John B. Lee Guest Blog Post

Safety is a superstition; cleanliness a sin …

Blood in the yolk. Flies pooled in butter. Straw in raw milk. Worms in the apples. Worms in the peaches and pears. Fur on the cheese from the fridge in the shed. Mold cut from salvaged slices of white bread set aside in blue circles like winey crushes of pokeweed. Elder snot on the handkerchief balled up in grandfather’s pocket with stuck-together chains of peppermint candy. Smut afloat in mason jars of the apricot preserves. Mouse turd in the whatnot drawers in the pantry. Winter potatoes wizened up like winter-brown witch’s flesh, with white fingers sprouting through burlap, some spuds stinking with spoil that was punk to the thumb and weeping with warm-tar putrescence of rot. The best of these were the peelers we mashed without effort and et in the spring. Hair on the rind of the hog, chewed soft by grandpa in the pump house salivating for the oleogustus of lard in the hide. A toadstool’s worry of wild mushrooms, morels, puffballs, fried fresh from the woods. Elderberries shucked on a tarp and baked with little stems still unplucked from the fruit in the pie. Sometimes corn would spill from the crop of a capon killed in the yard, pinfeathers steamed off at the table at noon for flesh eaten by evening, with the wishbone curing for good luck on the hot-water pipes over the stove.
If you asked my uncle as he ate a windfall he’d picked up from in the lawn, “John, don’t you worry about the worms.” He’d say with a worm-eater’s grin, “It’s the worms that should worry for me.”

If you grew squeamish with my mother concerning the buzz she flicked with a knife from the yellow melt of summer butter she’d set on the table, she’d say smiling, “You eat a peck of dirt before you die.”
On the farm you ate everything but the squeal on the pig. Washing before dinner meant joining the threshing crew and sloshing your wrists and splashing your face in the galvanized tub then wiping your hands on a common towel, the water blackened with earth and redolent with the smell of the sweat in the cloth of the rolled up sleeves of the men.
As for clean, I grew up in a family with three men who bathed once a week in the summer and hardly at all in the season of snow. My father showered every day and changed his clothes after chores. The hired man shaved on Sundays and my red-haired uncle shaved only as the need arose. My grandfather lived most of my youth alone in the other house on the farm, and I never knew him to bathe. He wore felt boots, grey trousers held up by police suspenders, a cotton shirt with the cuff rolled once to reveal the ragged sleeve of his trapdoor longjohns worn all year round. He spat on the floor and kept his false teeth in a glass by his night table. The water in that glass was murk with food float and a rinse line like a milk stain permanently etched near the rim.

Rats at the barn. Rats in the kitchen. My father tells a story from his childhood when he trapped a rat that ran up the inside of his pant leg and he squeezed until the guts came through staining his flesh with warm offal of crushed rat. When my sister was a baby, mother turned to hear her calling “here kitty, kitty” to a rat that had come up from the earth floor basement of the little house that was her first home. “Here kitty, kitty …” my sister cooing at the rat on the floor. The day after the local mill burned to the ground, our collie dog Tip killed two five-gallon pails of rats that had fled the conflagration only the night before. Fire fighters said the rats carpeted the ground fleeing the inferno. A sheep man Hank Welsh from the states failed to come to the farm one year to buy sheep. He’d opened his silo that spring and been attacked by rats mad drunk on fermented silage. He’s run for the house, screaming with his body fanged by rats. He spent a month in hospital and said he couldn’t sleep for a year after that for fear of rats.
On the farm, safety is a superstition and cleanliness a sin.

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