I have often told of my early memories of living in an old chicken house; of how Dad laughed when I spoke of that summer. “We didn’t live in the chicken house,” he said. “We lived in a tipi down by the creek … stored our stuff in an old shed. I suppose your Ma would have taken the baby inside if it rained real hard. You, too if she could have caught you but you were already three so you’d have been off playing with the other kids.”
We were poor. By anyone’s standards. Except our own. We knew there were people who lived in real houses. We passed those fancy, painted, homes every Sunday when we went to church, all six girls piled onto the back of the old flatbed. We didn’t pay them much attention. Not like we did the birds or clouds in the sky, the deer in the alfalfa fields, the new horse in Belkins pasture, or just sitting heavy so as not to fall off.
Yes, those people had electricity but we didn’t need it. Mother cooked on the woodstove just outside the shed and we tore through the woods till too dark to see—nine-thirty or ten o’clock at night—so who would ever use electric lights? Indoor plumbing? Who cared about that? (Remember the part about tearing through the woods all day?)
On Saturdays we kids bathed in a wash-tub in water hauled to and heated over the woodstove. I don’t remember there was ever much effort to shield these ablutions from the view of the log-trucks and tourists traveling on the state highway that ran past our meadow. It would have been a sight. The tipi set up in the shady aspen grove; the big iron kitchen stove not-quite leveled beside the shed; swings dangling from several overhanging branches; planks bridging sawhorses to serve as a table; stumps cut to just the right height for sitting; and a kids’ wagon filled with whatever forest detritus was deemed toys on that day. All that and a passel of kids running around in nothing but baggy underwear. It would have been a sight.
After church we sometimes visited one or another of Mother’s cousins who lived further up, or down, the valley. They were no better off than we were except they were a bit further along in their home-building projects than we were. They could live in their homes—had real floors and furniture—but none of those houses, as I recall, were plumbed or powered.
We had clean clothes to wear to church only because we had only one dress each (until the older girls started school). When we came home we took off our dresses, tossed them into the shed, then ran to play. Mother never took us anywhere but to church so those dresses had a whole week to air.
Most Sundays we managed to find our shoes—like the dresses, worn only on Sundays. As it would have been more unthinkable to let a child skip church than go shoeless, we did sometimes worship barefooted; our short, tanned legs sticking straight out across the seat of the wooden chairs and exposing to the whole congregation our blackened soles.
Our perspective changes as we age and as old women we girls have joked about Mother’s choice of churches. One sister, older than I by a couple of years, comments that Mother became a Baptist just when their new church was finished. It had indoor plumbing.