Look to the Stars
by Alice Isom Gubler Stratton
Chapter 7
I Try to See from
Papa's Point of View
(1919)

35 Papa was the water tax collector and the stray pen keeper, and our meals were constantly interrupted with people paying taxes or being mad because someone had put their animals in the stray pen. We ate in the front room and I felt self-conscious about people looking on, because there were so many of us around the big table. I wished we had fancy food to show off like strawberry shortcake. But at least Mama alumys saw to it that we had a fresh white table cloth on, and we set a full table, even if we were only eating bread and gravy.

It undoubtedly wasn't easy for Papa to provide for so many of us, but generally he was cheerful. But when he voiced his frustrations it threw a pall of gloom over me.

"I guess we might as well buy our caskets while we've got the money," he remarked one day. "We could put them in the cellar to store dry beans in."

A chill ran through me. Mama sent me to the cellar to get a bottle of fruit and I stood in the dim light, visualizing ten caskets, including Grandma's, side by side on the dirt floor. I would have to crawl over them all the rest of my life to get the things Mama sent me after. The dry beans we dipped from them would eventually be turned into skeletons—our skeletons!

Another thing that scared me was the terrible song they sang in church about the moon being turned into blood and the waters into gall. Nothing could ruin a Sunday afternoon like that song could.

Sometimes even my dreams would petrify me and I would wake up tingling. Sometimes I wandered in my sleep, bumping into things. Papa slept with both ears wide open. A cat couldn't even sneak through our garden in the night without him 36 hearing it. With the first touch of my foot to the floor he'd shout, "Alice, get back to bed."

"I am in bed," I'd whimper.

"You are not," he'd yell.

His yelling confused me and I didn't know where my bed was. Agitated, I'd crouch in one of the little windows under the eaves, fumbling at the screens, hoping to get away from the sound of his voice. Mama had seen to it that the screens were solidly nailed in place. After so much shouting Pape finally awoke me, the room came into focus, and I crawled back into bed.

A fun pastime to me was drawing pictures, and I thought I was pretty good. I especially liked my drawing of a fat girl with a butterfly net, so I submitted it to The Juvenile Instructor. When it was published I was practically launched into an artist's career. My prize for the drawing was a beautifully illustrated book "Through the Looking Glass" or "Alice in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll. What a thoughtful editor to send me a story of Alice. Often I was called "Alice in Wonderland" and I liked it because it justified my many flights of fancy, like the day Iantha and I found the egg upon the hill.

We were playing among the chaparrals when we found what appeared to be an ordinary looking chicken egg under a bush. Now what would ever possess a chicken to climb the hill to lay an egg?

"Maybe it's a turtle egg," Iantha suggested.

"Or an alligator egg," I said. "Let's take it home and hatch it and see what comes out of it."

Taking turns, we carried our treasure down the hill, and our speculations grew more vivid and exciting each step of the way. We followed the road, for climbing over rocks might break the egg.

"What if it is a dragon egg?" Iantha asked.

"Or it might be a prince that some witch has turned into an egg," I added. "If we break the egg then we'd break the spell, and the Prince would be so happy he'd grant us all our wishes."

We had reached the Lombardy poplar trees at Workman's corner by now. I was holding the egg. My imagination had reached such a pitch that I could stand it no longer.

"I'm going to break the egg," I said firmly.

"No, don't! Little snakes might run out of it." Iantha jumped back as I whacked the egg against a fence post.

I emptied the shell upon the ground. If a genie had spiraled into the sky we would not have been more surprised than we were to see only a firm, yellow yolk surrounded by clear egg white. We came back to reality with a thud!1

In the summertime, suppertime came before sundown, and it was easy to play outside too long. Once when LaPriel came in after the supper table had been cleared, Papa said, "Lapriel, stay out of the pantry." Oh no, I thought, he isn't going to make her go without supper. She had played so hard and must be awfully hungry. I wished I had some little thing to give her, but I didn't. All of our food was kept either in the pantry or the cellar, and the same door led to both. 37 Holding my breath, I expected her to cry, but instead she turned and went out the kitchen door. Pretty soon she returned with a loaf of bread. Seeing it, Papa shouted, "LaPriel, I told you not to eat. Now put that bread back in the pantry."

"You didn't tell me not to eak," she wailed, "you only told me to stay out of the pantry."

"Then how did you get that bread?" he demanded.

"From Aunt Mary Stout," she replied.

"You march right back to Aunt Mary's with it," he ordered.

Obediently she returned the loaf and went to bed without supper.

