Part 11: Filling the Days
Man is so made that he can only find relaxation from one kind of labor by taking up another.
Anatole France (1844 - 1924), The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard
There is a difference to the days when you are working to subsist and when you are working to expand and thrive. Before Mateo came home my days were filled with mostly trying to make ends meet and making sure there would be food on the table that day … and maybe tomorrow. With Mateo’s return not only was I thinking of food for tomorrow but food for the coming winter and next spring and beyond. No longer did I have to worry about being the only one gathering enough wood to keep us warm for the day; Mateo’s longer arms and greater leverage helped to create a wood pile that would last us a month if we didn’t add to it. His goal was six months at a time but that would depend on how cold it got in the coming months.
Mateo didn’t just bring home wood when he went out. He brought home a lot of things I hadn’t even thought to salvage: door knobs and locks; door hinges, light bulbs, the motors out of ceiling fans, all of the gizmos from inside HVAC units, fancy light fixtures, cabinet knobs, mirrors, window shades, door knockers, filing cabinets, copper piping, extension cords, heavy outdoor planters, stacking plastic chairs, folding tables, pool equipment, metal shelving from storage sheds and garages, and so much more as to make my head spin. He stacked the aluminum that I had layered upstairs neatly and even matched up like pieces in case we needed to put them back together for something. At first glance it look like the barn was turning into a junk yard but if you looked more closely you could see an inventory system actually did exist. Mateo has everything organized – nearly over organized if such a thing is possible – and I don’t even like to go into some of the stalls for fear of messing up whatever he is in the middle of.
Early one morning Mateo came running back to the house causing my heart to jump into my throat in fear. His hurried words didn’t help. “Get the children inside!” He ran for one of the large caliber rifles before rushing back down the street towards the canal. My nerves were on edge for several minutes before there was a loud shot that seemed to echo forever. It was another forty-five minutes and I was this close to going to look for him when I saw him coming back to the house out of breath and filthy.
I ran towards him bringing a canteen of fresh water. He guzzled it down and the said, “I give up.”
“Give up what?!” I asked shaking like a leaf from nerves.
“God never does anything by half measure,” was his response.
“Mateo you aren’t making a bit of sense.” In the distance I heard several loud crashes. “Who are they? What do they want?!”
“Who? Oh … oh Leah, I … Oh Dios, my poor Corazon … it isn’t a who, they are a what. And by the sound of them if I don’t figure out how to cage them, they will get away from us.”
The long and the short of it is that a boar, a couple of sows, and some piglets startled Mateo while he was out salvaging. The boar tried to gore him and ran him up a tree for a moment. He was eventually able to lock the two sows and their piglets in a house. The boar tore off in the opposite direction and in the process became bogged down on the bank of the canal with predictable results. The shot was Mateo putting the mortally wounded hog out of his misery right before a gator took him under for the final time by rolling.
It was not fun trying to wrangle the remaining hogs. I finally resorted to pacifying them with some of the garden refuse I would normally have put in the compost as well as a scoop of dried corn mixed in. That did it. They went to town and then settled down to feed their young.
Mateo and I spent the rest of the day using chain link fence that he’d brought home to build two large pens in the only place we had left which was between the pond and the barn. The barn formed one “wall” and then we built the other three walls using an oak tree as one corner and a cyclone fence post for the other. We sank the fence walls two feet into the ground using a trench and then backfilling to keep the pigs from rooting their way out and to keep anything from digging their way in.
We had to finish the upper part of the fence the next day because it took a long time that we did not have much fun in trying to move the hogs from the house to their new pens. Before we did anything else we tagged which piglet went with which sow using powdered, colored chalk. After that we roped the sows and I bribed them every couple of yards to cooperate and follow where we pulled them. The piglets were so young they were practically still attached to their mommas so it was just a matter of shooing them along and trying not to step on any of them when they would run under our feet.
