Editor’s note: This is Jerry Apps’ final column for The Country Today. To continue to follow along with Apps, visit www.jerryapps.com.
I always felt the same way when I drove into the Coombes’ farmstead — depressed. This was back in the early 1950s. The little gambrel-roofed barn and the smaller two-story granary had been built in the early 1900s and had never been painted. The barn had suffered through one too many windstorms and leaned a bit toward the south. Weston Coombes had cut four poles that braced against the south end of the barn that seemed to have stopped further leaning.
The Coombes family had six Guernsey cows. Weston had fashioned some logs he’d cut in the woods and cobbled together a little makeshift pig house. One end of it sagged toward the west where the foundation logs had rotted. The roof had once been covered with tarpaper, but most of it had been torn off by the wind. A tangled woven-wire lane led the way from the pig pen back of the barn down the hill to a pond, a quarter-mile away where the hogs found water.
Not having a machine shed, their machinery, all horse drawn, stood where Weston had unhitched the team when he finished with an implement. A rusty McCormick mower stood under some apple trees. The one-row cultivator, tipped on its side, was next to the mower. Nearby stood the steel-wheeled wagon. Various other machinery was scattered around the farmyard.
The farm house had been built about the same time as the other buildings and was the same cold shade of gray. The house had never been completed. It didn’t have plaster on the walls. All that separated the kitchen from zero-degree weather and waist-deep snow was 2-by-4s and well-weathered pine siding. A person could see right through the wall in several places. Here and there Weston, or more likely his mother, had nailed dismantled cardboard boxes to the bare 2-by-4s.
Whenever I took Weston home — he had been helping Pa and me make wood on the home farm — he always invited me into his house for a cup of coffee, but I was usually in a hurry and would decline. This time I decided that a cup of coffee would taste good. We’d been out in the woods the entire day, wallowing around in the deep snow and trying to keep warm. The first thing I saw when I came into the house was a kerosene lamp standing in the center of the bare wooden kitchen table. The chimney on the lamp was absolutely spotless because even though the place was run down, Ina Coombes liked things clean and neat in her house. The light from the lamp cast an eerie shadow on the bare rafters of the kitchen ceiling. I could see frost on them, like the frost that gathered on the rafters in the hay mow of our cow barn. In the barn the frost came from the warm moist breath of the cows, while in here the frost came from people and the ever present teakettle on the back of the cook stove.
The kitchen sink was attached to the wall beside the outside door. It was a simple sink with a pipe attached to the bottom that stuck out through the wall. Whatever was in the sink spilled out into the snow where it promptly froze into a grotesque little multi-colored mound.
“Come in, come in,” Ina Coombes said, from where she was sitting in her rocking chair by the stove.
My head jerked in her direction. I hadn’t seen her sitting there.
“Come on over by the fire. Warm up. Sure a cold one today. I swear the thermometer ain’t budged the entire day,” she said.
Ina Coombes was a wrinkled, slightly-stooped old woman who wore her white hair pulled back and rolled into a tight bun. She was tiny, not much taller than 5 feet. Slim and frail, she was not at all like most of the neighborhood women, who were husky and wide-shouldered. Of course, some of the physical differences between Ina and the neighbor women were likely due to ethnic background. The neighborhood had been settled by Germans, Norwegians, and Poles, except for the Coombeses. They were English, and proud of it.
What Ina lacked in physical attributes, she made up for in spirit. Ina had plenty of that. You could see it in her gray eyes that sparkled when she talked; you could hear it in her low voice that always communicated her interest, her deep caring. She had a keen sense of humor, as well, and could tell a good story with the best of them. Ina was quite a woman, in spite of, or perhaps because of a hard life. Her husband, John, had died several years ago, but she continued farming with her son, Weston. Their 100 sandy, hilly and stone studded acres provided them the most meager living, even when farm prices were good.
“Sit down, rest,” Ina said. “You must be tired from choppin’ wood all day in this cold.”
I nodded, eyeing the coffee pot she was sliding across the stove. I pulled around a straight-backed chair that was pushed under the table and sat down. Weston sat in an old stuffed chair that seemed to have a permanent place near the oven door. Weston never said much, no matter what the occasion, and this was no exception. He just sat there, staring at the old wood range, his eyes kind of watery. His week-old black whiskers were well peppered with gray. As long as I’d known him I hadn’t seen many changes, except for the gray whiskers.
“You’re still in high school ain’t you?” Ina inquired.
“Yup,” I answered. “I’m a junior.”
“Years sure go by fast. Remember when you were just a little fella. About this tall.” She gestured with her long thin fingers. “Expect you’re lookin’ forward to graduating so you can help out your pa full time.”
Now, so many years past, I think back to Ina and Weston Coombes and how they had next to nothing, but they survived.
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