This is the second in some stories about growing up in Plymouth in the 1950s.
Growing up, I recognized that my father had a keen sense of proprietorship concerning our house and its land. Several times a year on a Saturday morning, he would announce from the pulpit of the breakfast table: “Today we’re clearing bushes” or “Today we shovel the driveway” or “Today we burn the lawn.” Those days he usually made dollar pancakes to soften us up, but these statements struck fear into our hearts, like those of a New England Puritan preacher. The driveway was a quarter mile long, the land was about five acres, and my father had an addiction to kerosene.
Our house was three stories, with weathered gray siding, dark green shutters, and three brick chimneys. It had been built in the mid-1800s by a man named Hornblower, and its many windows stared out at the water of Massachusetts Bay. There were five terraces leading up to the house from the main road, wild and full of brambles and wild blackberries, and some had even been other sites for the house. My father told me he had seen pictures of the house, raised up on a huge platform, being dragged down the hill, to be repositioned on the first terrace, next to the road, and the foundations were still visible in some places. There had even been a turret on one side of the house, but it had fallen off in a move.
The next terrace up had ancient apple trees that bore fruit sporadically. My brother and I had once tried the apples but decided that the small, tart fruits weren’t worth the briar scratches on our legs and the burrs in our socks. The third terrace was half-full of day lilies, which bloomed spectacularly in summer, painting the terrace in brilliant orange, and they spread a little each year. The fourth and fifth terraces were thick with bushes and brambles, the object of my father’s desire to clear, and he always established a beachhead for burning on that fifth terrace.
In retrospect, he could have hired a plow to do the work and he had a friend who owned one. However, undaunted in his belief we could do the job ourselves, and probably to save money, he made the whole family – except maybe Mom – suffer together in true pioneer fashion. Never mind that the job couldn’t be done in one or two weekends. So with much of the brush remaining after our Herculean efforts, only to regrow thick and lush the next year, we waited at the breakfast table for the annual announcement.
Clearing was always done in late spring and early fall, when it was warm and humid and the poison ivy in full bloom. Dad would get a burning permit from the town and start bushwhacking early Saturday morning with his machete and a scythe. My mother, brother and I would pull on old gloves, whose insides smelled and frequently contained small bits of yuck, and follow behind Dad, grabbing the cut brush and dragging it to the towering inferno he would create with liberal splashes of kerosene.
In the early days, when no one was particularly good at recognizing poison ivy, I usually came down with a good dose of it and would be wearing pink calamine lotion for the next week or so. Burning poison ivy was also unsafe, because the smoke, when mixed with sweat, also required calamine treatment. My loathing of this green weed only grew when Mom told me that years before, some crazy relative had died after eating poison ivy on a dare. Thereafter I carefully inspected every load of brush we dragged to the fire and tried to stay upwind of the smoke. My brother mocked me. Poison ivy didn’t affect him and he was never subject to the humiliation of sitting in a classroom with a pink-coated face, being driven crazy with the itching.
I came to regard my mother as the smartest one in the family, beginning with the very first time we bush-whacked the terraces. She would haul brush for about 30 minutes and then engage my Dad in a short discussion.
“John, I think we’ve just about cleared this area.” That would be followed by a grunt from Dad, who was dripping sweat into his eyes and trying not to slash himself with the machete.
“Would you like something to drink? You must be getting thirsty.”
“OK, I’m going to head in and I’ll bring you all out some lemonade, after I start lunch.” Then Mom would retreat to the house and wouldn’t appear until she called us for lunch. The lemonade would be on the table when we slogged inside. I never knew exactly why ham sandwiches took the entire morning to make, but whatever Mom was doing, I would have been only too happy to help her.
In the winter, “the family must shovel” pronouncement usually occurred after several feet of snowfall. Inevitably, the snow blocked the back door. In that case, the easiest way out of the house was through the cellar, since Dad hermetically sealed all the other doors of the house to keep out the cold. We would assemble on the stairs leading up from the cellar to its double doors and with might grunts, would heave upward, dislodging a pile of snow which would rain down inside our clothes. While most of the day would be spent clearing the large parking area in the back of the house and making two straight lines the width of the car axle down the driveway, there were also a lot of snowball fights and general mayhem.
Dad’s belief that burning a lawn in the spring made it come in rich and green – why didn’t he think the same thing about the brush? led him to get another burning permit from the town. So one Saturday morning, he would set fire to the lawn by sprinkling it with his favorite flammable material, kerosene, and dropping a match. Before he did do, however, we had to make preparations. We filled buckets with water and lugged one to each of the four sides of the lawn, with two on the side adjacent to the house’s long front porch. Then Mom assembled as many old towels as she could find and soaked them in water from the hose and put several by each bucket. The hose attached to the spigot on the north side of the house and she coiled it, waiting for disaster.
I always stood at one end of the lawn, my brother at the other, and Mom on the porch to watch the progress of the fire. Dad would stand next to the flag pole on the edge of the lawn, just above aforementioned site of the twice annual towering infernos. He ceremoniously dropped matches here and there and the fire spread. We all concentrated on its movement, using the wet towels to beat out any errant flames. It never failed that the wind would rise, and the flames would march on the house or the flag pole or Mom’s rock garden. Then everyone would beat wildly with their towels and sling water on the flames and sometimes each other in an attempt to control the burn. The house never did burn and my mother never used a wet towel. She used the hose.
Our neighbors found the whole process amusing, and it was quite normal to have a couple of them watching from the side of the lawn where I was stationed, yelling “Hey Noelle, watch those flames off to the left! Don’t let it get near our fence!” but chuckling as they watched us flail with the towels. For some reason, they had absolute confidence that the fire would never spread to their property.
We showered vigorously that night, but since Sunday always followed the day of the big burn, the family had to go to church. I noticed right away that other parishioners gave us a wide berth. Why would anyone want to sit next to someone still reeking of smoke and kerosene?
Dad, the non-Catholic, got as far as the church with us, but wisely stayed in the car with the window open, reading the newspaper.