A giant box of baking soda was a staple at the farm, not so much for cooking as it served to soothe wasp and bee stings as well as toothpaste when toiletries ran low at week’s end. As barefoot kids in bathing suits, rolling and running across the lawn, we were getting bee stings all the time. One bee sting here, another one there. It was all part of life at the farm. Luckily none of us were allergic. We’d climb into dark corners of the barn unafraid of mice scurrying in the hay nearby and swing from tree branches weakened by burrowing larvae. We didn’t care, or maybe we were just blissfully unaware of the creatures that could harm us if not careful. Fear was still years from our vocabulary.
On this particular day, our adventure lived in the green shed not far from the house. Uncle Wayne had parked his motorcycle in there the night before, when storm clouds threatened to flood. It never rained, but Uncle Wayne’s bike remained in the shed. This meant we could sneak into the shed and hop on his bike without anyone yelling, “Get off before you hurt yourself!” at us from the front porch.
While most of our family was down by the pond, Derek and I slipped into the shed unnoticed. It was dark and dusty, with but a slice of sunlight gracing the bike and inviting us to come closer. Derek, being the older of the two of us, said he’d mount the bike first, just to be sure it was safe. He straddled the seat and clutched the handlebars and off he went down an imaginary highway. I became the engine, filling the shed with sounds of gears shifting and wheels burning rubber.
“They’re gaining on me, Keri!” Derek gasped nervously, laying on his best Steve McQueen. I broke for the workbench and pushed the tools to the side. Nails that would be used to build a baseball dugout later that week escaped from their boxes to the floor.
“Watch out for the falling rock!” I warned, and Derek pretended to swerve to the right, nearly escaping death. I propped myself atop the workbench and stood to see that my “lookout in the hills” was the perfect spot to spy our enemies through the binoculars I’d crafted that morning from toilet paper rolls.
“You’re gonna have to go faster than that!” I hollered, my gaze fixed on the highway below. Derek kicked the engine into high gear. He accelerated and hugged the coastline as I cheered him on from my lookout.
“They’re rounding the bend!” I continued. “Don’t slow down!” Derek may have been on the motorcycle, but I was driving the action. The enemy car maintained its speed around the second curve of the highway, but couldn’t manage the wheel as well as Derek steered Uncle Wayne’s motorcycle.
“They’re not gonna make it, Derek!” I cheered. And just as the car inched toward the edge to begin its fatal descent into the ocean below, I raised my arm triumphantly. My fist struck something soft and papery. Like a baseball bat to a pinata, the unknown object burst open. But instead of candy, the whirl of angry wasps escaped and surrounded me. I leapt from the workbench, nearly falling into a table saw and ran from the green shed, wasps at every inch of my neck, arms, and legs. Derek followed, but it wasn’t him they were after. I was their only enemy.
I continued to run, struggling through the maze of clothes and towels that dried on the line between the shed and the house. The clothesline was never barren in those days, and Rose was always out there, a clothespin pinched between her lips like a cigar. We were told years later that she got so tired of washing our swim towels day after day that she simply stopped washing them. Instead, after a day of swimming in the pond, she’d hang them on the line, fold them, and pass them out like new the next day, even the ones Travis blew his nose into and the one Julie wore like a skirt around her waist and accidently peed on during a fit of laughter. If I had known this at the time, I’d have gone cold and blue in protest.
When I finally made it through the maze of bed sheets, towels, and t-shirts and into the house, my body was covered in wasp stings and throbbing in pain. Rose went into grandma mode, grabbing a bowl and some water, and she asked Derek to fetch the baking soda.
“And I’ll need someone to get a watermelon from the springhouse,” she ordered. She worked the baking soda into a paste and lathered it on every swollen sting as I cried like a baby. I was no longer a brave and trusty spy atop a lookout in the hills, but a sad and needy child in the soothing hands of her grandmother. If given the choice, I’d choose the latter every time.
When the watermelon arrived, Rose washed her hands and cut it up into thick slices. I thought maybe she was going to mix it into some kind of paste as well...there was no end to the magical remedies she could create out of the simplest of things...but she simply handed me a slice and pushed the hair from my eyes with a gentle caress. The watermelon was sweet, and its cold rind felt good on my skin.
“There now,” she said, “I’ll have your grandfather get rid of that wasp’s nest right away.” And before she walked out the door, she turned to us, our mouths full of watermelon. “What were you two doing in the shed all by yourself anyway?” she asked. When we didn’t respond, she just smirked and retreated to the clothesline.
Late that afternoon, when there was enough sunlight to hold an hour’s play, we lined up tin cans on the porch and saw who could spit their seeds the farthest. If you hit a can, you were a champion; if your seed made it into the can, well, you were a legend. All the pain of the wasp stings was lost for a moment in fun and games, and the watermelon was sweet down to its last slice.
Just moments ago, my littlest one ran into the kitchen sobbing, tears streaming down her face as she cradled her elbow in her hand. She’s of the age where I trust her alone in the backyard, even though I often spy on her from the kitchen window while I’m doing dishes, making sure she’s not traipsing through my vegetable garden or climbing too high up the tree. I put down the book I was reading and rushed toward her.
“Honey, what happened?” I asked, but she continued to wail. Any word she attempted drowned in a flood of tears. I was worried at first, and my mind raced with possibilities as I scanned her body for wounds. But then I saw that all too familiar swell, right above her elbow. I know that pain, so I knew she’d live. I wiped her tears and kissed her flushed cheek. “All we need is a little baking soda,” I consoled her, and I began to work that thick, white paste up in a small bowl. It’s cold and course to the touch and my mouth starts watering, all too familiar with the taste of baking soda being brushed across my teeth when toiletries ran low on the farm at week’s end. Her tears dissipated to a soft whimper as she sat on the kitchen countertop, in the soothing hands of her mother.
“The baking soda will make it all better,” I assured her. “And you know what goes well with baking soda?” I smiled, “Watermelon.”
A summer highlight
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