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Mychal Wilmes: Memories of Mom and Dad spring from soggy day

Mud seems super-glued to shoes and paws while we stroll the long driveway to the mailbox. Water sits in tire tracks molded in the gravel softened by heavy rain. A pool of water stands in the yard where the Oldsmobile is usually parked. A small flock of Canada geese, flying in familiar V-form push themselves through the heavy air. A heavily loaded semi roars along the highway, its sound amplified by the wind's absence.

Meteorological winter — a measurement used by meteorologists based on "sensible weather patterns" — is officially over now that March has arrived. Those who keep track of such things surely agree that this winter contained little sensibility. Trees were tricked into budding in February, and tulips poked their heads up to reach the sun's surprise heat. It was a Godsend for the dwindling pheasant population, which is threatened by habitat lost, a growing coyote population and heavy rains at hatching time.

Projects that were meant as fall things remain for spring.

Eaves will be reattached after the chainsaw is taken from its shelf to clean volunteer soft maples and cottonwoods from the south and north windbreaks. The dying elms, no more than 10 inches in diameter at their trunks, must be cut from the fence row. Dad, who taught me how to use a crosscut saw and could discern oak from hard maple by its bark and grain, would have loved the job.

When the wood-burning furnace heated the house, the woods became our workplace. Daylight hours were so precious that the lunch break was only long enough to eat a lard sandwich washed down with a gulp of peppermint schnapps. 


The lard kept the sandwiches from freezing. That was also what the schnapps was supposed to do. Although it burned the throat and warmed the chest, it did nothing for freezing feet. Below-freezing cold made splitting wood chunks easier, especially when it involved watery soft maple. It takes a certain God-given talent with a maul and wedge to split wood efficiently and effectively.

The chainsaw's noise bothers me when before it didn't. A two-person crosscut, when the partners work in perfect concert, produces a certain soothing rhythm.

Other things also need to get done before May comes. The garden hasn't seen fertilizer in a decade, and its productivity is slipping. Chicken manure, not commercial fertilizer, is the best source. The pasture also needs work. Wild parsnips, a bane for many property owners in southeastern Minnesota, threatens to overrun it. Wild parsnips are most easily attacked in spring because the plant, which was introduced from Europe as a garden complement, greens up earlier.

Gypsy trots past the mailbox and sticks her nose into a huge hole on the side of the road. It's much too large to be a striped gopher's. My imagination suggests that it might be a badger's home or perhaps even a black bear's den. It isn't that, but when the children were young the thought scared them enough to send them sprinting back to the house in case the bear awakened from its slumber.

Dad was good at that.

He often warned about the bums who made their home in the abandoned farmstead just a pasture's walk from us. If we should see someone who appeared to look like Red Skelton's Freddie the Freeloader character, we were supposed to run home as fast as we could. We never saw anyone in flesh and blood, but our imaginations conjured up waif-like creatures who looked out of the abandoned house's broken windows.

Mother didn't appreciate him scaring us in that way.  Part of her reasoning was that bums weren't bums at all but down-on-their-luck people. That was a lesson learned when as a young wife and mother some homeless men knocked on her farmhouse door looking for food and work. Although their work wasn't needed, the men went on their way with a sandwich, a drink from the well and kind words.

A decade later, she and Dad brought water to the German prisoners of war who picked rocks and pulled weeds in the fields across the road. The prisoners, who considered themselves fortunate to be in America and not in Russian camps, were surprised to be spoken to in their native tongue.

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