Aunt Mary Stout's was the logical place for her to go. We were always as much at home there as we were in our own home. We took Venona and Leah as for granted as though they were our sisters. Aunt Mary treated us like we were her own. When Uncle Marion's wagon trundled down the dusty dugway coming home from Rattlesnake, we ran along with Aunt Mary's children to meet him. We knew there would be biscuits in the wooden grub box fastened to the side of his wagon. Dry biscuits with the exotic flavor of dry farm dust.

Another time when LaPriel came in from play after supper was over, Papa said, "Mama, pack her things and let her go find another place to live. If she wanted to live with us, she'd come in on time."

I don't think Mama wanted to do it, but she always cooperated with Papa. Quietly she tied a little dress and a night gown in a dish towel and handed it to LaPriel. My heart almost broke as LaPriel's little face crumpled with unhappy tears.

"Now go on," Papa ordered.

An aching misery swept through me as I watched her clutching the bundle in her arms and sobbing as her little bare feet trudged out the front gate. Slowly she walked outside the picket fence, her head bowed, then some bushes screened her from my view. I ran across the yard to Grandma Isom's house and up the stairs. From the south bedroom window I could still see her. Near the and of the fence hung a loose picket with only one nail in the top. LaPriel pried it back and crawled through. At the end of the raspberry row was the wooden box our organ had come in, which we used for a playhouse. LaPriel curled up in a corner of it, her face buried in her bundle, crying. I cried too. I don't know what discussion took place between Papa and Mama, but after awhile Mama walked through the raspberry patch, and kneeling down, put her arms around LaPriel. Then taking her by the hand they walked to the house together.

Brother Roundy and his family lived through the block from us. In the spring time when he was plowing, we used to crawl through the fence, racing over the fresh turned soil.

"Tell us a story, Brother Roundy," we would beg. He'd tie the horse's reins to the plow handle and sit in the furrow with us and tell us "injun" stories from the Book of Mormon.

He had other talents too. He could charm a toothache away or buy our warts for a nickel and make them disappear.

After school was out, Mama let Edith and me go to Cedar with Brother Roundy and his boy Karl in their stripped down, topaess Model T. We had never 38 been to Cedar before. The road over the Black Ridge was narrow, steep and rocky. We were impressed with "dead-man's hollow" and a dream gold mine. Every turn in the road came alive with Brother Roundy by our side. Once over the ridge, the car coughed, sputtered, then died. It was out of gas.

Relieved, Brother Roundy sighed, "I've been praying for the past five miles that we could stop. The gas feed was stuck and I couldn't slow down."

We were probably doing at least twenty miles per hour.

Karl went on foot to a ranch house across a scrub oak flat. A light mist of rain began to fall, so Brother Roundy drew us into his arms and told us "injun" stories. After awhile Karl returned with a quart bottle of gas he had found in a ranch house. Lifting the hood he poured it into the carburetor. The car sputtered and shook, but that was all.

Brother roundy sniffed at the empty bottle. "Coal oil," he said.

Again Karl hiked through the brush. It was dusk when he returned with a white horse. With a rope they hitched it to the car, and the horse pulled us on to Ren Roundy's ranch house. "Ren's playhouse," they called it, because it was so small.

Ren and his sisters Reva, Reba, and Anise were there. They fed us sour dough biscuits and fried mutton and bedded us down. Five of us slept cross-wise on one bed. The night was long, cold and crowded. The next morning the horse pulled the car on to Kanarra.

Brother Roundy's oldest daughter, Sarah Sylvester, fixed breakfast for us and combed Edith's and my long, tangled hair. She kept sending me to the ditch to dip the comb until she got us braided slick for the rest of the journey. The round trip to Cedar took us three days, mostly just chugging along.

In the fall we helped Mama dig the carrots, turnips and parsnips and put them in a straw lined pit covered with boards. She gave us some to sell so we could earn a little money. By peddling to the neighbors, selling my vegetables for 5¢ a bunch, I earned 30¢. Feeling rich, I skipped to the drug store and bought six packages of gum. After I got outside, a feeling of guilt overpowered me. I had squandered my money, not even saving 3¢ for tithing, so I returned the gum.

Fall meant we were back to school again. Jean McAllister was my third grade teacher. What a china doll she was with her ivory skin, black hair and pretty dresses! Considering that a kid had to look at the teacher all day, this was important.

The upstairs room she rented in the Isom Hotel had an east window above the porch roof. One snowy Saturday morning, as I pattered along the sidewalk in front of Petty's store, I saw her looking out of her open window. Below her in the rose garden, Irving Isom scooped up a snowball, hurling it into her window, splattering her with snow. She screamed, and he laughed, and I stood transfixed watching the love scene. Soon all of the third grade knew that Irving loved Jean. She was my romantic ideal until one fateful morning.

