Life goes on whether we are ready or even want it to. There was no denying I was alive but the days following Daddy’s death and burial was like a remedial course in actually living.
The first project we worked on was syrup making. It was work, and a bunch of it, but we only had a small window of opportunity and I was bound and determined to take advantage of it. For this project it was actually easier for the farm to come to us rather than us haul everything to the farm. The cabin homestead already had the set up and we also had access to a larger supply of wood to keep the fire the right temperature. And the trees; I can’t forget we had the trees in much greater abundance than the farm itself did.
For my part I was much more comfortable keeping the youngest kids … Jessie and Rudy’s two youngest girls … at the farm and away from the boilers. Aunt Esther and Aunt Lilah watched Jessie and the others helped haul the sap from the tapped trees; but having them near the fire made me a nervous wreck so I never let them hang around at the cabin very long. There is a story in our family that two children were lost one year when they got too near a boiling vat of tree sap. One of the children died immediately but the other lingered for days during a time when modern health care was nonexistent. That story has always stuck in my head and not even Rudy or Aunt Lilah could make me ease up on the restrictions I set. I’m simply not convinced I could have handled anyone getting hurt on my watch, it wouldn’t matter whether it was my fault or not.
I had already marked several trees that we had used in years past – maple, birch, box elder, and black walnut. You can technically get sap and therefore syrup from all trees but you’ll wind up with a nasty and potentially poisonous mess from some of them. I always stuck with the traditional tree varieties because of this. Besides, it was enough to keep four vats boiling at a time.
Purists would have a conniption if they saw the way we had always boiled sap. For one thing if it was a maple the sap went in the maple vat; it didn’t matter whether it was a sugar maple, a red maple, a silver maple, or whatever. A maple was a maple was a maple when it came time for us to make syrup though I will admit to a partiality for the sugar maples. One year the tree taping days were cut so short that Daddy simply dumped all of the syrup from all the different varieties of trees we tapped into the same batch. We were thankful for what little syrup we got that year but the syrup itself had an unusual taste to it that we were never able to replicate and I wasn’t necessarily disappointed by that.
That first day was chaos. We had the kids cleaning and sanitizing all of the equipment – buckets, lids, drill bits, spiles (what the taps are called), and hooks. The women pulled out all of the cheesecloth we had and was hand washing it and laying it out so that it would dry straight without the loose weave being pulled out of whack and making holes. I had more cheesecloth than they did down at the farm because I had been stockpiling it for years and keeping it in my cedar chest. I had a thing for cheese cloth for some weird reason and Daddy and Micah bought me some as a gag nearly every Christmas and birthday. The men, after they finished their morning chores, took the equipment and started setting up the taps. Often paths had to be cleared just to get to the trees we wanted which only added to the labor.
Most of the trees we tapped only had one or two taps. A tree has to be in excess of twelve inches in diameter before you can tap it at all unless you want to kill it or weaken it to the point it might as well be dead. At twenty-one inches you can have two taps and even the most conservative tree tapper said that if it is over twenty-seven inches you can have three taps. I’ve never put more than three taps on a tree; you want the sap but you don’t want to bleed the tree dry.
We didn’t collect any sap that day but we were experiencing good weather for what we planned to do. It was warming during the day but still fell below freezing at night. When the tree would freeze at night the capillary pressure would squeeze the sap out through the taps that had been drilled. Starting the next day we collected a goodly amount of sap, better than I remember the last time we did it in fact. The weather was pretty much perfect and the weather had been damp rather than dry as it had been the last several years.
The sap looked like water unless you let it dry on you, then it could feel tacky and sticky. Each type of syrup was collected from the bucket and then poured into larger holding buckets until we collected enough to boil. It takes forty gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. I had five gallon buckets stacked high and deep out in the shed where they stayed below thirty-eight degrees. You have to remember that sap is like milk, it doesn’t stay good long and it has to be kept below a certain temperature or it will spoil.
Maple and Box Elders make the most syrup as they only require a 40:1 ratio of sap to syrup to reach the right sugar percentage which floats around 66% plus or minus a very few tenths. Black walnut was next at 60:1. It was the Birch that provided the least amount of syrup for the most amount of work at 100:1 but the taste was so phenomenal that I couldn’t resist the temptation to do it anyway, especially after everyone else egged me on after remembering the batches that Daddy used to make.
