January is taking leave of us, slogging through the sloppy mud and leaving muddy footprints behind.

A gray, overcast sky greets us again this January morning, although the temperatures are relatively mild. I think most old timers would agree that this has been the wettest, sloppiest winter that they can remember. This has been such a mild winter that the ground has scarcely been frozen, and the yard is soft and spongy underfoot. Much of the grass is still green, and I saw chickweed growing lushly beside the steps. The tiny, white flowers are beginning to open, lending a cheery note to the lawn.

Friends are sending pictures of their budding Easter flowers, hyacinths and crocuses. I hope they are not peeking out too early, lest they get their noses frostbit by Old Man Winter. I have seen Easter flowers blooming bravely through the snow. I have a feeling that winter is not through with us yet.

It would be easy to sink into the winter doldrums and feel as glum as the weather. I heard someone say that this is such “nothing” weather; they wished it would either get cold and snowy, or else turn really warm. But even a wet, gloomy day is too valuable to be wasted, and a person can find something to do if they try.

I’ve been asked what we did as kids in the winter time to pass the time away with no television, no computer and no hand held electronic games. Well, for one thing, we had plenty of chores to do. There was no “I’m bored!” complaints coming from us. Farm chores had to be done in cold weather as well as warm, chickens had to be fed, eggs gathered, cows milked and fed, and drinking water carried in.

The boys usually took care of bringing the water, in zinc buckets, to the house where it was placed on the “water table.” We also had a long-handled tin dipper that was plunged into a bucket, where we slaked our thirst. I had the pleasure of bringing in the water once in a while, and believe me, it was a chore! I usually spilled the cold water down my leg (in freezing weather) and came to the house drenched.

After the chickens were fed, the night water brought in, and the cow milked and the milk strained, we sat down to supper. We had plenty of good, nourishing country food, hot corn bread or biscuits, and all the milk we could drink. Supper over and the dishes washed (mine and Mary Ellen’s job) we settled down for an evening of entertainment.

Sometimes our chores continued. Daddy would bring in a coffee sack (that’s what we called a burlap sack) full of dry field corn, and a Number 3 washtub. We spent the evening shelling corn for the stock, and raced to see who could shell theirs the fastest. A red cob was valued, and I have read that some of the old timers had “shelling” parties. If a young man found a red cob, he got to kiss the girl of his choice.

The evenings that I loved best was when Daddy and Mom told us stories.

Daddy would relate his life as a “hobo” when he rode the rails “Out West” during the depression. He was a master storyteller (the Irish in him!) and we rode along with him in the freezing boxcar, ate Mulligan stew in a hobo jungle, and got thrown out by an angry storekeeper. We panned gold with him in one of the western streams (and he had a little cloth pouch of gold dust that he kept in Grandpa’s trunk.) I wonder now what happened to it?

Mom told us tales of when she was a little girl growing up on Big Laurel Creek. She was the youngest girl of eleven children, and to me it was a fascinating way to live. Of course it wasn’t—it was hard work, hard times and sorrowful times. Her mother died when baby Gene was only nine years old, and Mom was eleven. But she made it sound like so much fun, that I longed to be a little girl with her back on Big Laurel Creek.

Sometimes we would play games like “Fistalk,” which involved making a fist with your thumb extended, and the next person would grab the thumb and extend his thumb, and so forth.  The chant went like this; “Whatcha got there?” “Fistalk” “Take it off or knock it off” until the last fist was left.  Then we said, “Whatcha got there?” “Bread and cheese” “Where’s my share?”  “The cat got it.”  “Where’s the cat?”  “In the woods” Where’s the woods?” “The fire burned it”  Where’s the fire?” “The water quenched it”  “Where’s the water?”  “The ox drank it”  “Where’s the ox?”  “The butcher killed it.”  “ Where’s the butcher?”  “The rope hung him.” “Where’s the rope?” “The knife cut it.”  “Where’s the knife?”  “The hammer broke it.”  “Where’s the hammer?”  “Out behind the church house cracking hickory nuts. Whoever grins or shows their teeth gets a box with five nails in it.”  (A fist, of course.) This was the fun part, trying to keep a straight face.

My sister, Mary Ellen, found a couple more versions on the internet, but of course, this game was handed down through the generations by word of mouth. I am sure that Daddy taught it to us.

After story and game time was over, Daddy read to us out of the Bible. He loved the story of Joseph, and often cried when he told of how this little boy was left in a pit by his brothers and then sold to the Egyptians. Then it was prayer time and we knelt along the couch and every available chair while Mom or Daddy prayed first. Sometimes the little ones would go to sleep on their knees and have to be carried to bed.  We took turns reciting our childish prayers, and then off to bed we’d go—the boys to the “junk room” where they slept on a feather bed. Mary Ellen took Susie, and I took Jeannie to our double beds in the same bedroom.  (No wonder we sisters are still so close together!)

We’d go to sleep telling each other “good night”— Good night Alyce Faye, good night Larry, good night Mary Ellen, good night Mark, good night Ronnie, good night Jeannie, good night Susie; back and forth until sleep overtook us.

How I wish I could tell Mark and Ronnie “good night” one more time!

     “Home is the place where character is built, where sacrifices to contribute to the happiness of others are made, and where love has taken up its abode.”

 –Elijah Kellogg