During the heat and humidity of an Iowa summer, Aunt Dee gave birth to her seventh child at home. At the age of eleven, I knew only that babies were cute. I had no idea how much work they were or that a mother was worn out after her baby was born. Aunt Dee was no exception. She wasn’t at all up to par, and she slept most of the time. Her husband, Uncle Connie, really needed help with their other kids. He had no hired man and too many farm chores that were not getting done.
So Grandmother (known as Josie Peal to her family), agreed to stay and help out for a week. She’d done it after each of her thirteen grandchildren came into the world. She was getting used to helping Uncle Connie and Aunt Dee because they had more kids than anyone in the family. A dog named Spike would show all of us just how far Josie would go to help her children.
Keeping track of all the grandkids and their mischief was not easy. And since cooking nonstop and staying ahead of the laundry was getting harder each year, looking after the needs of sickly Aunt Dee and the new baby just about wore her out. She knew she could get through it because she had done it before and wasn’t about to allow herself to get discouraged. Each night after all of my cousins had been sent to bed and Aunt Dee and the new baby were down for a few hours, Grandmother had her nightly meditation. First, she read from the Bible. When that was finished, she knelt by her army cot with elbows on the blanket and prayed, “Lord, I love my grandchildren, but give me the strength and good humor to get through tomorrow without smacking one of these kids.”
While Josie Peal, volunteer rescue worker for all of her grandchildren, was praying for courage in the country, her daughters, Laura, Edith, Sarah, and Naomi, stayed home to help our family. Mom had run away again, so my brother and sister and I were staying with them at Grandmother’s house. While we were there, Aunt Edith called Grandmother to find out how she was doing on the farm.
She replied, “Well, it depends on what hour it is. This is no picnic.”
That was a sure sign that help was needed. So Aunt Edith left my brother and sister with our three aunts and took me to the farm to play with my cousins while she helped with whatever had to be done. There would be vegetables to pick, corn to be shucked, laundry to be washed, and a baby to bathe.
I didn’t care about any of that grownup stuff. I was beside myself with excitement because I could play on the farm with my cousins and eat fresh corn on the cob from Aunt Dee’s garden.
It was a wonderful plan. But when we finally arrived at the farm, my grandmother didn’t even have a chance to look relieved that help had arrived. My cousins slammed the screen door open, yelling, “Help! We gotta pull Spike outta the toilet!”
Her shoulders sagged. “Oh no … not again.”
I was kind of confused. Who was Spike and what was going on? I had a feeling that my fun afternoon might not happen after all.
Grandmother yelled for us to stay put as she rushed into the yard. Aunt Edith and I obeyed and watched from a safe distance. Even though we felt guilty, we were glad that we’d been left out of whatever was going on outdoors. Soon my curiosity started driving me crazy. I just had to find out what was happening. So from the safety of the back porch, I watched my cousins dart this way and that like disorganized ants as they tried to follow our grandmother’s orders. It was as much fun as watching a movie.
She hollered, “Clara, Dora, Hubert, Elma, Connie — come quick! Somebody pull the hose up close and somebody getcherself over here and give me yer ankles. The rest of you, grab holda my skirt and don’t let go!”
My eight-year-old cousin Hubert saved the day. What a little hero. He volunteered to be lowered headfirst through the hole in the outhouse. It was the only way to rescue Spike. Grandmother grabbed Hubert’s ankles, and three kids hung onto her long skirt to anchor the whole lot. We could hear him yell from down below, “I’ve got ’im!” It sounded like his voice was coming from a cave. I was in awe as I watched them pull my cousin and the family dog out of a pit full of summer-heated body waste.
Hubert was pretty yucky. He just stood there because he didn’t know what to do next, but Spike knew exactly what to do. Once he found his legs on firm ground again, he shook his icky coat at high speed, projecting disgusting stuff everywhere.
I couldn’t believe my eyes and yelled, “Oh, my gosh!” Spike was splattering the bushes, the cat, and every kid within range. Grandmother grabbed the smelly dog and helped hold him captive while my cousins hosed him off the best they could.
Although she was as stinky and repulsive as Spike, Josie Peal was still in charge. She yelled orders, which we all obeyed. My aunt and I helped hose off my cousins before they stripped naked. Then they put their filthy clothes in an old barrel filled with water. Next, they scrubbed their bodies with soap. Nobody cared one bit that they were all buck naked in the country air. It was way more fun than I thought it would be. After one last hosing off with cold spring water, they used up all the family towels. Doing the laundry added another hour to what was eventually referred to as Josie’s Nightmare. I called it an adventure.
After the kids got dressed, Hubert the Hero decided to play Indian with one of his sisters. She had stolen his lucky ring and wouldn’t give it back. So he tied her to a tree and started laying out dry kindling to build a fire to sacrifice her to the gods. Luckily, Grandmother heard about his plan after the prisoner had unwillingly returned the loot. By that time, she was a nervous wreck even though she tried to hide it. I could tell she was near the end of her rope because she sighed a lot and said “good grief” more than usual.
When things had calmed down, she invited us for supper. Aunt Edith said, “We can’t, Mother. I need to get back and help the girls with Bob and Patty.”
I really wanted to stay since they were having all the freshly-picked corn on the cob they could eat. But I could tell that my aunt wanted to leave as much as I wanted to stay. I think washing all those stinky kids and clothes had made her lose her appetite.
Grandmother Peal later told us that her evening meditations that night took longer than usual. After reading extra chapters from the Bible to get God’s attention, she prayed again for strength and wisdom and added a P.S.:
Lord, while I’m still sane, I want to thank you for sending help when I needed it. But I have another favor to ask. Please don’t send any more babies to Connie and Dee. I’m too old for these outhouse adventures. Ay-men.