We got enough of the maple sap first so that is the first batch we started. We built a trench fire in the old fire pits that were older than Aunt Lilah and that was saying something. Then we carefully lay the tub on the rocks that had been laid around the trenches in the days of Methuselah. We then poured the sap we’d been collecting into the two-foot by six-foot flat bottomed tub that was properly called an evaporation pan and then brought it up to a boil. That was the tricky part and we had long paddles we used to keep the syrup stirred so that it wouldn’t scorch; the fire had to be tended just right as well. Slowly a rhythm would set it. Given the size of our evaporator pans we managed to produce two gallons of maple syrup a day and once we brought the other evaporator pans into production to handle the other saps we were getting two gallons of maple per day, two gallons of box elder, a gallon and a half of black walnut syrup, and maybe a gallon of birch if we started it first and had a nice long day of dry weather.
We had an average year and sugaring time … when you turn sap into syrup … lasted three full weeks. I’d never participated in such a large and constant production. We finished up with about forty gallons of maple syrup, the same in box elder syrup, thirty gallons of black walnut syrup, and fifteen gallons of birch syrup. This was split evenly with the farm.
I suppose, given that most of the sap had come from the cabin land and that Mark and I supervised we could have asked and likely received more but when we discussed it together we decided that we’d phrase it to be so that we could get fuel for the tractor. Rudy was no fool and he took Mark and I aside and said that both the farm and cabin should have what he called a “grace period” this first year so that we could all get on our feet. We’d produce and share with the farm and the farm would produce and share with us and we wouldn’t worry about every jot and tittle so long as everyone was pulling their weight and was content to leave it the way it was.
That was fine by me, I wasn’t really eager to have to deal with a competition of that sort. It might come in the future but I was praying that things would work out peacefully in both the short term and long term.
I did learn a few things during that period and had a few others reinforced. One of my biggest mistakes was in thinking that I could just carry on with my other chores the way I always had during syrup making time. Wrong. For one the amount of sap we were working was greater than anything I had ever participated in in the past. Two, my chores were greater than they had ever been in the past. Three, a larger number of people participating in production did not necessarily lessen the work by an equal percentage.
I tried to keep doing things the same way and within two or three days I was so tired and exhausted I was on the frayed edge of tears all the time. People put it down to grief but I had to admit to Mark on that third day that the truth was I wasn’t working myself to exhaustion on purpose it was just turning out that way.
“Del, you’re gonna make yourself sick. Take a day off. I’ll tell John that we have to have Micah for a couple of more weeks, at least until sugaring is over with, to give you some time to recoup from everything.”
“Mark, it isn’t that. I can’t just pick and choose when I’m going to let Micah have his trial period and when I’m going to put it on hold; that’s not realistic and won’t solve a thing,” I told him.
After asking me to sit down before I fell down which I gladly did while he poured me some warm cambric tea … warm milk with just a bit of heavily tea mixed in it … he asked, “Is it just the sugaring or is it the chores … or both?”
“I’ll admit my energy level is low but don’t tell Aunt Lilah or she’ll pester me until I drink that foul spring tonic she makes. Rushing into the sugaring hasn’t helped and neither has trying to pick up my regular chores that you took over so I could nurse,” I had to swallow past a catch in my throat. “So that I could nurse Daddy. If it was just one of those things I could likely get through it without looking like such a needy weenie.”
He chuffed a tired laugh and then said, “You aren’t a ‘needy weenie.’ The things you say girl.” He rotated his neck and shoulders to release some of his own fatigue. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not exactly full of energy myself. Those paddles and lifting those buckets are as bad as splitting wood all day, which I might add is what Sam and Micah are doing plenty of too just to keep the fires going. Trying to keep up with four evaporators at once is like trying to dance with four girls at once … tricky and on the verge of being dangerous.”
That last made me give him a look but there was no way I was going to stroke his ego and ask him how he knew exactly. Instead I told him, “Micah will be up here tomorrow to help. He knows what has to be done and how to be careful with the boiling sap.”
“Speaking of … I thought you said you didn’t like kids around the evaporator pans. How did you and Micah learn? The way you make it sound you were younger than Rudy’s girls when you started.”
“We didn’t start on the pans but on the kettles … those big stainless steel ones I pulled out of the basement before deciding they were too small. They were set up over a propane burner outside . And … well, Daddy had the nerves to teach us. I just don’t have it in me right now to force myself to let the girls learn. Not to mention those two youngest ones are a little airheaded right now. I know it’s what the Aunts would call ‘a phase’ but I just don’t have the patience for it, not while I’m trying to work around that hot sap, syrup, whatever.”
“Then don’t force yourself. They can help gather the sap and Sam and the older girl can cart it up here. But what about you? How are we gonna fix your tired?” he asked sidling up beside me on the sofa so he could get his share of the popcorn.
