Once Upon a (Life)time
Growing Up Years
Growing Up Years - Part 5

The terrible 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic changes Mildred's family's life.

Summer again, and there came a day when Aunt Stella said, "You kids stay out of that bottom dresser drawer. Don't you dare open it, you hear?" We heard. And we complied-for a while. But it was like Pandora's box. We had to see what was inside. Slowly, half fearfully, I pulled that drawer open. Excitement is a weak word for our feelings for the contents could mean only one thing. We heard Uncle Ollie's Ford chugging up the road and we raced to get out to the gate to meet him. He usually stopped to talk to us and let the car cool after the climb up the Evaro hill. "We must be gonna get a baby," Lil burst forth. "You are?" He played along with us pretending to be greatly surprised. I could see hidden laughter in his face and was beginning to get my feet back on the ground, suspecting that we'd gone too far.

Soon we kids were sent up to stay with Grandpa Johnson for the day and when we came home Grandma Mary had brought us a baby. (Many women were skilled midwives in those days.) She was the prettiest little thing. They named her LaVada and how we loved her.

Then again winter was ready to crack down on us and Uncle Bill found a better house nearer to school. We could even run home for lunch. On the day that we moved, they wrapped me in a quilt and set me up on the wagon seat, for I was one sick kid. The horses were taken care of, then my uncle began to put beds together. By the next day all the family except him and little LaVada were down with this new scourge called Spanish Influenza. Aunt Stella grew very sick and also lost her hearing. Grandpa Johnson took her to Missoula to the hospital and he and Grandma Mary took the baby home to care for her. Uncle Bill miraculously escaped the disease. He tried to get one of the doctors to come out from Missoula but they were so overwhelmed with the sick and dying that they could only send us medicine by train. He got hold of a bottle of almost pure alcohol some place which he rubbed on our feverish bodies. He cooked things and tried to coax us to eat, kept fires going and took care of his livestock. All the while he was very grave-faced. Aside from his wife, sick in a Missoula hospital, Nathan and I were his biggest problems. A week or more dragged by and we began to mend.

The former renters had left a box of magazines behind and someone had broken the glass out of the front door, reached in and unlocked it, and scattered the papers all over the place. Uncle Bill had nailed a piece of blanket over the opening since there was no glass to be had at Evaro. Those magazines irritated me to no end. As soon as I could stay on my feet long enough I got up and picked up a few of them, and then went back to bed. The next day I got up and picked up a few more-and went back to bed. On the third day I managed to finish the job and stayed up for a while. Aunt Stella improved enough to come home and demanded that the baby be brought home immediately. Even I could see that tiny LaVada was sick. A few mornings later she lay on the big bed while her mother and father, Grandma Mary and Grandpa Johnson stood near. We kids looked on questioningly. My aunt wept, her body writhing and rocking in her awful grief. Uncle Bill buried his face in his hands and sobbed. Grandma Mary covered the tiny form and Grandpa left the room. This was another encounter with death—a much closer one than the loss of my young uncle. I was bewildered, lost, and seeking solace, I went in search of my grandpa. I found him standing against the corner of the house and crying alone. We stood together saying nothing but I found some comfort in being near him. I've since wondered if he cried only for his tiny granddaughter, or was he reliving the loss of his daughter (my mother) and his youngest son, my Uncle Jesse, both of whom had left his world at eighteen years of age.

Grandpa took Uncle Bill to Missoula and they came back with a little white casket. Grandma Mary had dressed the baby in her prettiest white dress and a pink and white jacket and booties. She lay in her white satin bed more beautiful than any doll. Through the afternoon the grieving mother would open the casket and cry and we cried with her. Grandpa and Uncle Bill had gone in the Ford again, I don't know where. Night comes early in midwinter and we sat in the kitchen by the wood bookstore with a flickering kerosene lamp. Suddenly there was a scratching noise. I was petrified. Aunt Stella jumped up and ran into the other room. Something was trying to find an opening in the blanket that covered the hole in the door.

"It's a cat," she said, throwing something to scare it away. But the animal came back, again and again. Finally it succeeded in getting its head inside, then one leg.

"Help me," she pleaded. "Help me!"

