Perspiration rolled down my back even when I stood still on that hot and humid summer day. Not so much as a slight breeze stirred to help cool me when I stepped out of the house. I looked into the back yard where my Aunt Ella Mae stood in front of a small stack of spanking new, pine lumber. When she noticed me, she grinned.
Inquisitive, I went over to investigate. I puckered my brow and asked, “What are you doing with all these boards?”
Her eyes twinkled with merriment. “I’m building an outhouse, and you’re just in time to help me.”
I couldn’t have been more surprised. “You’ve got to be kidding.” I exclaimed.
The year I turned fifteen, I spent part of my summer vacation with my aunt and uncle and their nine children. They lived on an acreage, out in the country, near Williamsburg, Missouri. This was a totally different life-style for me, an unmistakable city girl from Iowa. I found out that all families didn’t live like mine did… even the ones related to me. I’ll tell you a bit about my visit.
My mother’s brother, Bud, a big, boisterous, rowdy kind of man married a girl who was a good match for him in every way. Therefore, the children they raised were much the same. I enjoyed being at their house, never a boring minute there.
The day I arrived, I overheard my aunt saying the summer had been so hot that their well had gone dry. They had no water and were waiting for some to be delivered. Someone would be there to dump fresh water into the well later in the afternoon. Even so, it would have to be used sparingly because it wouldn’t last long. They really needed a good rain. I couldn’t conceive of running out of water… never heard of such a thing in the town where I lived. I could tell right away, things were going to be different in this out-of-the-way place.
Evening arrived, my uncle Bud came home, returning from a hard day’s work at the brick factory where he made his living. When he spotted me standing in the living room, he smiled brightly, happy to see me, and gave me a huge, fierce bear hug. I couldn’t breathe for what seemed like minutes. He finally let go, for which I felt tremendously grateful. I walked away wondering if I was going to survive this man’s incredible way of showing affection. I had a whole week’s visit ahead of me.
When Aunt Ella Mae called us to supper, I stared, amazed at the amount of food that was piled on the long dining table. It stretched out far enough to fit all twelve of us around it, and hardly a bare spot could be seen. The thing I liked best turned out to be the huge platter of fried bread dough. I watched as my cousins slathered home-churned butter on the hot bread, and I did likewise. Then I bit into the warm, crispy bread, which fairly melted in my mouth. I closed my eyes and savored every nuance of the taste.
The next day, in the living room of the ranch-style house, a commotion ensued. Everyone, all of a sudden, rushed inside. “Hide, hide, Mr. Henderson’s coming down the road,” my cousin, Linda, warned. I looked out the picture window and sure enough, a car was traveling our way, a stream of dust in its wake as it sped along the dirt road. “Get down! Don’t let him see you,” my cousins admonished.
“What’s going on?” I asked in complete amazement.
“It’s a salesman,” one of the kids explained. “If he sees anybody is home, he’ll stop and we’ll never get rid of him!” I hunkered down and hid with the rest of them, feeling quite foolish.
Later in the day, I was minding my own business when all of a sudden someone yelled. “There’s a mouse!” I did what any sensible teenage girl would do. I jumped up on the nearest chair and screamed. To my immense surprise, instead of joining me, every person in the room started chasing the little, gray mouse, trying to stomp on it. My eyes big as saucers, I could not believe what I was witnessing. I can’t tell you if anyone squashed the panicked rodent, but when the hubbub settled down; I climbed back to the floor and counted how many more days I had left at that house.
One day I tagged along after my oldest cousin while he did the chores. He always had a lot to do to take care of the cow and the chickens on the place, but the reward was fresh milk, butter, and eggs every day. One morning I got to turn the crank on the churn to make butter from the cream my aunt had poured into it. Was I astonished when I finished and found out real butter was white. It wasn’t yellow like we bought at the store back home. Very curious, I thought.
The favorite pastime for the kids was a good game of baseball in the dusty field out back. Imagine having enough children in the family to get up a good ball game right at home. We would have had to gather the whole neighborhood back at my house.
The biggest shock was yet to come… bath night. All ten of us kids were to take our weekly bath on Saturday evening. My aunt said since I was company, I should take the first bath. I could not drain the water when I was done though, because all the kids would use it for their baths. I was stunned. I could not believe everybody would use the same water. At home we were taught to empty our tub and scour it out, to always leave it clean for the next person. I was grateful I was going to get to go first, but when I climbed out of the tub after bathing, the water was brown with murky suds floating in it. I hadn’t realized how much of the baseball field had attached itself to my person. I hated that the next one to use that water was my baby cousin. The kids had to take their bathes youngest to oldest. I think my nineteen-year-old cousin must have been dirtier when he got done than he was to start with. Oh, my, I didn’t know how lucky I was at bath time at home!
Back to the outhouse. As you can probably suppose, I was a bit taken back to find out I was going to help build an old-fashioned outhouse. Did people even use those things anymore? Seeing my puzzlement, (I have what you would call an expressive face) Aunt Ella Mae explained. “The inside bathroom won’t be enough for the crowd that will be here for the family reunion next Saturday. When it’s busy, folks can use this one.”
Well… it kind of seemed to make sense, so I dug in and helped keep the boards in place while she nailed them together. I was totally impressed to find out my aunt knew how to construct a building. My mother would never have attempted such a thing, even if it was only an outside toilet!
In no time at all, we had a two-seat facility with a strong, solid, cross-barred door, no cracks to see through, and it was plenty big enough. I thought we had done a darn fine job.