Doggone if the weather doesn’t fool you every stinking time. First it gave us such nasty and damp weather that bronchitis and pneumonia got to be common – so bad in fact they had to shut the school down for a while because it became a germ house – and then as March approaches we start having one of the warmest springs anyone can remember after everyone had pretty much banked on a long cold winter.
Just in time the weather warmed up too in my opinion as it was getting lonesome sleeping by myself. I was coughing so much that Dino couldn’t rest so he finally started sleeping in Kerry’s room with him. I had gotten used to his company so fast I surprised myself and then to have to do without it gave me the sorrows. It wasn’t anything personal and he worried about me but he had to sleep or farm work was going to be dangerous. We were lucky that Kerry and Pita never caught anything but my milk supply got so thin at one point I had to resort to drinking fennel and motherwort tea and begging Tina to save me back a little and send it over with Ajax in the mornings.
I know no one knows for sure that those nasty teas help but even if it only worked on my head to make me believe they were giving me more milk for Pita it helped some. No one got sick over at the Big House so I assume Cheryl must have worked some kind of nurse’s magic over there. Either that or I’m just lucky and picked it up at church or some place else. I’m just glad to be done with it. I was coughing so much my back hurt from the top of my head to my tail bone.
It has come on so warm that I put lettuce in the ground on February fifteenth. Most everyone has told me that I’m asking for trouble but I used some row covering from last year and hopefully even with an unexpected frost I won’t lose all. I’ve also got green peas, spinach, and radishes and tomorrow I plan on putting turnips in. The first of March is when I’ll go to planting on the serious side … beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, collards, kale, and mustard greens. After that it will be succession plantings of each and first plantings of everything else. No more having everything come ripe at once for me this year.
My seed starts all have teeny weeny alien looking life forms trying to pop through the dirt. I just about skinned Kerry when I caught him trying to “help” some of them to break the surface of the dirt. I swun that boys gets up the oddest starts if he isn’t given something constructive to keep him busy. I had to keep that blasted cat out of there too. If he wasn’t trying to eat my little green things he was trying to turn ‘em into a litter box. I don’t know who’s tail I’ve been chasing more … Kerry’s or Tom’s.
In addition to the same old stuff what I’ve been getting up to lately I've been making soap. My grandaunt used to make soap every year and sell it at the church bazaar and some of the ladies remembered it and came to me to ask if I knew how. Well sure I did but I told them without store bought lye it was going to take me more than a day to set things up. When I told them the best soap was made from lye that came from apple wood ashes Mr. Chamberlin brought be near about a wagon load of well seasoned logs from his place where his grandsons had taken out some old trees that had died the year before.
“Mr. Chamberlin, I appreciate that the price of soap has gone up but my goodness … just how much soap do you plan on me making?!”
He shook his head sadly. He was a morose kind of man to begin with and at the time had become more so since his mother passed on. “Miss Riss,” he said being one of the ones around town that still called me that. “Store bought soap isn’t just expensive, it’s next to impossible to get in anymore even if people are willing to pay for it. I’ve got an idea if your man would care to hear it.”
“He’s not here right now Mr. Chamberlin but I’ll be happy to relay it.”
He sighed and I remembered Dino saying that Mr. Chamberlin could put a whole sad funeral sermon into one of his sighs and had to stop myself from laughing because it was pert near the truth. “Well, it’s like this Miss Riss. You mind if we sit a spell? I shouldn’t I know but my rumatizz is acting up.”
“Would you like some tea Mr. Chamberlin?” I asked.
“Nope, better not. My stomach’s been acting up a spell too.”
I was waiting for him to start on his corns or something next but he’d finally decided to get down to business. “Well, here’s the thing. I own my store front outright. Own the two stores on either side too. And I’m old enough that the gov’mint cuts me a break on my property taxes and I’ve got enough set aside for that for a couple of years. I suppose I could retire but I … well … I wouldn’t know what to do with myself and frankly most of the young people about don’t seem to have no get up and go to ‘em.”
He looked at me expectantly so I said, “Well I reckon you do have a point sir.”
He nodded, “’Course I do. Not talking about your man, he knows what work needs doing and does it like a man should. But too many here abouts seem to think that things are just gonna be given to them or that they can’t get ‘em so they might as well take ‘em. What I’m aiming to do is kind of cut down the middle and give folks something to think on and maybe do something with. And plus, I wanna keep my store but I’m thinking it might be better not to let it be known that I’ve got any money to keep myself from getting robbed.”
