The Day Mama Dropped the Eggs
Nancy Werking Poling
On a Tuesday afternoon—not that Mama told me what day it was, but I know she always ironed on Tuesdays—after she washed the noontime dishes, before she returned to ironing, she went out to the hen house to gather eggs. She’d sold nearly all the ones stored down in the spring house and planned to bake an angel food cake later in the day.
She took great pride in her Rhode Island Reds. They won blue ribbons at the state fair, and she was able to earn enough money selling eggs to folks in town that she could buy shoes for Tom and me. After tithing ten percent, of course. Like most country mothers, she sewed our shirts from chicken feed bags made of sturdy cotton with interesting patterns. Early recycling, you might say. When the chickens were laying particularly well she’d go in town to the five and dime and get fabric for herself. Cotton prints for everyday dresses, navy blue for Sundays.
Collecting eggs isn’t simply a matter of going from nest to nest. Some hens refuse to leave the nest, and there are always a few that defy the rules and drop their eggs anywhere they please. That day, after wrestling with hens and looking over, under, and around, Mama’s basket was full. She was about to leave the chicken yard, with its tall wire fence and the flimsy gate Tom and I had built out of scrap lumber and chicken wire.
She kept a rooster, a huge fellow with a large comb and long black tail feathers. Now it’s not unusual, if you’ve got chickens, to have a mean rooster, one real protective of his harem. City folks may not understand the harm a ten-pound bird can do, but roosters can come after you with the devil in their eyes, and they’ll use their beaks and the spurs on their legs to attack with the force of a lightning bolt. For some reason Mama’s rooster thought her a threat that day and came after her. She tried to kick him away, all the while balancing the egg basket, but he was able to dodge her feet, the vigorous flapping of his wings carrying him up, down, and sideways, all the while pecking at her legs. Then he was leaping high off the ground, aiming for her face. She couldn’t help it. She dropped the basket of eggs and managed to slam the gate shut behind her, almost catching his neck.
At the time Papa was working in the barn, cutting a leather strap with a knife. The barn door was open so he could see what was going on. He was known throughout our part of Indiana as a pious man, even served as a deacon in the church. But—I hate to say this—he was not a good man at home. If Tom or I caused the slightest problem, like jumping out and scaring the bejesus out of the other or not cleaning the milking parlor to suit him, Papa would bring out the razor strop. He flew off the handle over what would have been small irritations to most anyone else. Once, when a milk cow wouldn’t stand up, he got so mad he hit her on the head with a hammer. Killed her. Which made Papa even madder.
Mama—she didn’t stand up to him. Because of the way she was brought up, I guess. You know, a woman being subject to her husband and all. Besides, what could she do? Back then nobody thought of getting a divorce. Maybe in the city, not out in the country. How could she support herself and two boys? So she never challenged Papa. Never put herself between him and Tom or me. Mind you, he was just as likely to rail against her as against us kids and the livestock.
That Tuesday, when he saw Mama drop the eggs and start running toward the house, he was furious—not at the old rooster but at her for dropping the eggs. Of course he had no right to be mad, the chickens being hers. Pausing a few seconds to take in what was happening, he headed out of the barn, the knife still in his hands. When Mama saw him stomping in her direction, that gleam in his eyes, she kept right on running.
As a girl she’d never participated in sports—girls didn’t back then. She had an athlete’s build and agility, though. Tom was built more like her, while I take after Papa, short, with stubby legs. Papa was probably forty pounds overweight as well, a testament to Mama’s chicken and dumplings, homemade bread, pie or cake every evening for supper. At the fence separating the barnyard from the yard of the house, she grabbed hold of the post and used it to vault over the fence. No easy feat for a woman wearing a dress and sturdy shoes that tied. Huffing and puffing, Papa had to go all the way around to the gate, which didn’t always unlatch easily. Him being in a hurry, I guess, made it worse.
