotary dial phone produced by Western Electric, in the widwest they were produced at the Hawthorne Works, just outside Chicago in Cicero, Illinois (yeah Al Capone’s ‘hood), if you thought nuns at school with rulers was cause for concern, the indestructible handle could substitute for a carpenters hammer, and many a kids heads became the nail

      😉

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    • Sharon says:

      😉

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  2. stellap says:

    Love the story about getting caught! In the old farmhouse where my mother grew up, there is a floor grate in the main upstairs bedroom through which a child can spy on conversation in the kitchen. This has been used by many generations of children, including mine and my daughter’s! My daughter and her cousin got “caught” when dust from the grate floated down on the kitchen stove.

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    • churchladyiowa says:

      Yes, stellap, the two main upstairs bedrooms in my old farmhouse had floor registers, too. Best one was the round, fancy grate that looked down into the sitting/TV room. I can remember my Aunt Martha & Uncle Claus sitting on the sofa, visiting with my parents after I was marched to bed. Peering down through the grate, I had a perfect listening post. At 10 years of age, I had a big repertoire of off-color jokes to tell to my friends; none of us “got” them, but we all laughed hysterically, pretending to be in the loop! Sidebar: these circular metal grates sell for about $50 in my neck of the antique woods. People make outdoor stands out of them.

      Elvis . . . my western Iowa small town area didn’t go dial until 1968, after I was gone from home. Our ring was a long and two shorts; number was “3-K”. I can still remember many of the neighbors’ rings to this day. Can’t remember where the car keys are, but I dang sure remember telephone code rings from 50+ years ago! Oh, and my dad rigged up a switch on the side of the phone so that it was possible to “rubberneck” without being heard. Switch down, and you could sing at the top of your lungs without being heard; switch up, and you had voice connection.

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      • p3p3p3p3 says:

        the topic of phone “codes” reminds me of the seven digit phone number, and back then it was a bit long and difficult to remember, in the city, certain neighborhoods would share the same first three digits ,so they would use the letter equivalent for the first two numbers, and it usually was abbreviated for one of the streets in that neighborhood, for example some I remember was DIckens*-**** and ARmitage*-**** and SAcramento*-****

        this commercial had such a catchy pronunciation

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    • Sharon says:

      “Getting caught” was quite an experience in those days, wasn’t it? 😉

      Like

  3. Cyrano says:

    The Sunday paper, a cup of hot coffee, and thee….Your stories from Montana have become the highlight of my leisurely Sunday morning routine. Excellent as always. Keep em coming.

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  4. churchladyiowa says:

    Sharon, I understand exactly what you’re saying about being left alone at a certain point. I remember my parents leaving me alone to watch TV at night if they went to the big town of 100 about a mile & a half away. They would be gone anywhere from an hour to three hours. No big deal. Now, if they were doing the big fishing expedition to South Dakota, I had to stay in town with Frank and Clara. They were an old retired couple who would do the livestock chores in the morning and again at night. And this was in 1958 or so. They had a 1938 Chevy that Frank had self-painted a bright blue. Clara was 20 years younger, with more get up & go; however she had a bad habit of picking at some kind of sores on her arms, leaving them constantly scabbed . And she liked to hug me—gross!

    Back in the mid 1970’s, I would entrust my kids to stay home watching TV while I went three doors down to visit with my neighbor. Couldn’t be gone more than 45 minutes, or the eldest would trot down to tattle on her little sister. Fast forward to 1981 when oldest child was 12 and in 6th grade. My sister was dying in California and I flew out to be with her. Hubby worked during the day and couldn’t get time off. I also had a 3-year-old son. We took Jenny out of school for a week so she could watch her little brother. Every day when my husband got home from work, she would walk the four blocks to school, get her assignments and take any tests she was missing. Last year, her teacher during this time came to a garage sale I was having, and told her foster children about Jenny. “This would never happen now,” she commented. “I’ve never had a student since who could have handled that kind of responsibility, and I know I never will.” I’m so very glad that we grew up the way we did, Sharon, and that our kids have solid foundations.

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    • Sharon says:

      Sorry about Clara 😦 There were some characters in our lives for sure! There still are those kind of characters in static rural areas where the majority of homes remain in the same families they were in 50 years ago. Those regions are shrinking, but some remain.

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  5. Auntie Lib says:

    I love reading your memoirs, Sharon! Since I grew up on the other side of the same state, I get to compare and contrast our experiences. Helena has never been a city by NYC standards, but by Montana measurements it is. I know we had a phone in our house from before I was born, but I do remember clicking the receiver to get an operator. As a kid – maybe 6 or 7, I was allowed to walk downtown with friends and could even go to the movie on Saturday afternoon without an adult. No big deal. I was expected to babysit for my younger brother anytime my folks were gone after I turned 8. (He was only 18 months younger, so I was actually the greatest danger to him!) We totally understood the concept of “act your age” – and the ramifications of not living up to our parents’ expectations.

    One thing that was totally ok back then was a kid running to the store for beer or cigarettes for their parents. LOL.

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  6. woohoowee says:

    Another treasure, Sharon!

    My MIL reminisced about her own father’s rocker being on their front porch where he enjoyed his pipe, and what happened to one of her brothers when he decided to smoke the pipe at about age 9…oop’s! The laughter does her good:-)

    When we called my mom to share it with her the memories turned to my father’s rocker which was in our kitchen. Why the kitchen? He taught the four of us to read in that chair while mother cooked. Every evening, before I was school age, my parents would get my older brother and sisters started on their homework at the kitchen table, mother would start supper, and dad would settle into his rocker while I chose a book from the stack right beside his chair. Then I’d scramble up into his lap and the wonderful world of reading would begin. We all learned to read by age four. When the year came for me to join my siblings with homework at the table he would read a book or newspaper in that old rockin’ chair while momma cooked. Said he needed to be right there just on case one of us needed help with homework. We often did:-)

    “Rockin’ chairs, rockin’ babies, rock-a-by, and rock of ages…”

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    • Sharon says:

      That’s a wonderful memory of your father’s rocker in the kitchen! …. I love the last line you typed….sounds like there’s a song there somewhere…. 😉

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  7. Dawn Doe says:

    Great story! Thanks for taking the time to share.

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  8. jordan2222 says:

    I would think that anyone over 60 should remember getting caught and the ensuing panic.

    Phones. I think I was about 14 when we got one. At first they were 5 digits but then went to 7 but we used names for the 2 digits. When I was a freshman in college in 1964, the moonshiner was ALpine 27000. They delivered “bonded whiskey” any time of day or night anywhere.

    Thank you again for bringing back such great memories. You are simply fantastic in the way you write and your subject matter.

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    • Sharon says:

      😉 Thanks.

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    • Sharon says:

      BTW, your comment reminded me of the very first phone number I learned. One of my cousins lived in a bigger town and, though they were on a farm, they did have phones much earlier. 798-J5 That # has stuck in my mind for close to 60 years. I have no idea why I even learned it, because I never had the use of a phone to have called her.

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