Another look and I said, “Sounds sensible. If you don’t mind my asking though, how do you plan on doing that? Charity is good but too much is like giving a kid too many sweets all the time and having them turn into a greedy guts.”
“Yep. Yep. Shore ‘tis. But here’s what I’m thinking. Momma used to tell me stories of how things were back when she was a real little thing. And I remember my granny telling me stories from even older times. Well, what I reckon is that I can be like a … a barter store I guess you’d call it. People have eggs but no meat, they bring me the eggs and I’ll trade ‘em some dried or canned meat. Somebody has meat but not eggs and they bring me some meat and I’ll trade ‘em some eggs.”
Starting to get the picture I asked said, “Sure Mr. Chamberlin, I see it and I guess it would be a good thing for people in town … or even us out here in the country lanes a bit. But where do I come into this?”
“Well now, I ain’t got much to offer in the way of hard cash but even the Pappas clan must need things every so often. What I figure is if your man agrees to it … and you too since you’d be doing some of the work … you could make some soap, I’ve got a load of tallow that needs something done with it before summer gets here, and you could bank the credits and come in when you were looking for something later on.” It did seem like a good idea but I was wondering what on earth we could need that we couldn’t just as easily get from AJ. “I’m thinking your boy might need new shoes with the way he’s growing. I could tell that cobbler fella that I know someone that needs a certain size shoe if he wanted to trade for soap or something else and then … well … Either way I’d still like to see about getting some soap in the store as I know it will be a hot item.”
It sounded so funny to hear Mr. Chamberlin say “hot item” that I just about choked. When I explained it to Dino he said, “Well Love, it really is up to you.”
“But?” I asked him hearing a little hesitancy.
“I won’t tell you no but if you want my real feelings on it I say give it a try so long as it doesn’t interfere with what you already have on your plate here at home. It seems like a lot of trouble.”
Well, kinda yes and kinda no. If I had to make the lye up I might as well make a bunch up at one time. I know they still had a bunch of store bought soap at the Big House but we were getting low here in the Pappas house. Still, having extry wouldn't hurt if I wound up not being able to get rid of it at Mr. Chamberlin’s store.
First thing I had to do was make the ash hopper. Dino had a couple of wooden barrels that the wine had gone to vinegar in so they couldn’t use them anymore. I drilled a lot of holes in the bottom of a small wooden barrel then stood the barrel on blocks leaving space beneath the barrel for a container made of glass. You can use wood too but don’t use metal as a collector; lye can burn through some metals.
Next I put a layer of gravel in the bottom of the barrel over the holes, then put a layer of straw over the gravel. Then I filled the rest of the barrel with apple wood ash, leaving a couple of inches at the top clear. From the rain barrel I got a bucket of water and poured it into the barrel, over the ashes; after a long time the water in the barrel will start to drip into the container. I left the whole setup along until it stopped, then I replaced the glass jar with a small wooden trough in case of odd drips.
I took my grandmothers old iron pot that she used for making soap (and nothing else) and boiled the ash water until it was so concentrated that a fresh egg (still in it's shell) floated on top. I hated wasting an egg but after one has been used to test lye it is too nasty even to give to the animals in their slop. Making lye is nothing to fool with, it can burn your skin real bad so I had Kerry go with Dino that day just so I wouldn’t be a nervous wreck worrying after him.
Using my grandaunt’s old soap kettle and molds I could work thirty-two pounds of lard or tallow at a time – tallow is beef fat – and then the appropriate amount of lye. I didn’t add any perfumes or anything but I didn’t think anyone would mind. I could get fancy after checking to see if it worked.
I also made some goat’s milk soap where I used fresh goat’s milk instead of water to dilute the lye with. The soap wound up a funny orangy amber color and Kerry started calling it Pita Soap. Dino liked that so well that he make up paper wrappers using the old printing press they used to make wine bottle labels and sure enough we started trading Pita Soap.
The last type I made was olive oil based soap. It sure does take a lot of olive oil for one batch though – 20 cups of oil plus eighteen ounces of lye – but it makes up just like any other soap only it seems to take longer to cure before it can be sent to market.
I made a nasty, gray-looking soft slimy for laundry detergent that was traded by the quart or gallon and last I heard Mr. Chamberlin said it goes out as fast as it comes in. I’ve had some requests for “pretty” soaps so when the fresh herbs and such start coming in I’ll probably make a few bars of “smelly” and “pretty” stuff. I figure if nothing else maybe the men folk can use it to talk their sweeties around to something or other.