She grabbed a kindling stick and ran to the door. I grabbed another and we beat that wild-eyed creature on the head until it jumped or fell back to the ground. Maybe we injured it, but how traumatic it must have been for that young mother to have to fight that animal out of the death room where her baby lay. As for me I had a dread of any feline species for a long time. But I finally conceded that kittens were cute and their mothers were at least acceptable, but I have never come to feel any fondness for an old calico cat.

We kids stayed with Grandma Mary while Grandpa took the grieving parents and the little white casket to the Missoula cemetery.

By now the flu was rampant. Some people in our isolated community escaped the scourge and some survived as most of our family had, but the Parks family, Grandmother Parks, son Bill (railroad telegrapher), daughter Jenny and thirteen-year-old Paul, were all taken. Paul was a favorite in the community—a Tom Sawyer kind of boy but without any chicanery and not a mean bone in his body. Little Mrs. Lackey, a neighbor, trudged up and over the hill each day to help the suffering Parks family and she dealt us a blow when she stopped by on her way home to tell us that Paul was gone. Jenny left a small baby and his father brought him to us where he stayed for a number of months until his father married again. Schools were closed (as were most public places where people were apt to congregate) in an effort to stem the spread of the plague. There was plenty of work, but these were lean times at the Mackie place because Uncle Bill had to stay home to take care of us. Grownups were relieved at the war's ending. The soldiers were trickling home and there would be no more killing.

The terrible winter passed. Uncle Bill's lumberjack friends often came to visit, sometimes bringing treats for us small fry, or giving us money to buy our own. Looking back, I see these men as being lonely for the families they had left somewhere. They came to our little community dances and often drank too much, but were almost never unruly or disrespectful around women and children. On rare occasions when one of these inebriated woodsmen forgot to be a gentleman, somebody would correct the situation with an operation called "Knocking his block off!" It never failed to work.

I chalked up another birthday so now I was eleven and getting much too big for my britches. My chief interest since the schools had not re-opened was in cooking. I had learned to make milk gravy, now that I could see into a frying pan. I had also learned by accident that corn starch was not needed to thicken rice pudding (only I had gotten hold of the clothes starch—a fact that I hadn't told anyone). I had learned not to put the peelings in with the applesauce and that biscuit dough turned gray if allowed to land on the floor too many times. I had watched my aunt enough that I thought I could surprise the family with a cake. So I got the little kids busy making mud pies while I got out the mixing bowl, the big spoon and the old iron egg beater.

Grandpa had taken my uncle and aunt to town to buy groceries—a fair day's trip so I would have plenty of time for my project. I fired up the wood stove and greased and floured the pan as I had seen her do. As I remember, it was a frying pan with a handle broken off. I beat and stirred. adding ingredients, tasting more often than was necessary, because it was so sweet and good. I scraped the batter into the pan and put it in the oven. Something told me to wash the bowl and wipe up the splatters. It began to smell like a cake baking and I was full of anticipation. I wiped off a broom straw and bent it in the middle to test for doneness as I had seen my aunt do so many times. The straw didn't penetrate very well, but the cake was getting black on top so I took it out of the oven and ran a knife around the edge. It went "thunk" on the breadboard and it was a little bit black on the bottom, too. Oh, well. I could shave that off with the bread knife as I had seen Aunt Stella do. But under the black crust it wasn't the pretty yellow that I had expected. Rather, it was a bilious-looking green, somewhat on the thin side and just about the size to fit the top of the stool that the little kids perched on to eat. In fact, it looked as if it might already have been sat on! Well, my good uncle had eaten that other awful stuff, but instinctively I knew this was one concoction that must not come to the table. But how to get rid of the monster? It was a cardinal sin to throw away food at our house but I seemed to have no choice. I peeked out the door to make sure the small kids were still deep in their mud-pie production and I grabbed that cake and made a run for the thicket of jack pines up behind the house. I dumped the thing behind a big old rotten log. I warmed water and cleaned up the evidence first, then went out and found the shovel. Keeping the house between me and the little kids I hurried back to the jack-pine thicket.

The thing was gone! I almost panicked for I couldn't conceive of anything having eaten it. I caught the dog and looked to see if he had cake in his whiskers. He didn't, but that only complicated matters. I was afraid he would come dragging that rubbery disk up to the door and start chewing on it. I half expected it to come rolling into the yard like a cartwheel in front of everybody. I looked around the yard before bedtime and got up without being called next morning to look again.