At this point I need to say a few words about the house’s interior. Our kitchen was the largest room. Brightest too, with the sun’s morning beams streaming through two east windows trimmed in white organdy tie-backs. The wood-burning stove Mama cooked on occupied one wall, the white metal sink with a single tub another. Country folks were just starting to get telephones. Ours hung in the kitchen, next to the sink. It was a rectangular box made of oak, with appendages that, if you use your imagination, gave it the appearance of a face. Bells at the top looked like eyes; the mouthpiece was a long nose; the crank and receiver, on opposite sides, were ears.
One of the kitchen doors, with glass panes, led outside to the back stoop, where we all deposited our boots when we came in from the barnyard. Another doorway led to an enclosed canning porch, where in the summer sweat would pour down Mama’s face as she lifted steaming racks of filled glass jars from canners on the kerosene stove. As soon as their lids made a little popping sound, she’d move the jars to the adjoining storeroom. Years later it was turned into an indoor bathroom.
On the day Mama dropped the eggs she raced up the steps of the back stoop, into the kitchen, and locked the glass-paned door behind her with the skeleton key that always hung in the lock. She was sure from the way Papa’s jaw was set—and the fact that he was carrying a knife—that he had every intention of injuring her.
She dashed to the telephone. Back then there was no 911, no dial even. When you turned the crank, you got the attention of Emma at the switchboard. “Emma,” Mama shouted into the protruding mouthpiece, “Leland’s after me with a knife. Get somebody over here, quick.”
Leaving the receiver dangling on the cord, she hesitated but a second before heading to the storeroom off the canning porch. Once inside, she quickly shut the door and pushed two large wooden crates filled with potatoes, turnips, and the like against it.
Seconds later she heard glass shatter, then Papa’s heavy footsteps in the kitchen. “Gertie!” he yelled. “Gertie, you come here and get what’s coming to you.” As if trying to make his point, he knocked over the ironing board, sending the heavy iron crashing to the floor. Then for a moment he made no sound at all, and she feared her heavy breathing, heart thumping against her ribs, were echoing through the whole house. She heard him go into the front parlor, his steps slow and deliberate. Seated on one of the crates, Mama prayed. She could hear Papa making his way up the stairs, his heavy work boots going stomp, stomp, stomp.
Except for a small stream of light coming from a narrow window near the ceiling, the storeroom was dark. Shelves loaded with glass jars of tomatoes, beans, and canned fruit lined the walls. If she could just climb up the shelves and crawl out the window before Papa came back downstairs. Moving aside a few jars below the window, she carefully climbed to where she could reach the latch. She pushed on it with the heel of her palm. It wouldn’t budge. Pushed again, careful not to grunt loud enough to be heard. No movement. Back down on the floor, sitting on one of the crates, she could only hope that by the time Papa found her he’d at least have cooled off. But he was just as likely to be angrier than ever.
From the kitchen came a commotion. Men’s voices. Two or three of them shuffling around.
“Leland!”one called. “Leland!” They seemed to move in different directions.
Seconds later someone tried the storeroom door. “Leland? Gertie? It’s Harley Brumbaugh and Wilber Peters.”
“I’m in here,” Mama said in a near whisper.
“You can come out now. We won’t let nothin’ happen to you.”
Mama got to see Papa come down the stairs. Without the knife, acting like he didn’t understand what the fuss was about. Maintained he’d heard her in the house screaming, and that when he tried to get in the house the doors were locked. To come to her aid, he said, he’d broken the glass in the kitchen door. Nobody dared call him a liar.
Before long, he was thanking the two men for stopping by and assuring them that everything was now under control. Mama swept up the glass on the kitchen floor and Papa, calmed down for the time being, drove the Model-T into town for new panes. When Tom and I got home from school, he was just pulling into the garage. Mama didn’t have any marks on her, so we believed him when he claimed to have slammed the door too hard.
Less than a year later Papa got his come-uppance, I like to think. He started walking around hunched over, holding on to his back, moaning faintly. Complained he couldn’t piss. He was so overcome by pain that for several days Tom and I had to get up extra early to do all the milking and slopping the pigs. We went to school smelling of manure. In bed Papa would writhe in misery, yelling out the whole time. Or he’d pace the parlor floor, grabbing his crotch, calling out to God for mercy. I never heard him praying as fervently as he prayed then. “Oh, Lord, take this cup from me.” “Please, just let me die in peace.”