In the days that followed Mateo added more space and a little chute kind of deal that the piglets could get away from the sows by going through. He realized we didn’t need to make it so tall as we had the first pen but he did wind up adding braces to the walls. I left him to it – he was devouring all the books we had on animal care and husbandry – as I had my own work cut out for me; I was adding more garden spaces. Not only did we need more food for ourselves but now I needed to provide feed for all those new hungry mouths that God was sending our way. The pigs got all of the peels and spotted or bruised pieces from the fruits and vegetables, most of the plant tops except for the alliums like onions and garlic, and the stalks of plants once I found out what they liked. I added a small scoop of our dried corn until our fresh corn started coming in, then I cut it down to every other day.
My deciduous trees gave me fruit a couple of weeks late but they did give me fruit … peaches, nectarines, and figs were such a delicious addition to our table that it was hard to hold some back for preserving. I planted new rows of beans every few days and just about worked myself silly trying to keep up with the production’s harvest. The melons gave more than we could eat fresh though I lost several to invading raccoons until I figured out how to keep them out by fencing off each individual fruit as it matured. I had tried putting a container over the fruit but I left one on too long and the fruit eventually grew to fill the inside of the old plastic milk jug. It was a funny sight to see a milk jug shaped melon once I finally cut the container away.
Winter squash, zucchini, yellow crookneck squash … any squash I had seeds for … grew pretty well though they were a ton of work since they spread so quickly. But it was either keep them covered at night or come the morning discover that the raccoons and opossums had eaten them all. I noticed a large Himalayan cat had moved back into the neighborhood … a large, hairy male Himalayan cat … and after that there were fewer baby raccoons to have to deal with. Fewer squirrels too which had been a real pain in the corn patch. Every once in a while I would hear a cat fight so I knew there was more than one around but there was no way I was going to make friends with the thing. I’d made the mistake of thinking he was just a big fuzzball lost and looking for a new home and tried to talk to him one time when I saw him while I was helping Mateo bring in some wood. Uh uh, never again. I actually like cats but I swear this one was part mountain lion or something. It growled at me and since I’m college educated I was able to decipher from all the noise that while I could look, touching would not be the brightest idea I had ever had.
The sweet potatoes did well towards the end of June and a prayer was answered when it looked like the peanuts were also making even if they were going to be late doing it. My potted tropical fruit trees and bushes were doing OK but nothing worth taking out a full page ad for. The strawberry quava, cherry of the rio grande, and Persian limes did the best of all of the potted exotics but I think that is because I took so much care of them in the beginning when I still could.
As June moved into July the rain finally slacked off and the temps consistently reached the low eighties every day but that was still ten to fifteen degrees cooler than it should have been. In one respect it was pleasant but in another it was worrisome, but since it was one of the things I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I couldn’t do anything to change I did what my mother always said to do and “left it on the altar.” Strangely enough when I did that I was rewarded though it became progressively more difficult for me not to go back and pick it back up and add it to what I already carried around in my worry sack.
God continued to provide. We added some very ugly ducks to our menagerie. And when I say ugly I’m not kidding. None of them matched each other. They are a complete patchwork of other ducks. Some remind you somewhat of mallards and then others drive you crazy trying to figure how what duck species they are most similar to. They are the calicos of the duck world. The drakes are easily the oddest looking as they have very distinctive facial features. The drakes also fight with each other and it is no joke when they do it because they have claws on their toes. The drakes will also fight with other animals and people if they get in the mood so I’m always mindful when the children are out there with me. And I was out with the ducks quite a bit trying to clean up after them, gracious they are messy. Luckily we need the fertilizer so I always have someplace to dump it.
We took over the Nelson’s backyard and even some of Mr. Houchens’ as well as we were running out of room. Three acres may sound like a lot but when you are trying to feed a family year round from what you can produce it really isn’t. The first attempt at the garden expansion was almost a failure. I came out one morning to spy deer raiding the new green shoots. The deer ran off at my scream and just as quickly Mateo came running to me.
“That … that monster … it was eating my corn!!”
After I calmed down and explained – actually Nydia explained because I was stomping around, ready to pop a blood vessel at the animals’ audacity – Mateo measured and left to collect more fencing. When he came back I was still livid.
“Corazon,” he said trying to soothe my temper. “It is bad, but not the end of the world.”
I nearly turned on him with a snarl but caught myself in time. “Those creatures were taking food out of our children’s mouths!”
