Birds are singing just beyond the window screen. The day is warming up. It’s a springtime Saturday on the farm and my one day to sleep in. So I stretch myself deeper into the sheets and try to recall that dream I’d started just moments ago when without fail, the rider mower releases a giant, gasoline-fueled yawn. My grandmother, Rose, is in the meadow bright and early, clearing a path through the wildflowers. It’ll be hours before she’s done, and so I surrender sleep to the springtime, and by nightfall, I’ll be glad I did.
Rose’s path through the meadow was picturesque and led directly to the mailbox along the road. We made a sport out of running through the field to the mailbox, our arms stretched from side to side to stir the scent of wildflowers as we ran. I was rarely victorious, and we rarely received mail anyhow, but it was enough to be heralded “the champion” and sound the rusty door of that old mailbox like a rooster announcing the new day.
The slowest of the bunch, I chose to linger behind most mornings, captivated by the kaleidoscope field of colors changing hue with the rising sun and named each bee that perched upon the rows of pollen. There was something calming about the mower that, in my memory, sounds more like a gentle hum than the grating beast it actually was, which probably has more to do with Rose than anything else. She made that dying engine a songbird.
But on this morning, after a decade of service, the legendary orange and white rider mower let out a gasp and kicked with about 100 yards of tall grass left to graze. All the kids were up picking berries past the road, so I was left to fetch Uncle Jerry, who typically had no trouble with minor fixes. But after tinkering under the hood for a bit, he quickly realized this would be no easy fix.
“It’s the spark plug,” he announced, and I feigned agreement, shaking my head as if I’d known the trouble all along. He’d have to drive all the way to McKeesport for the part, so I grabbed the sickle from the shed and did my best to cut away at the tall grass before the heat of the day consumed me. The rest of our bunch would soon be crossing the road up yonder, their tin pans full of freshly picked berries, as they wondered where on Earth the rider mower was for the littlest ones to hop a ride on. They’d have to walk this time, as their full pans grew heavy, and bright red berries stained the path beneath their feet.
A Farm Classic
“Don’t track berries and grass into the house now,” Rose hollered. We wouldn’t dare, so we removed our shoes and dove right into the pond, clothes and all. Rose tossed us a bar of soap, and the suds rested atop the pond water like whipped cream on Gram’s cran cobbler. We wrung out our tees and jeans and hung them on the wash line with a few wooden pins. The sun was vicious for springtime, and it wouldn’t be long before our clothes were bone dry. We took refuge from the heat under several bed sheets that we’d stretched outward and pinned to the soil like tents, and we lost our boyhood to a make-believe world of warfare. Rocks were grenades and clothespins were cigarettes, as our voices echoed explosions across 48-acres of farmland.
“We’ll have to make camp here for the night,” I ordered, making a telescope with my fists. “The enemy is just beyond those trees,” and my soldiers, my cousins all responded,
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, sir.”
As the sun was setting, we collected pillows and blankets, playing cards and clothespins for what would be an epic game of Skunk inside the tent.
“You won’t last more than half an hour out there tonight,” Penny laughed, challenging us to make the night last forever.
Skunk was kind of like musical chairs. There were seven of us in the tent that night, so six clothespins were placed in the middle, and each player was dealt three cards. The game began with the eldest picking up one new card from the deck, then disposing one to the hand of the player on his right. From there, Skunk became a fast-paced game of drawing and passing cards around the circle before someone finally got three-of-a-kind. As soon as this happened, you’d grab a clothespin from the middle and everyone else would follow suit. Just like musical chairs, there’d be one person out of luck, and they’d be ousted from the game.
We were all super competitive, grabbing at clothespins like Hungry Hungry Hippos, with battle wounds like cat scratches to prove it. Lucky for the losers, Aunt Kathie had recently added a new rule to the game. If you were out and got someone still in play to speak to you, you’d instantly knock them out as well, which Aunt Kathie famously did when she asked if anyone wanted a popsicle. How could we not answer, “Yes”?
Our makeshift tent was alive with flashlights and laughter and flying clothespins that evening...that is until a dense scent like rotting Easter eggs seeped into our campsite.
“Skunk!” Elaine shouted, which sent us bounding from the tent toward the farmhouse.
The adults laughed and checked their bets, which they had made only a short hour ago. Uncle Keith was the winner at 55 minutes, though my memory insists we lasted at least three hours before that meddling skunk sprayed our tent of bed sheets. Though Rose must’ve washed those sheets a hundred times over the years, we all swore the faint scent of rotting Easter eggs never quite disappeared.
From upstairs in the girls’ room that night, we watched from the floor register as our parents, aunts, and uncles told stories and laughed and played poker around the dining table, and we covered our ears each time Aunt Mary cursed at her poor hand.
We heard, “Full house!” and everyone groan, as Uncle Wayne stretched out his arms to gather his winnings.
“I guess that’s the game,” Penny declared, closing another chapter of another day.
The house clattered and creaked with bedtime routine, then dulled to a whisper. In seven hours, I’d wake to the sound of the mower in the meadow or a crying baby in the next room over or the scent of bacon frying in a pan or maybe the sweet smell of wildflowers wafting through the window screens. And so I surrender sleep to the springtime, and by nightfall, I’ll be glad I did.