“I’m tired of these floors,” I heard her complain aloud to no one. “No amount of sweeping ever gets them clean.”
From my perch on the arm of the couch I could see my mom in the kitchen. She was sweeping up a streak of dirt using a worn straw broom and a piece of cereal box cardboard as a dustpan. Our floors were 2 x 4 planks in eight foot lengths nailed directly to the floor joists beneath and they appeared to have never been painted or varnished. Over the years numerous farm tenants had carried sand in on their shoes, and the grains had been pressed down into the unfinished wood. Sweeping just seemed to stir up small clouds of fine dust that lingered in the air before resettling into their former space.
The next morning Dad woke us kids up early. Yawning, sleepy-eyed, and complaining that it was still dark outside, the five of us followed the smell of fresh brewed coffee into the kitchen. Hot oatmeal and homemade biscuits were already on the table. Once our plates were filled and we’d started eating, Mom announced the reason for the early rising.
“We’re going to Campbell to pick peaches,” she smiled, “and we’re going to use the money we make to buy linoleum for the kitchen.”
Our whines quickly changed to excited chatter. We knew we were going to work, but that didn’t diminish our enthusiasm any. We were going somewhere and we’d be doing something. We’d be outside in the shade beneath the trees and we’d be around people again. It was the first excitement we’d felt since summer vacation began. It was late summer now and we were desperate for school to start again.
We’d been stuck indoors for weeks to avoid the daytime rays. Our one little walnut tree was too small to provide shade for the yard. The only relief from the August heat was one noisy old box fan that blew hot air and wet washcloths we rubbed against us. Worse than the heat was the boredom that accompanied it. Our old black-and-white TV picked up a station out of Blytheville if the antenna was turned just right, but in 1965 daytime programming was marketed to stay-at-home wives who bought powdered laundry detergent and watched soap operas.
Our access to library books had ended when the school doors closed, and I’d already read the few badly worn paperbacks someone had given us. With too many distractions to write my own stories, I’d taken to drawing trees and flowers on the backs of envelopes that had been discarded after opening the mail.
“Get dressed for pickin’ and fill up the thermos with water,” Mom instructed. She was wrapping left over biscuits from breakfast into a pouch of aluminum foil. She stuffed the biscuits into a small box beside a quart jar of pinto beans she’d heated up from last night’s supper. Metal spoons were wrapped in a dishcloth along with enough saucers for each of us. By now Dad was getting anxious and yelling for us to hurry up.
We grabbed the food and an old quilt, then the three oldest of us loaded into the back of our old Chevy truck. The two youngest rode up front between my parents. I stood behind the cab and watched the road come to me. Then I closed my eyes and imagined I was a bird gliding free on the wind. My hair blew like fine feathers in the air, and the roar of the wind was my scream “I’m free! I’m free!”
“Stay with me,” Mom warned as she crawled out of the truck. She lead us toward the orchard shed where peach picking begins and ends. I paused for a second to watch Dad drive away. He was on his way to work for the farmer who paid his weekly wage. I knew we’d be here until he finished with whatever the farmer wanted. It would be a long day. We’d be tired and hungry for supper by the time he came back to get us, but today was something new and I was ready for adventure. I turned and ran to catch up with Mom and the other kids.
We picked peaches for about a week. The younger kids played beneath the trees and napped on the quilt we carried with us. My sister and I picked peaches from the lowest branches or we stood on the back of the trailer to reach higher. Since Mom was an adult she was provided a ladder and allowed to climb up further. As pickers, we each wore a pick sack made out of a thick white fabric. The sack was open at both ends and had a strap sewn to each opening. We placed the shorter strap over our head where it hung from our neck, then pulled the bottom strap up over the first. Peaches went in the top opening and stopped at the fold. When it was time to empty the bag we pulled the first strap back over our head. The fold disappeared and the bottom of the sack was now open again, letting the peaches roll out the bottom.
The last day of picking Mom collected our pay. She gave the orchard back enough to purchase two bushels of their best Elbertas. The next day she peeled, pitted, and sliced all those peaches and cooked them for canning. From the shed out back, my sister and I hauled boxes of quart canning jars into the back yard. We filled up an old wash tub with soap and water, then filled up another for rinsing. Jar washing was the job I hated most. I always had to wash the same jars more than once. No amount of cleaning was ever clean enough when Mom was getting ready to can in them. When all the peaches had been cooked and pressured in the jars, Mom surprised us by cooking the peelings and canning those too.
On Saturday Dad got paid, and he and Mom drove into town to buy our weekly groceries. They came back with food and a roll of linoleum. We were all excited to have something new. We’d never before bought anything for a house that we couldn’t take with us when we moved. Our homes had always been provided rent-free by whichever farmer Dad worked for at the time. He worked long hours six days a week, working into the night during harvest season. In return he got $50 a week and a house of the farmer’s choosing. The houses we’d lived in never seemed to be kept up by their owners, and they always had poor, if any, plumbing.
We moved the table and chairs out of the kitchen and swept the wood floor several times. Dad hammered down any nails that stuck up from the wooden floor, then he rolled out the linoleum and smoothed it down. He used small floor nails to tack it down on the edges. There was no pad and no adhesives. The only tools we owned was a chipped screwdriver and a rusted hammer with a cracked wood handle. It wasn’t a perfect job by any means, but the end result was a luxury to us. We had a cleanable surface that looked and smelled clean when finished.
The canned peaches lasted through the winter months and, when they were gone, Mom opened a jar of the peelings. She sweetened them with sugar and added cinnamon. Then she baked them in a flaky crust topped with lots of butter.
I knew that lots of richer folks looked down their noses at us, but even as a kid I realized, that eating peach peel cobbler with my bare toes on clean linoleum was a luxury they’d never understand.
- Canned Peaches (arugulafiles.typepad.com)
- Planting a peach tree (stlouisgates.wordpress.com)
- April 13 – National Peach Cobbler Day (beatcancer2010.wordpress.com)