Calmly he said, “Yes. And if I get a chance they will become food for our children’s mouths.”
His measured response caught me off guard. Stopped me cold if I’m honest, and left me silent. I thought for a moment and then realized I had only been seeing the negative and not the potential good.
“There are deer,” I said in wonder. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen deer around here.”
“I know I’ve never seen them though I heard when I first moved in that occasionally small ones would come out of the swamp during the dryer months.”
“The ones I saw just now weren’t small. They were White Tails. I know they were.”
Mateo stopped using the post hole digger for a moment and asked, “They were what?”
“White Tailed Deer. My father would hunt them when I was younger before my cousins sold their acreage in Georgia. Momma used venison the same way and as often as most people used beef.”
“Well,” Mateo said after thinking a while. “I suppose it only makes sense that wild life would move into the suburbs after all this time. When I was down in south Florida even the zoo animals could be found wandering around on occasion … although most of them were killed and eaten before officials could come collect them.”
Mateo told me that as the infrastructure collapsed people released their pets to fend for themselves. The same thing happened at petting zoos and eventually large zoos also became compromised in some way, including from bombings, and animals would escape. We both wondered for a bit about Lowry Park Zoo and Busch Gardens but were unwilling to waste time away from our own concerns at home just to satisfy our curiosity. We had enough to deal with without taking on more that had no practical return for us. Any animal still locked up would be a carcass and we didn’t need to go looking for trouble in case other such exotic species were on the loose. I wondered briefly about salvaging for animal feed but soon realized my wits must be begging as at this late date animals would have already found it or likely groups like Capt. Tag’s would have already thought of it and cleaned the place out. I was briefly depressed over a hypothetically missed opportunity but it was Mateo that said, “We have enough for now, no sense borrowing trouble. Once I’ve cleaned out the houses in a one mile radius then we can think about a trip further afield. God has given us quite a bit to manage already.”
Mateo had changed, was changing, and sometimes it was hard for me to keep up. In the beginning he saw church as my hobby. Eventually he came to understand how important my faith was to me, how much I depended on the strength I found in it; he understood the how but not necessarily the why. He never made fun of me, never hindered me exercising my faith and eventually even participated somewhat, but always as a kind of spectator. I was used to him following my lead in that area of our lives, humoring me, going as a family because it appeared to be the right thing to do and because it kept the peace.
But something happened to him at some point to cause a change. He was always the head of our house but on many things our duties and responsibilities were sharply split into categories that were either “his” or “hers” with just a few that were “ours.” These days many more were “ours” with far fewer that could be defined strictly as “his” or “hers.” And one of those “ours” was now our family’s interaction with our faith. The differences went beyond the fact that I no longer had to ask him to say Grace before our meals. It went beyond that I no longer was the only one reminding Nydia to say her bed time prayers; Mateo was actually teaching Neeno to do this as well and all without my prompting or bring the idea up in the first place.
It seemed that as time and events in this life wore at me, even taking my energy to call on my faith, Mateo would stand in that gap for me, for us. He wasn’t a candidate for the Amen Pew yet but he was seeing God’s hand in areas of our lives where my worry and fatigue was blinding me. I would laugh and joke about stuff being Providential, I would even believe it for the most part, but Mateo was really living the faith while some days I only felt like I was playacting it.
He was much less like a string that was pulled almost too taut. He seemed less afraid of his own strong emotional reactions to things and as a result he managed them better and was easier inside his own skin. It used to be that Mateo always seemed to have so much leftover energy that it wafted around him like static electricity looking for a target. Now he used both his mind and body so much that at the end of the day he could actually relax. He had concerns and still made plans, but he no longer worried at them the way he had in the past. He strove to make our lives better day by day and into the far future but he was also content with what we had in the here and now. Some days I felt like I barely made it through the day and was left unable to envision a far flung future.