"What are you doing up so early?" Aunt Stella asked.

"I had to go," I responded. That little half-truth combined with the fact that I could scarcely eat my breakfast caused her to think that I was sick, which maybe I was, sort of. In any event I was cured of spontaneous cooking for the time being.

A few days later Aunt Stella asked, "Would you like to make a cake for Sunday?" "YEAH!" I jumped at the chance. "Well, get your pans and the mixing bowl and I'll tell you how." She hunted out two layer cake pans and I didn't mention the frying pan with the missing handle. It was usually used to bake spice cakes anyway.

"Start with about this much butter," she said, dipping the mixing spoon into the butter crock.

"Butter?" I echoed.

"Yes, use butter for your shortening," she said. "Mix it with the sugar till it's nice and soft."

Shortening. Hmmm. Well at least I hadn't thrown away any butter. Next came eggs, milk and flour and baking powder.

"Baking powder? I thought you used soda," I said.

"If you use soda with sweet milk it'll turn your cake green.

Hmmm. I was learning a bushel. The cake came out a little lopsided, but beautiful, I thought. I was one proud little kid when it was licked up to the last crumb. The cartwheel didn't roll into the yard and I never knew what happened to it. I suspect our dog knew but he kept my secret and until now nobody had heard the tale of my first cake.

That same year I believe my Uncle Bill traded the homestead to an old Scandinavian named Buckland and we moved to what had been known as The Kirk Place. We still had Jenny's baby and he went with us. It had never entered my head that we wouldn't always keep him, so when his father and his new wife came to take him I hid and suffered. They called me to come and say goodbye to Floyd, which was the wrong thing to say. Finally they gave up and left and I made my way slowly back to the kitchen. Aunt Stella was there alone. We looked at each other and cried some more. neither of us saying anything. We both knew that another empty place had crept into our world.

After moving to The Kirk Place conditions began to improve. There was pasture for more cows and Uncle Bill worked in the timber, "batching" away from home during the week. He hauled us a couple of barrels of water from the spring on the "go-devil" (usually known as the stone boat). That took care of our biggest needs-washing clothes and dishes-and when this ran short, we were obliged to carry water by the bucketful.

Aunt Stella milked two or three cows and skimmed the cream off the milk pans, churned and got up at four o'clock in the morning to deliver her butter and eggs to Missoula before the sun got hot. Everyone donned their best clothes to go to town in those days and my aunt allowed herself one luxury. She had a blue ostrich feather sewn to a black manila straw hat. The hat came out of a tissue-lined box and was pinned on top of her head with two long hat pins. I can still see that horse and buggy headed toward Missoula at a brisk trot and that beautiful blue plume waving in the breeze. When she was out of sight we kids would go in and eat the breakfast that she had set out for us.

Living conditions gradually improved, both at the Mackie place and for most of the neighbors. However, we learned early about not keeping up with the Joneses. When we went wheedling to my aunt with the announcement that "So-and-So's Kid Down The Road" had a new dress, a new doll or maybe a little red wagon, and "Why can't we have one?" she went placidly about the task at hand—ironing, mending, sweeping the floor-and answered us with a question that never failed to settle the issue and send us stamping out of the house.

"If "So-and-So's Kids Down The Road" had chicken manure, would you have to have some, too?"

Work before play was the order of the day and Lil and I were getting old enough to be of some help around the house, when we couldn't wiggle our way out of it. We had also arrived at the age where we picked up any smart-alecky ideas that floated around. Somewhere we learned a song...

"My mama told me
That she would buy me
A rubber dot-lee
If I'd be good.
Now don't you tell her
I've got a fell-er
Or she won't buy me
A rubber dol-lee."

Sometimes we found it expedient to stand in front of my aunt, tapping one foot and clapping time with our hands, hoping to get chased out of the house. Sometimes it worked, but more than likely she would say, "Now you two get over there and do those dishes and no more monkey business!" There's nothing like a big pan of dishwater to dampen a Prima Donna and we would languish about the kitchen, play in the soap suds, conjure up headaches and maybe make a trip to the outside biffy, all to no avail.

"The sooner you get through," she reminded us, "the sooner you can play."