“We’re gonna be eating a lot of beans.”
That brought another chuckle from him. “We do already.”
“Yeah,” I admitted. “But not every night. I’ve got two big Dutch ovens. I’ll use the coals form the fire and one Dutchie will have lunch in it and the other will have supper, I’ll just start them both in the morning at the same time. Stuff that takes shorter to cook will be for lunch, longer for supper and the only thing I can think of that won’t hurt from sitting in the Dutchie for that long is beans.”
The only answer I got was, “Leftovers.”
“If it is a problem just cook an extra large pot of whatever you are cooking for lunch and we can eat leftovers for supper. Micah has been eating down at the farm for his first and last meals and Jessie isn’t picky; neither am I for that matter. It’s your fault we got spoiled.”
“Oh you,” I said, pleased by the inference he liked my cooking. “Well, maybe on some days I might do that but I hate to do it every day; makes me feel lazy.”
“The last thing you are Sugar is lazy. And this popcorn is all finished. I don’t know about you but I’m not up for a late night. I’m going to hit the hay.”
I know people probably thought there was a lot of temptation, if not outright hanky panky going on, with the two of us living together and the only chaperone being Jessie. We did leave the bedroom doors open which helped me to not feel so sick-alone at night, but in all honesty we were just too tired for any kind of teasing each other much less getting up to real shenanigans we had no business getting up to. Those three weeks was hard labor plain and simple.
One of the few good things that came out of that time was that I was too focused and tired to really let grieving for Daddy consume me like it had the first few days. Life did go on and I knew in my heart that that was what he would expect of me. It isn’t like we didn’t have any warning what was coming. To be honest though when it did happen it still took me by surprise. You learn to live in a … a bubble where the only thing that exists is what you are going through and you lose sight of the fact that one day it will come to an end. When the bubble pops it’s like relearning how to live. Those three weeks were my baby steps; sometimes I fell, sometimes I crawled, but by the end of that time I was walking fairly well though I still managed to stumble every so often.
The last tap had been collected, all the equipment washed and scalded and stored away for next time we would need them, and the worst of the mud dried up in the yard when I decided to see if I could find anything fresh for the supper table that night. The early spring gave me hope so I put Jessie in his backpack, grabbed a woven basket, left a note for Mark who had gone to the farm to see if John could come see what the tractor needed to get it started and headed off into the woods.
The first thing I noticed was that there was an odd little stream developing where none had been in memory … at least in my memory. I followed it until I reached the forestry boundary and stopped, not having any desire to spend all day on the mystery but I did make a note to tell Mark. It had been exceptionally wet last year but I hadn’t thought that the winter had been any snowier than usual and the runoff in that stream wasn’t really cold enough to be snow melt.
I did manage to find enough baby greens to make a spring salad with and some brackens – the ones I found were cinnamon ferns – that I could fry up and then season like asparagus. We’d had our fill of beans for a while but I thought I could manage a wheat pilaf to go with it and then a couple of pieces of fat back if Mark insisted on some meat. I remembered that Daddy had always insisted on a little meat with each meal even if … and that was all it took, the waterworks hit again.
I slipped Jessie off my shoulders and sat on a damp stump and cuddled him while I tried to get myself back under control. Some little while later Mark scared me out of a year’s growth when he put his arm around me; I hadn’t even heard him come up or noticed Jessie tugging at me to be let go.
“Hey, you OK?” he asked as he handed me his handkerchief.
I sniffed and said, “Yeah, it just sort of hit me and …” That’s when I noticed Rudy and John off in the trees and I was ready to sink into the ground. The last thing I wanted either of them to think, especially Rudy, was that I was weak.
“Don’t worry about them. Understand or not sometimes you’ve got to let it out or it is going to eat you up.”
Thank God Mark understood. I dried my tears and wiped my face then asked, “What are you doing out here?”
“We came to look at that tractor but found a stream and decided to see where it went.”
Rudy and John chose that moment to come over, “Dellie, you ever remember a stream running through here? I can’t remember Hy … er … I can’t remember ever hearing of one.”
“There hasn’t been one in my memory. There used to be a stream if you look at the old family maps but it wasn’t this one and if I understood Granddaddy’s stories right it dried up before Momma was even born. I followed this one to the forestry land but no further. It’s not cold enough to be snow melt. I was gonna ask but it seems like y’all don’t know either.”
John was scratching his chin and you could see him thinking. Rudy saw it and asked, “John, what’s on your mind.”