One such day came when I realized that Nydia’s treasure box was empty. I tried to provide a treat for her every once in a while just because. She helped so much even as young as she was that I tried to recognize these in tangible ways. I honestly don’t know how I would have gotten everything done in a day without her help with Neeno or with toting and carrying things for me. The treats were not anything special or of great value - a new pencil, a new rubber band for her hair, a few pretty beads for her to string and wear, an unused crayon or marker. Rarest of all were the times when I had given her a piece of candy or a safety sucker. She never asked for these things, it was just something I did because I could … only now I couldn’t. Everything was used up or gone. For some reason that fact just broke my heart.
I thought that I would make candies and wrap them like the store bought candies and refill the chest at least partially that way but as I looked over our food inventory I became concerned. I had used as little of all the sweeteners as I could but we would eventually run out no matter what I did … and sooner rather than later. Soon the lack of sugar added to my upset over no candy for Nydia. I thought all day but nothing came to mind. I was almost resolved to use a little of the sugar anyway. I told Mateo but he said, “I may have an idea, give me an hour in the morning before you finish deciding.”
If I had hoped he had found a secret stash of food I would have been disappointed. I was putting breakfast on the table when he came in. “I have a surprise for my girls.”
Nydia and I immediately grew suspicious; the last few “surprises” Mateo brought us had entailed a lot of extra work. “Did I ever tell you how poor my Abuelo and Abuela were? And their parents before them? I did? Good. Did I ever tell you they were so poor they never had store bought candy? No? Well it’s true. In fact, my own mother didn’t have store bought candy until my father bought her some lemon drops on their first date.”
Nydia nodded and said, “That’s like us Poppy.”
I saw Mateo hide a wince. “Not quite Baby Doll,” I told her. “For us the reason we don’t have store bought things is because there are no stores around here.”
Mateo gave me a grateful look for my understanding then told Nydia, “Listen to Nonny, she knows things. But just like Nonny knows how to make do without stores so did my grandparents and after breakfast I’ll show you the surprise.”
We sat down to scrambled duck eggs, squirrel sausage, fried sweet potato cakes, grits, and pan gravy. After the dishes were stacked for washing we followed Mateo onto the lanai where a stick was leaning. I was practically on top of it before I realized what it was. My mouth twitched trying to hide my smile so I wouldn’t spoil things. Mateo took a machete, cut a short section of the “stick” and then using another blade peeled the tough outer skin off of it.
“Here Nydia, taste.”
Nydia just looked at it in her hand. “It’s a stick Poppy. I’m not a baby anymore so I know. You’re not supposed to put sticks in your mouth. We have to tell that to Neeno all the time.”
“This is a special stick,” he laughed since it was true that Neeno was going through a stage where he was gnawing on everything, even me when he nursed though it was less often now that he was on some table food.
Nydia cautiously took a lick and the surprise on her face was so comical I wished I’d had a camera to catch it forever. “It’s … it’s sweet Poppy!!”
Mateo had found a stand of sugar cane that had come back after the cold weather. It is basically just a grass and people frequently used it in their yard as an ornamental. While Nydia happily licked and sucked on her “candy stick” chewing the fibrous center to get the last bit of sweet from each piece Mateo told me, “There is more where that came from; a whole fence row in fact as well as stands in different spots through several of the local subdivisions. I’m not sure how but my mother said that it can be used to sweeten drinks and other things.”
“Let me see what I can figure out. They sold that stuff by the bundle at the farmer’s market. They wouldn’t do that unless there was a way to use it by those who bought it.”
I didn’t have any luck in my mother’s books. Those books were about sorghum which was different from cane although from what I gathered you processed the stalks in much the same way. When I went looking through Mateo’s mother’s and sister’s old cookbooks that I had put away in the kitchen cupboard I kept my own mother’s cookbooks in I did find recipes but only for the juice although once I got Mateo to translate something for me I learned you could use sugar cane hearts like a swizzle stick to sweeten drinks and you could also use them like skewers to grill food on which flavored whatever you were cooking with sweet goodness.
“Honestly,” I said to Mateo one night while I was giving the kitchen a final cleaning before relaxing for the evening. “I’d give a lot to have whatever that thing was yoru sister wrote she used to juice the cane. It was in the edge of the cookbook that I could actually read.”
“Hmmm? Yes, it was my mother’s. It was heavy and I hated moving that thing around for her.”
