Now that school was out, Bigjim expected the children to take over most of the farm work. The cornfield had to be plowed with the big double-shovel plow between the rows, while the weeds were removed within the long rows of corn by Mama, Nell, and Banjer Brown when he was available.
Sometimes, when the hoeing was finished, the children were sent to gather the early wild greens for cooking. Littlejim and Nell were careful to gather only the young tender shoots of the poke plant for “poke sallet,” which Mama withered with ham drippings. The older shoots were poisonous. Dandelion greens were also a delicacy to be prized after the long winter with only cabbage as a green vegetable.
The chickens hatched little “dibs” and Nell chased the tiny yellow birds around the chickenyard, trying to catch them. Old Jerse gave birth to a new calf, and soon there was plenty of fresh milk and rich yellow butter. All the world of the Creek seemed to be blooming with new life.
Soon it was time for the first cutting of hay for the year. Bigjim took time from the woods to ride the mower pulled by Scott and Swain. Littlejim and Banjer used the scythes along the edges of the meadows. After the hay had dried, the men of the neighborhood joined Bigjim to rake and stack the hay into big haystacks near the barns and in the corner of the pasture.
Then the Transparent apples were ripe. Mama and the children gathered them, peeled them and made applesauce, or dried them on wire racks hung over the cookstove in the kitchen. A few weeks later the cherries were ripe and had to be picked.
Almost every day, the hoeing of one field or another, and sometimes in Mama’s vegetable garden, had to be done. Littlejim and Nell complained and wore blisters from the hoe handles, but each time they complained, Mama reminded them that if the family was to eat during the winter, the crops must be made in the summer.
Sometimes, Littlejim slipped off to tend his new small tobacco patch hidden away in the clearing he had made in the laurel thicket, where Bigjim seldom went. The tobacco was growing well, and Littlejim thought he would have a surprise for his father in the fall, if Bigjim didn’t stumble on the secret garden.
But Littlejim and Nell found time to have some fun. Mama insisted that the children go fishing and swimming. Sometimes she and Baby May went with them. As the weather grew warmer, the meat in the smokehouse dwindled, and fried fish provided a tasty supper. Littlejim and Nell cut birch poles and tied fishing line to them. Then they dug up red worms and caught grasshoppers for bait. The creek was filled with trout, red bellies, and the hornyheads that were hardly fit to eat. Best of their catch were the speckled trout. Nell usually caught more of them than her brother.
The times Littlejim and Nell liked best were when Bigjim was still in the woods and Mama joined them on the creek bank with her black frying pan to cook the fish outdoors. Bigjim thought cooking outdoors belonged to hunting trips and church singings. He wanted his daily rations, as he called them, cooked in his house on the finest cookstove on the Creek. But when he was away overnight, Mama often cooked the children’s catch down by the creek.
Mama would roll the fish in cornmeal ground from corn grown in their own fields and fry it in bacon fat. Littlejim would dig new potatoes and bury them in the ashes to roast. The last of the cornmeal was formed into hoecakes and cooked after the fish were ready to eat. The food tasted so much better than it did even in Mama’s kitchen.
Some evenings Mr. Osk came over to join them. He and Mama laughed as they cleaned the fish, remembering the days when as children living in the same house they had fished and cooked on this same creek bank.
Occasionally, Andy McGuire was allowed to leave his chores and join them. Sometimes Dr. Shoop would stop by in his buggy to allow Emma to join Nell in wading in the creek.
Once Andy and Littlejim caught tadpoles and dropped them from the tree limb above as the girls waded in the shallow water. Mama was not pleased with Littlejim’s manners that day. He and Andy were not allowed to share the sweet cakes Mama had brought to end the meal until they apologized for frightening the younger children.
Every time Mr. Osk came to eat fish with them, Littlejim always asked the same question: “Have you heard from the essay competition yet?”
But Mr. Osk always had the same answer. “Not yet, Jimmy.”