SHIFTING ROLES IN THE FAMILY
Svez was dumbfounded when Liz stopped the car beside the empty hay wagon where he waited for Iggy to bring the team of horses.
She rolled down the window. “I’m going to see Father Reinhardt because I want to record Freddie’s baptismal records in the family Bible.”
“You’re going to do what?” He jabbed the pitchfork into the ground and grabbed the car door as if he might yank it open.
“Freddie lives with us now, and I want everything done right. I promised Martha we’d treat him like one of our own, and Father Reinhardt will tell us how to make it proper.”
“’Course he belongs with us. You and your sister settled that last fall. I agreed and even Henry went along with it.” She touched his hand and he pulled it back. “Reinhardt ain’t got no say in the matter. It’s our business, not his.”
“I’ll be back this afternoon.” She let out the clutch and slowly inched forward as he walked alongside. “Thelma will take care of Freddie and make lunch for you and the boys.”
“What if I need you when you’re gone?”
“Well, you better get used to it.” She sped out the driveway.
He yanked the pitchfork loose, tossed it onto the wagon and grabbed the hitch as Iggy guided the horses back toward him.
On the way to the field, Iggy snapped the reins as his brothers waved and cheered from the top of their load heading toward the barn. “They beat us, Pa.”
“’Cause there’s three of them, and only two of us,” Svez said, but he blamed Liz for their late start, not the time he spent spend discussing the matter with Arnie in the barn and then returning to the kitchen for a second cup of coffee.
Liz’s strange behavior continued to bother him as he stood on the wagon and caught the hay Iggy tossed to him. Got to get used to what? There had been babies in the house before. He reflected and totaled five, running the names through his mind. He had accepted Freddie just like a real son. A priest can’t fix something that don’t need fixin’. He sniffed the air as if checking for danger when a pitchfork sailed along with a clump of hay.
Iggy squinted against the sun, small bits of leaves and dust floating in the air. “Oops. That weren’t just hay.”
Svez gasped, “I gotta get back to the house. Get up here and drive the horses. I need my hands to stop the bleeding.”
“You got me in the leg. Now get up here.”
“I can ride ’em.” He jumped on the back of one mare and slapped the other’s rump to get the team moving.
Svez fell back as the wagon jerked forward, and Iggy forced the horses to a trot faster than normal for draft animals. When they got to the yard, Iggy jumped off and brought the team to a full stop near the barn. At the water trough, the horses drank while Iggy sloshed his face to clear away the sweat and dirt.
With one hand thrust behind the bib of his overalls clasped to the wound on his inner thigh and his other hand grasping the fork handle, its tines anchored deep in the hay, Svez lowered himself down the side of the wagon.
He yelled, “Liz,” forgetting, possibly wanting to forget, his wife was away. “Elizabeth.” He still refused to admit she wasn’t home as he leaned forward and limped toward the house. He felt embarrassed when Thelma approached. “Get Ma.”
“She went to town. Won’t be back until this afternoon. What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”
“Iggy tossed the hay, pitchfork and all, while I was on top the load.” He had to look up at his daughter, and his stooped posture humbled him. “Soon as your Ma left to see Reinhardt, I’d knew she’d be needed. The horses are riled, and them clouds is full of rain. Ain’t gonna hold back much longer.”
“Iggy’s getting the horses settled down, and I can help you.”
He brooded. Baptismal records weren’t reason enough to make a special trip to town. When old Father Busch was still pastor, women didn’t run to him for every little thing. Matter of fact, Busch didn’t hardly see no one. Housekeeper did everything, ’cept say Mass on Sunday. Maybe she shoulda preached for him, too. Then he’d still be here with Reinhardt stuck back in the school for priests where he couldn’t mess in people’s business.
“The fork got me in the leg.” He purposely left Iggy’s part out. “I knew this would happen while your Ma’s off with that damn priest. I shoulda let Arnie have his way.” He chuckled at the idea of a boar pig named Reinhardt.
Her father’s reaction confused Thelma, and she was unsure how or if she should help him. What would her mother do? “I can help you. I’m sixteen, and Ma says I should start taking the part of a full grown woman.” By the time they got to the kitchen, she noticed blood seep through his overalls. “Come sit by the sink.”