He refused to call Dr. Hanson, like Mama told him to. When out of earshot she’d mumble under her breath, “Lord, have mercy, if that man don’t stop hollering…”
Finally Papa told her to call the doctor, who came to the house and said a kidney stone was probably responsible for the pain. It would pass. Which it did. I must admit, though, I took comfort in Papa’s hollering. That same year he died. The official cause of death was pneumonia, but I’m sure it was meanness that killed him. Not until after he died did Mama tell us about the day she dropped the eggs.
Mama, Tom, and me—we never even pretended to mourn, just went about running the farm. A couple of years later she married Edgar, a gentle and respectful man willing to work our place, leaving Tom and me free to follow our own interests. Edgar’s oldest son took over their family farm.
In spite of her life improving, though, kindness came too late for Mama. I don’t think she ever was happy. Even today I picture her with down-turned mouth, her eyes lacking any hint of sparkle and energy. The grief Papa heaped on her all those years—well, I guess you can’t go back and undo a woman’s suffering.
In the five months Mama had been in the nursing home, no one had lived in the old farmhouse. The day after her funeral I drove her grandchildren—my son and daughter, Tom’s two girls, all of them in their forties with kids of their own—out to the farm. Tom had been dead some time, having at the age of fifty-four closed himself up in his garage with the car running. I’d paid the kids’ airfare, thinking that though none of them knew their grandmother well, they might someday be glad to have all been family to each other this last time.
I climbed the four steps leading up to the wide front porch that stretched halfway around the house, recalling Sunday afternoons when Tom and I would sit on the wide wooden swing peering at marvels of the world through the stereoscope. By today’s standards the colors on each card’s side-by-side pictures looked washed out, not at all realistic, but those 3D images showing us the Grand Canyon and Yosemite eventually inspired me to leave Indiana and move out West to be a park ranger. Tom headed for California.
Entering the darkness of the parlor I immediately felt overwhelmed with sorrow, not over the loss of my mother as much as by the sadness that seemed to envelope the house, what she lived with, the sadness that led my only brother to take his own life. Who among the next generation, the four grandchildren, carried a secret struggle?
I reached over to open one of the yellowed canvas blinds, gave it a downward tug and a flick of the wrist. Instead of retracting, the rotted canvas went r-r-rip. Blinds had also been lowered in the kitchen, once the brightest room in the house. Traces of light seeping around the edges caused dust particles to sparkle like bits of confetti floating in the air.
On the wall beside the door leading to the canning porch, the old telephone still hung, for years disconnected. I put the receiver to my ear, half expecting to hear Mama’s voice. I pictured the small house where I now live alone, my walls already cluttered with western memorabilia and photographs of mountains. Still, I wanted that telephone.
Nearly all of our family’s possessions had been purchased through the Sears Roebuck catalog. Now they were valuable antiques. Even so, my daughter, an interior decorator with a modern bent, only wanted tea cups and saucers Mama and Papa had received as wedding gifts. My son took the oak book case with a curved glass door. One niece wanted Mama’s cedar chest, the other chose depression-era glassware. Sadly, most of the items representing my history, my children’s heritage, would end up in strangers’ homes.
“What’s this?” my niece asked, extending toward me a minute piece of jagged rock nestled in a white cotton handkerchief with a pink crocheted border.
“Where did you find it?”
“On the shelf of her cedar chest.”
I could only chuckle as she handed me the rock and handkerchief. “Now doesn’t that take the cake. It’s the kidney stone Papa passed.”
All activity stopped. Everyone’s gaze shifted from my hand, to my face, back to my hand. “A kidney stone?” my son asked incredulously. “You’re kidding. Why would she keep that?”
“I have no idea.”
Which wasn’t the truth. I had a hunch that though Mama wasn’t a vindictive woman, she kept the kidney stone as a reminder that there is justice in this world. I still picture her unfolding the hankie every now and then.