“There’s several springs and streams on that land. Not all of them run year round. We also had a hundred year flood and then the levies going. Lots of disturbances to the local water system. And you know, the reservoir it right not too far on the other side of the forestry land. That reservoir isn’t too big, they never really built good overflows on it and the water isn’t getting used like it was … Rudy, I need to get over there. This stream might be a sign that the reservoir is overflowing or something along those lines. If the reservoir is in bad shape we could wind up with another flood on our hands and I’m not real sure which way it will pour.”
I wouldn’t let them take off straight away but made them come back to the cabin and get some canteens and some edibles to take with them. Mark also grabbed more ammo for his rifle and a machete in case they had to go through any thickets. When they left I radioed down to Sam and Micah and let them know what was going on.
It was night before they made it back and I was starting to get twitchy. I offered Rudy and John a bed but they said they’d just as soon walk the little bit that was left and sleep in their own beds but they thanked me for the offer.
Mark was chilled and muddy and frankly we didn’t bother too much with modesty as I helped him skim out of his filthy clothes, wrapped him in a quilt and plopped him in front of the fire with a mug of hot cider.
“Reservoir OK?” I asked anxious to know.
“Yeah. It’s as full as I’ve ever seen it but it looks like it’s spreading out rather than over flowing towards town. John wants to continue to keep a watch on it and he found some equipment at the maintenance shed he wants, but there’s no immediate danger.” Through chattering teeth due to damp, cold, and fatigue he complained, “I missed putting Jessie to bed.”
“Yeah, you owe him two stories tomorrow. He’ll probably eat your alive in the morning,” I tried to joke with him to deal with his mood.
“Humph,” was his response. He ate desultorily after I had brought him his supper on a TV tray but eventually he warmed up and put a little more effort into it.
“How did you get so wet and dirty or don’t I want to know?” I asked. He was much worse than John and Rudy had been.
“Trying to clear an apron from the ridge that had slid into one of the larger creeks in the forestry land … I don’t know if has a name or not but it is pretty good sized. I don’t think it is honestly worth the effort to clean it out. Now instead of a good sized creek you’ve got two medium sized streams going off in different directions. The lay of the land just happened to guide the water this direction,” he said, ending on a huge yawn.
An “apron” was a sheet of sand and gravel that lay like a blanket on the side of a mountain or ridge. They could slide, just like a mudslide or avalanche. Intrigued with what he described I asked, “Will the stream run year round you think?”
“John thinks so but it might depend on the weather and whether there’s another slide right there. There is lots of granite in that dip that the water is following so it’s going to have a harder time just soaking into the ground and drying up. If it gets any wider I’ll build a footbridge over instead of that log you used, but get this … there is fish in the creek so we might get some fish in the stream if it keeps getting deeper. I’m not sure I would mind that at all.”
We both agreed that fresh fish would be a welcome change and addition to our current diet of cured meat.
“Saw some deer up there too and something has been in the kudzu.”
“The kudzu was probably those goats I saw last summer and fall. Did the nibbles look fresh?”
“Yeah, I thought the deer had gone all desperate at first until Rudy said he’d never known deer to eat kudzu at all, just hide in it.”
Worried I asked, “How bad is the kudzu? Has it gone past the reservoir yet?”
“No, not yet; but, with no one up there to maintain the barrier either by cutting, burning, or spraying it will be all over in no time.”
That put me back to thinking about the goats. “I wonder how many goats it would take to keep the kudzu cleared off.”
“Don’t laugh but John actually knew the answer to that question.” When I gave him a funny look he was the one that laughed. “He worked in Chattanooga when they started using goats to keep kudzu clear of the tunnels. According to him a heard of fifty goats can clear anywhere from three to five acres of kudzu in one to two weeks. Depends on the weather and the size of the goats.”
“Fifty goats?! That’s … that’s … that’s way beyond what I could manage and I don’t know if anyone could manage it right now.”
“Might be some people willing to try if there was something in it for them. Goats are a sight easier to raise than cows and you still get your meat and your milk.”
“And how would you know that?” I asked surprised.
“I did work on some Mennonite farms when I was trying to pay the hospital bills from Jessie and clean up the mess that Kelly left me holding. The kids are funny little things but don’t turn you back on the billies or they can’t turn mischievous on you if not downright mean.”
I laughed at the look on his face and then saw how really tired he was. “Go to bed Mark, you’re exhausted.”
“I will when you will.”
“No you won’t. You’ll sit here and fall asleep, start snoring and then it will be hard as Hades to get you up and in there with Jessie.”
