By Naomi Lewis
During World War II, my Dad, Sonny, as he was called, saved his money and when he came home from the South Pacific, bought the old McKay place, known in our time as the CL Lewis Ranch. As I sit here looking out on a land gone bare and brown with disuse, I realize a memory is like honey in the sun, sweetening everything it melts into.
My first sweet memory of the ranch was riding my horse, with my parents riding theirs on either side of me. I noticed how huge the cottonwood trees were as we rode into the shade at the eastern end of the corrals where the road turned west past the haystack and came to a dead end at the well where Dad disappeared down a long ladder sometimes. We swam in the little square cement pond that caught water as it gushed out of the well. My oldest brother, Malcolm, and I took turns swimming down to the small pipe in the bottom, to see who could hold their breath the longest. Why do kids love that game? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the beginning of learning to compete.
Our orchard sported a variety of fruit trees – apricot, peach, fig, pear, almond and plum. I was captivated with fig leaves large enough to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness. One tree was as big as a jungle, but as I recall, made me itch. I wonder how our first parents survived their first clothing. Of all the trees that grew at the ranch, including a beautiful willow at the pond, the mock orange, with its green puckered skin, was most interesting. Though the fruit was inedible, the tree is the only survivor of forty-five years of neglect on the part of the ranch I remember as a child.
When I was very young, Dad lifted a 50 gallon drum so I could look at a family of teeny, pink, newborn mice wriggling around their gray mama. He tipped the drum back over and left them in their dark privacy. I've always wondered how the mama got under there and if the babies lived past their pinkness? Did they grow up to be eaten by a farm cat?
I remember my father many times squatting and drawing directions in the dirt with his fingers, like Christ reportedly did. Daddy had big, manly, fleshy hands and thick fingers. I never really noticed how strong they looked until he lay hands-crossed in his coffin. Then I thought those hands made everything we have.
One night, when I was ten, I went with Dad to work after dark. The rocking of the tractor as he plowed a field made me sleepy and I wanted to go home before his work was done. Dad pointed me in the direction of the house. It may have been the first time I was out in the big blackness alone. Running, I hit a wire stretched across the road as a deterrent to roaming cattle. Dad had told me about it, but in my hurry and the dark, I forgot. The wire was the height of my throat and hitting it at running speed, it flung me to the ground. I thought I was going to die right there and then, but finding myself alive, I crawled past where I thought the wire was before jumping up and running home in tears.
I never will forget the smell of the pantry. How I loved it when Mama sent me to the pantry. It was vanilla and nutmeg, cinnamon, mustard and clove combined into an intoxicating scent I wanted to eat. It was shelves, floor to ceiling, with mysterious artifacts like an old popcorn popper that I never saw used, but knew it worked over an open fire, and roasters and such other things. I thought it was like a small antique store.
Our closet was a mysterious place. Clothes hung down, hiding things underneath – a secret bottle of pennies that wasn’t so secret and books. My book, "The Little Engine That Could," lived in that closet. I remember kneeling down and reading it there or at least looking at the pictures.
The cabin where the deep freeze was kept stood under a gigantic cottonwood. In summer, the young man who milked cows, slept on a cot outside under the sheltering tree. His stash of comic books was too big a temptation and sometimes I lay on his cot in the afternoon, reading. I tried to use my gentle horse, Stacy, once as a ladder to get into the tree so I could climb onto the cabin roof, but Stacy wouldn’t hold still. Instead, I climbed onto our house, shuffling across a steep-pitched roof, until I crouched looking down at the sidewalk and lawn below. I don’t know what possessed me to jump off the roof over the sidewalk into the grass. I shiver now to think of it. I was always warned I would be beaten within an inch of my life if I did it again, but what difference did it make how I died? I always did it again. I didn’t break a bone, that came later.
I was obsessed with flying and was sure if I tied a bunch of balloons together, I could jump off the haystack and float over the ranch. Several tries proved me wrong. They were hard landings and this jumping off things may have something to do with the condition of my knees as this age. At times, I dreamed I could fly by flapping my arms. I escaped many pursuers in this fashion, flying above the ranch in my dreams. Mother said I used to sit in my little red rocking chair for hours listening to songs on the radio. I remember hearing, "Mocking Bird Hill and “You Are My Sunshine." Yes, I can almost taste the memories soaked into me like honey in the sun.
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