He went directly to his captain’s chair in the front room. Whenever he sat there, her mother kept the family away to give him some alone time. Thelma waited in the kitchen.
“Bring soap and water and some of the iodine from the Watkins man. Find an old sock or towel in the rag bag to stop the bleeding.”
Thelma froze. How bad was he hurt and could she bear to look at it?
Her reaction to obey overcame her fear. When she stood beside him with the washbasin and towel in one hand and small bottle of a red liquid in the other, she panicked. His pants had to come off. Flushed with fear and embarrassment, she assured herself she could do whatever her mother expected.
“Take off your overalls.”
She played her mother’s role in a skit like the ones from country school. She was thrust onto a stage alone with her father and no audience. He stood and unhitched one of the straps from the bib but couldn’t reach the other. She hesitated, then set down her medical supplies and with both hands released the second hook easing the loosely fitting overalls down to his shoes. The blood had oozed between his fingers and glued them to his inner thigh. She gasped when she realized his hand was thrust through the inside of his boxer shorts.
“Good thing I weren’t wearing long johns.” He sat down hard, his feet tangled in his overalls. “They’d have to come off too.”
She nodded, but couldn’t help but feel her father was already naked.
“When I pull my hand away, put a rag on the cut to keep it from bleeding.” He slid his hand back through his shorts and held it awkwardly in the air.
Thelma pressed the towel to the wound, then lifted it. The sight made her weak.
“Bleeding’s stopped,” she whispered and waited for more instructions but got none. She dipped a towel into the basin of water and, careful not to reopen the cut, dabbed at the dried blood. A bulge began to appear on his shorts. She averted her eyes, fixing her gaze on his reddened hand protectively raised above her. It mesmerized her. She lifted his other hand from the arm of his chair and placed it on the rag.
“Hold this tight so the bleeding don’t start up again.” She reached up, gently touched his bloodstained hand and guided it into the basin of warm water. She washed each of his fingers and felt his hand become limp.
The image of the hand reddened with blood slowly melted into the memory of an earlier time when her sow, Tess, was giving birth. The first two piglets quickly squiggled out and Tess snapped at them. Her father explained sows sometimes kill their babies. She had been used to the harsh realities of life on the farm but not for what happened next.
Her father rolled up his sleeve and reached into the birth canal. Her shock turned to delight as he drew out a squirming piglet. He handed it to her, and she felt warm liquid pass from his hand to hers.
Washing and caressing her father’s hand created a similar feeling. She again washed blood off the piglet and relished the warm liquid as it oozed through their entwined fingers. He lifted her hand from the water and laid it on the rise in his boxer shorts.
Her hand found the slit, and she felt another source of wetness. She had hesitated to take the pulsating piglet, and now her reluctance embarrassed her. She felt his hand gently but firmly hold hers to the warm, wet, pulsating creature. She accepted the gift, hesitantly at first and then willingly, as she enclosed it between her fingers. Together they gently stroked it. She wanted to show her willingness to accept this rite of passage, but his eyes avoided hers and his whole body quivered. He leaned back and groaned.
When she realized what happened, one of his hands soaked in the basin and the other raised as if to protect her or, she shuddered, to slap her. She stared at her hands resting on his lap, cupped together as if offering or receiving a gift. She was not sure if she should show or expect appreciation. Her father gave no sign of either as he gazed toward the ceiling.
The rag covering the wound had fallen away. The cut looked ugly but it was clean. Her hands needed washing, and she placed them in the reddened and warmed water. She waited for a response, but got none.
She doused the wound with iodine, covered it with cloth and wrapped yarn around his leg to hold it in place. She hoped for some acknowledgement of their intimacy, but he only stared into space and breathed deeply. Years ago in a birthing pen, he soothed her fears. Was it now her turn to comfort him? Is this what her mother meant about becoming a woman?
“Everything’s okay. You can put your pants back on.” He stood, reached for the straps to his overalls and pulled them over his shoulders. “Ma can check if I done good when she gets home.”
She watched him limp across the yard toward Iggy who stood with the horses. She noticed Freddie’s toy on the floor alongside his playpen.
“Freddie. You’re a naughty boy. What am I gonna do with you?” She picked him up and held him so tight he couldn’t move, but he didn’t cry. Mama, am I grown up now? It don’t feel good.
SHIFTING ROLES IN THE FAMILY