I looked at him where he was reading and making notes. “You know what she is talking about? Could you draw me a picture of it?”
“Why?” he muttered not really paying any attention.
“Because I want to see if I could replicate it,” I told him patiently knowing he was only listening with half an ear.
He sighed, “Why do you want to do that when it is out in the barn?”
My mouth fell open and I had just found my voice again when his head jerked up. “Está hacia fuera en el granero. Cómo es estúpido puede I ser. ¡Por supuesto está hacia fuera en el granero!”
“English please,” I said at his outburst.
“I’m an idiot Leah. It is out in the barn with that stuff we brought from my sister’s house. I can’t believe … argh!”
“The stuff that you just … um … you didn’t seem like you wanted to go through it. I guess I forgot about it too. You stuck it in that overhead loft.”
“Exactly. I guess I just never wanted to think about … it was not a good time for me. I didn’t want to deal with … all the baggage I was stuck with, figuratively and literally.”
I had known there were things that Mateo wasn’t happy about as far as his childhood went but there are some areas that you just don’t trespass even as a spouse. He didn’t talk about it much and I had to respect his decision.
The next day, with no small amount of work since they had been shoved into a far back corner that was hard to reach, we finally pulled out the crates containing his parents’ and sibling’s belongings that he hadn’t sold at the estate auction. He uncrated everything until we found the juice extractor and then sweating and pale backed away from everything. I asked him, “Do you want me to put it all away?”
He stopped, thought for a moment, and then said, “No. Take it … take it inside and ….” With a very Latin hand movement indicated that I was to do with it whatever I wanted and then he walked away, turned once to say something, looked at the boxes and then turned again to keep walking. Over his shoulder he called, “I’m going to gather wood … and salvage … I … may be late coming home.”
I think that was his way of asking that I put it away before he got back so he wouldn’t have to face so much of it at a time. The extractor was heavy but it didn’t require electricity for which I was very grateful. I dealt with the rest of it as well as I could. The pictures and movie DVDs were put into a couple of tins and then stored with the rest of our family home media. There were awards and such that obviously belonged to Mateo and his sister and niece. I boxed those up and stuck them in my hope chest for Nydia when she was old enough to appreciate them. A few things must have come from his grandparents … some cigar making relics, some really old costume jewelry, a picture where the flowers were made of human hair … and then there were some antique looking kitchen pieces and silverware that I put away in the China hutch. There were a few things that obviously belonged to Nydia’s mother … Mateo’s niece … and I boxed those up and put them in the top of her old bedroom closet for safe keeping. There weren’t a ton of things but it was enough that putting it all away neatly took time out of my other chores. I didn’t begrudge as I knew it would be better for Mateo but I didn’t exactly enjoy myself either. I enjoyed history but even to me it was a little creepy pawing through the belongings of people I’d never had the chance to know and who had had such an impact on my husband.
Finally I went back to gardening which that day was weeding and harvesting squash, gourds, and pumpkins. I also had the beans and corn to deal with and I pulled up a peanut plant and hung it to dry as an experiment to see if the peanuts were ready or still too green. It was long passed Nydia and Neeno’s supper time and both were nodding off waiting for Poppy to come home. When he did I was torn between making him suffer for being so late and worrying me or soothing him because he was obviously already suffering. In the end I decided that some things were best handled with care and I put his plate on the table and put the kids to bed myself. It took a while but finally they did both settle for the night and I returned to the kitchen where the only light came from the moonlight streaming through the one window I hadn’t shut yet.
“How can you see to eat? Let me turn on the solar lamp.”
“Leave it off … please.”
“Do you want any more food? I have another biscuit and …”
“I … I suppose.” I brought it over doing my best not to trip in the dark. “Leah, I’m sorry. I … I didn’t mean to be quite so late. Time got away from me and I went further than I had realized.”
“Mateo you don’t need to …”
“Yes,” he interrupted. “Yes I do. It’s not fair that you have to feel the consequences of … the mess that was my family. But I just don’t want to talk about it now, it’s too … too difficult to explain and they’re all dead anyway.”