After the opening exercises, she said, "Everyone turn to the left and put your feet in the aisle." Pointing at me she boomed, "Alice Isom, there are plenty of shoe buttons, darning needles, and carpet warp in this world. You'd better see that your shoes have all their buttons on by tomorrow morning."

The kids tittered and my eyes smarted with self conscious tears. I tucked my sloppy feet back under my desk. Each saggy shoe top was held up by only two 39 buttons where there should have been eight. That night I not only sewed on the buttons but turned a stove lid upside down, and with spit and a rag I sooted my shoes. And Miss McAllister became a human being in my sight from that day on.

Threshing time was a highlight of autumn and we hailed with excitement the day it was our turn. Frank Reber had cut our field of wheat and stacked the tied bundles in the barnyard. When we heard the clatter of the the threshing machine coming in at the barnyard gate, my sisters and I raced through the peach orchard to watch. We perched on the woodpile with the neighborhood youngsters who tagged along.

The men on the thresher set the blower so the straw would go under the north shed of the barn. After the shed was filled, the blower was turned to go over the top, where the straw piled higher and higher until it almost buried the barn. How shiny, slick and slidy it looked, a continuous slope from the peak down into the yard, almost to the bellflower apple tree.

After the thresher and its crew had left and Papa had returned to the house, our playmates lingered. What a golden day. Golden sunshine, golden peach trees, golden poplars along the sidewalk, and a shining golden straw stack beckoning with golden opportunity. It was too much. Like soldier ants we crawled in a continuous stream up to the top of the barn. From there we tumbled and slid all the way to the bottom, compacting the airy straw solidly beneath us, creating a slick chute for the endless stream of laughing, shouting youngsters. Exhilarating! It was the epitome of happiness, a happiness too great to endure, for above the squeals of laughter came a loud, discordant voice. Instantly we were hushed as Papa loomed like a giant before us. The last kid silently slid to the bottom of the stack and there we stood in a contrite huddle.

"I won't have you kids wallowing my straw stack down. Get a march on, everyone of you, and come right out of there," he demanded.

The only way out was through the little gate where he stood. One by one we meekly filed past as Papa's heavy hand "tunked" us each on the head. A "tunk" was Papa's version of a thump. It was administered by the end of the three middle fingers coming down with a thud on the top of the head. How mortifying! I couldn't believe Papa would treat our friends the same way he did us.

After we were all out of the enclosure and my friends had scampered home, I looked up at the golden straw stack. How I wished Papa could slide down it, from the top to the apple tree just once. If he knew the thrill of it, he'd ask all of our friends to come back.

Fall was butchering time. The big fat pig that had been slurping our dishwater all summer, and that had greedily climbed up the side of the pen for the ears of corn, had become a personal acquaintance by now. I had no particular love for him but I didn't want him killed, either. When the black tub was steaming over the fire and the boards for scraping the pig were arranged over the saw horses and George Spendlove arrived, Mildred and I figured it was shooting time, so we ran down into the dark cellar and crouched on the floor with our fingers in our ears. We didn't want to hear the fatal shot, but we kept one finger a little loose in one ear so we would know when it was safe to stop not listening.

Our sentimental feelings were pretty much forgotten when the pig was no longer a creature that could look at us out of little mean eyes, but was simply sausage, bacon, head cheese or lard for making pies. Nothing could be better than Mama's bottled sausage seasoned with sage.

As Christmas approached, I rooted through the sacks of scraps and rags Mama had stored upstairs. Rag bags and their doll making possibilities fascinated me. 40 As I rooted, I ran onto two orange-colored glass bowls that glinted with a transparent golden sheen. Transfixed, I held them up to the light. How beautiful they were. One was rounded in at the top like a crystal ball and the other had a fluted top like a petunia. My eyes were dazzled with their exquisite beauty. Where did they come from, and who did they belong to I wondered. Excitedly I started from the room to show everyone what I had found, when Kate met me in the hall.

"Quick, take them back where you got them from," she whispered.

"But guess where I found them?" I cried.

"I know. Annie and I hid them there," she answered. "We bought them for Mama for Christmas."

The gleam of the colored glass stirred something inside of me. An enchantment akin to what I felt as I read of Aladdin gathering rubies, diamonds, sapphires and amethysts in the underground garden, or of Dorothy and her friends being dazzled by the brilliancy of the Emerald City in the land of Oz. And the enchantment has remained. Always before, Christmas gifts to Mama had been useful, like stockings or an apron. But ornamental glass! What a surprise!2

Footnotes

  1. Story "A Piteous Day" published in The Relief Society Magazine, vol. 56, no. 5, pp. 338-342, May 1969.
  2. Story "The Golden Bowl" published in The Relief Society Magazine, vol. 54, no. 11, pp. 823-828, November 1967.