He got a mulish expression on his face and then thought better of it and said, “Come here for a sec.”
“I am here,” I told him since I was just sitting on the other end of the sofa.
“Here, here … next to me. I wanna ask you something and I wanna be able to see your face real good when I do.”
I scooted over into the firelight and leaned up against the quilt but he didn’t put his arm around me. “Del, how long … how long do you want to wait? I know I promised and I’m not having any trouble sticking to it. I know you need time to pull your head together but … I just … I’d like an idea of some kind of … um … timeline.”
The look on my face must have made him feel like he’d said the wrong thing but it wasn’t that I was only thinking. “Del, if you aren’t up to thinking about it yet I understand. Just Rudy and John were asking me and were telling me that no one seems to think you either need or even should wait a full year for mourning your dad. It … I just started thinking.”
“It’s all right Mark.” Then I blushed and said, “When I don’t really think about all the things that have happened I feel like I could … well … be with you tonight, tomorrow and not have any worries at all about it. But if I think how fast things have gone, all the changes that have happened in such a short period of time, I start to … to panic and wonder if I‘m making the decision because I want to or because I’m scared of losing you too.” My chest felt heavy and congested at even the hypothetical suggestion of losing him.
“Hey, you aren’t going to lose me Sugar,” he said finally putting an arm around me.
“You wouldn’t do it on purpose but life is just so … so … Mark I don’t know if I … I could handle losing you too on top of what all has been happening.”
“I said you aren’t going to lose me and I meant it. I know … well look, I know he wasn’t my dad but Mr. Nash did mean a lot to me. He’d been there for me a few times when Butch … well, that’s water under the bridge. And he offered me a place to call home even before Dee and Cici … and that’s water under the bridge too. Most of all I knew … know … what he meant … means … to you so it hurts me to have lost him too for your sake if for none of the other stuff I mentioned. I wouldn’t intentionally put you through that again, especially not if you are saying you … you care for me that much.”
“I’m saying I love you Mark. I don’t know how it happened or exactly when. Maybe a bit of me always has and that’s why you could make me so mad, especially when I thought you were being reckless on purpose. You scared me sometimes and you didn’t even seem to notice.”
“I’m not like that now.”
“I know you’re not … but it feels like life has turned reckless. I’m still having trouble with the idea of Micah being gone out of my reach to look after him because he has that same streak of recklessness you had to the point of being thoughtless. If you haven’t noticed I’ve got a problem with trying to be controlling.”
I could feel him trying not to laugh. “It’s not funny Mark,” I complained.
“I know it isn’t Sugar. Just hearing you say it out loud tickles me for some reason. Look, you wandering around the woods makes me anxious too. I don’t know how I would handle it if you were like Ali or Cindy and insisted on going to the Bait & Tackle every chance you got. They’re not even shopping, mostly running their mouths and catching the latest gossip.” Mark shook his head in disgust.
This time I was the one to laugh. “Mark … they’re husband shopping … or at least trying to see what’s available on the market.”
“What?!” he nearly choked on the last sip of cider in his mug.
“I expect Sam and Micah are going to start looking around pretty soon too. Oh, get that look off of your face … not to get married silly, but to … to … see if there is anything out there interesting enough to cultivate.”
“Good Lord Del!”
“Well, tell me if that isn’t what you were doing at their age.”
After thinking it over and shrugging he said, “OK, I’ll give you that … but we’re getting off topic here. What they are going to do isn’t near as interesting to me as what you … we’re going to do.”
I hid my face in the quilt, embarrassed at what I was about to say. “I don’t want to wait a year Mark … I don’t think I could wait a year, not with us living right on top of one another. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to wait long at all. But … but not tomorrow or even the next day. Please understand I’m just still too … too …”
I looked up expecting to see disappointment and instead saw a huge toothy grin that surprised the heck out of me.
“Del Nash, you get surprised by the least thing. Of course I understand. Besides, I’ve gotten more than I expected to get tonight. You said you loved me and that you don’t want to wait a year. Gives me something to look forward to and remember if I get impatient. Besides, when we do this I want it done right. We’ll need a preacher and I’ve got to figure out how to get the papers done up for it.”
I hadn’t given any of that any thought at all and it must have shown on my face because he laughed again but I could tell he was on the tail end of keeping his eyes open and I was finally able to stand him up and get going.
“Del, don’t be up late.”
“I don’t plan on it,” I told him. Thing was his late and my late weren’t necessarily the same thing. Like always, I had a lot to think about and a lot of planning to do.