I’ve had a few requests for some seasonings and such as well. I made up a selection of mustards in some jars I wouldn’t use for canning and didn’t you know that they just about flew off the shelf the first day? I wound up having to tell Mr. Chamberlin that if he expected me to keep up with demand then he would need to start trading for containers.
A good, basic mustard is real easy to make. Take a half cup of dry mustard – I like to grind my own from the wild mustard I collect in the fall – and mix it with four teaspoons of sweetening and a teaspoon of salt. Then you add as much boiling water as it takes to make your mustard the consistency you want it. If you want to get fancy with this basic recipe it is plumb easy; all you have to do is add vinegar or herbs to taste.
Mr. Chamberlin is tickled pink these days. He feels so useful you wouldn’t believe the change in him. Even his wife in an unguarded moment remarked that he’s feeling so spritely that she worries that the boys will hear the ruckus from their bedroom. Considering their age Dino and I just about fell out laughing before we could leave the store.
“Well Riss, at least now we know that if you keep me in soaps and such I’ll be spritely for a long time yet.” I could have spanked him right there in the street. He can get up to shenanigans worse than Kerry some times. But I’ll be honest, I hope we both stay spritely for a long time yet ‘cause it does a body good to know another body feels that way about you.
I wasn’t the only one sending things to Mr. Chamberlin by far. Generally we kept our names out of things, leaving it up to Mr. Chamberlin to keep our secrets, so I didn’t really know who sent what but I could guess some though I won’t here. But what I will do is list out some of the things that now fill his shelves instead of all the foreign stuff that used to be there: beeswax candles and honeycomb in the jar, dried teas of all types though I admit some of them sounded more like snake medicine that something that would really work, herbal cosmetics and perfumes, shampoos and hair rinses which I was interested in, homemade baskets made out of kudzu vines which also drew my attention, straw hats, some knitted things as well as homespun yarn, homemade mops and brooms, and even some made over clothes.
The one area that the store still is thin in is real food. Slowly as cows freshen and chickens start laying a few odds and ends are coming in but most people are being careful; if they have food they are hoarding it.
The stories coming out of the cities are still pretty grim but AJ says that most people are getting by. There are some horror stories of course, and the newspapers and radio make a lot of them, but they are so far only a small percentage of people. And the bad parts of town have started to police their own because no longer will the CSP play nice. If an area of the city starts to riot they will block it off and if they want to continue cutting up a fuss then it is their own neighborhoods that they are destroying … and no government assistance is given for clean up or anything else. Seems that a lot of trouble makers just disappear overnight … either by choice or because someone has had enough.
The war continues to get worse. As the world warms up spring is bringing more trouble. AJ has started sending some of his things to us to hold onto in case he has to make a fast break. I don’t open anything unless he asks us to but the attic is starting to fill up again. I wonder why he doesn’t send it to AJ but a look from Dino and I had to ask, “Do you and AJ have some kind of deal?”
He was quiet for a while and then said, “He’s a Pappas.”
“I know but that isn’t exactly an answer,” I replied.
He nodded, “We haven’t worked it all out but … he doesn’t know how much longer he’ll be able to stay in the city. It’s not just the danger, all though that is part of it, but he says that he can see the day that he gets tired of … of the company he’s keeping. He just doesn’t have any place else to go.”
“Well that’s fine, he is family. But just how long do you think a man like him is going to like living under another man’s roof?”
He swallowed and said, “Just long enough to get his own place built.” As I just keep mending Kerry’s sock he finally blurted, “I loved Papooh but he did wrong when he didn’t leave at least a little corner of the land to AJ. He cut him out in anger and never had the chance to fix it. AJ isn’t a farmer and never will be but he still should have a place on Pappas land for himself. I … I talked to him about him living in the old gate house after it gets fixed up.”
“Dino, that place is almost falling down!”
He said, “The main beams and the rock walls are still sound. It’s the floors and roof that are bad. AJ and I went in there when he was here last and really looked around.”
“Well, if you aren’t afraid he’ll break his neck,” I told him.
“You don’t understand Riss, I mean to give him that and the land it sits on.”
Not understanding I said, “Ok, but isn’t it awful close to the road?”
Dino was silent for a while, “You don’t have a problem with me giving it to him?”
“The land? Why should I? One, I don’t know that it’s particularly any of my business who you give what to and two, he’s your cousin and you’re trying to set right a wrong. You think Alec is going to have a snit?” He looked at me and slowly started to chuckle. I asked him, “What?”
“Nothing. I love you is all. I know some women … probably even Cheryl and Aunt Adona … who are going to think I’m crazy for doing it.”
“Well, you are crazy … but since I like you that way I think the point’s kinda moot, don’t you?”