“All families are messy, some more than others. You’ve heard how my dad kept us at a distance from the rest of the family because he didn’t care for how some of them acted or raised their kids. But my parents weren’t perfect either. I loved them but if they hadn’t been so prideful and hard headed maybe they … maybe they wouldn’t have died the way they did. And you surely know about … about Hank … so I was certainly no paragon of good judgment back then. If you need to talk I’m here. When you need to let it out I’m here. And if you just want to let it go for a while longer I’m here. Just don’t put it off forever Mateo or one of these days, just like Hank caught me off guard that time at the fair, your memories are going to catch you off guard and maybe make you say or do things that you like the results of even less than you do the memories.”
I turned away to put the wet rag over the drying rack when he was suddenly just there and in my space needing some comfort. As he hugged me I hugged him back. “Mi Tesoro, I will talk about it one day, but not … not now. I have worked so hard to put it all to rest and move on, to find peace with it. Only sometimes does it get tempting to start … what was it you called it the other day? Digging up old bones, that was it. I could feel the old … old feelings creeping up on me. It helped to go work, but it got away from me.”
“Just … don’t make a habit of letting it get away from you,” I told him with another hug. “My shoulders may not be as broad as yours but I don’t break near as easily as you seem to think. Nor will I run shrieking into the night if I find out your family or even you are not perfect. It happens. Now are you finished or still hungry? You put in a lot of hours today.”
He stepped back and leaned against the counter but all I could see was his outline. “I missed putting the children to bed,” he said morosely.
“That’s not what I asked but if you want to put someone to bed then let’s finish up in here and you can put me to bed.”
He gave a surprised chuckle but we did just that. The next morning he was a little sheepish and seemed to be trying to make up for being missing in action the previous day. He started getting under my feet so I carefully but firmly shooed him off to take care of his own tasks so that I could take care of mine without worrying that he was worrying about me still worrying and being upset. He came home for lunch and had bagged another large snake so we had a little unplanned protein for dinner that night. He was getting quite a collection of snake skins that he was stretching on boards he leaned against the barn under the eaves.
“What are you going to do with all of them?” I finally asked him.
“The children will need shoes before it turns cold. I have been reading …”
That’s how so many of our conversations went; a question would be asked and one or the other of us would say “I’ve been reading …” But reading is a lot different from implementing. Sometimes our ideas panned out and sometimes they did not … or at least not the way we had originally meant for them to. This time he was talking about making shoes for the children and repairing mine that were so close to wearing out as well.
“We don’t have any souls for the shoes but I was thinking that I could cut pieces from tires but instead of sandals I could make full uppers from the snake skins somehow. Or perhaps when I finally get one of those deer …”
So many plans. It didn’t matter that we barely had enough time to breathe each day, there was always more to do. There was so much more that we needed to do. We could have easily used two or three more sets of hands but then that would have meant even more work as we had to feed the mouths that went with those hands.
I let the first row of corn to dry but instead of just leaving it in the field I picked the ears and put them in mesh bags that I crocheted and then hung them on the lanai to finish curing. I would do the same to the beans I was allowing to dry. It was getting so that you had to dodge and weave just to get from the screen door, across the lanai, and into the house. At night when I was just plain too tired to do anything else I would sit and shell the dried beans or corn into containers that I would give one more airing to before sealing in an airtight container and putting them in the pantry.
My hand grew even more callused and I started catching everything on the cracked and peeling pads of my fingers. No matter what I did nothing made my hands go back to “lady looking.” I was dark skinned from the sun and wind, my skin was drying out, and I was horrified to notice that I had what looked like the beginning of crinkles at the corners of my eyes. It isn’t that I minded getting older, it was finding out that getting older was so easy to do that it was happening to me before I turned twenty-five. I tried not to be vain but Mateo caught me one day when I threw a rag at my reflection in the mirror. I was horribly embarrassed but he drug the story out of me and then set to convincing me that I was still totally desirable to him and eventually I was able to get over myself but I did start taking more care to wear a hat when I was out in the sun. Neither of us looked the same as we had even a year ago; life had aged us and not necessarily kindly.
It was towards the end of July and I was harvesting a the first few … and late … bunches of grapes when I looked up as a flash caught my eye. “Mateo!”