Mother was not a glamour-girl type. She was the sort that caught you off-guard and had you tied up before you noticed. She had a dramatic talent that might have put her on the stage if it had not been relegated to the back-stoop of respectability. The subtle use of that instinct for theatre, offstage, made her fascinating, and Father’s friends used to accuse her of writing his speeches. She could be breezy at repartee and had carried over both her enthusiasms and the sly sense of humor that characterized her in childhood. Once when a somewhat crass woman unexpectedly inquired:
“Mrs. Howell, how do you keep from having children?”
Mother replied in a flash, “I never had any children before I was married, Mrs. Crist.”
She was probably 40 when I suddenly took stock of her. Her luxuriant and flaming hair had been shaded by time to a dark, chestnut color and was finer than the finest silk thread. Though when down it almost reached the hem of her skirt, it didn’t bulk in a clumsy coil on the top of her head. She wore a stiff peau-de-soie dress as she stood before us that day putting on her toque. She tied the strings in a perky bow under her chin, then slipped the short-snugly fitting beaded mantle about her figure. I remember appraising her slim elegance with pride as she kissed us good-bye and departed for the Saturday Ladies Club meeting. This select organization was a culture club to which Mother swore fealty and for those weekly meetings the members composed flowery or scholarly papers on current subjects. We were accustomed to this regular outing of hers and as we arose in the morning we were apt to inquire, “Is this ‘tub’ day, Mommy?”
‘Tub’ as Mother interpreted it, signified ‘club’ though experience has led me to wonder if we were not referring to the elaborate ablutions we underwent in the wooden washtub on Saturdays.
If we were without a maid (the phrase was ‘hired girl’ in the ‘eighties’), before leaving, Mother always threw out a last-minute rule of conduct.
“Now remember children, if anyone comes and asks if your father or mother is at home, you are to say: No, sir, but Barney is in the barn.”
Barney was an unruly colt but the innocent tramp was expected to think that Barney was the burly ‘hired man’ and run away in guilty fright. The naiveté of this pre-arranged reply was somewhat characteristic of Mother. We were not to tell an out-and-out lie as the “no sir” indicated but employing mild deception in the interest of safety was not taboo.
Mother heartily disapproved of women invading public life and politics yet she held that they should pursue definite cultural interests and when Saturday arrived leaped the ordinary obstacles, joined the Browning devotees and temporarily erased the inconveniences of cottage life from her lofty thoughts.
Our Market street house was below the line of city improvements so that we were obliged to depend for our deep water supply on a cistern which Father had had dug. Father did everything with an eye to its lasting forever, and the cistern, when completed, was lined with brick and cement, had two compartments and an elaborate filter. Probably his money was exhausted before he bought the pump or maybe it was just his Welsh thrift; at any rate, a bucket on a chain had to be lowered to draw the water and the opening of the cistern, when not in use, was covered with a stone and metal cap. There were strict rules about keeping it closed, for we had a cat and chickens and there was no assurance that they might not fall in and contaminate our water supply, not to mention drowning. Even the best of families have lapses in discipline and somewhere along the line someone forgot and left the cistern open. It might have been curiosity or the black of night that led our rooster to walk into the opening. Facts are lacking but family tradition has it that someone placed it on the end of a rake and dropped him on the plank floor that fronted the woodhouse. We children stood about curious as Mother looked him over. However we may have wanted at times to revolt from our family discipline, we had great respect and admiration for our parents and now watching Mother in a new situation, we wondered what the next step would be. Every spring Father brought home a few chickens to have on hand to use when we had company and the old rooster was his present to the hens. Judged by his ego, the cock with the scarlet comb must have been pure Aryan. Not a Plymouth Rock resented his totalitarianism. Now stiff and wet he was less awe-inspiring.
The Scientific American, to which Father subscribed, at that time was running a series of articles on popular subjects. Mother had just read one on ‘Drowning’ in which the author stressed the point that in endeavoring to revive a drowning person the rescuer lost time doing useless things such as rolling the subject over a barrel to get the water out of the lungs, whereas warmth, starting up the circulation, was the first essential. These suggestions filtered through Mother’s mind as she looked at the useless old rooster and wondered how long he had been in the water.
Curiosity was a very real part of Mother’s make-up. She had always wanted the answer to something. Way back in her childhood she had experimentally vaccinated a group of her playmates and been horrified as she watched them progress through the unpleasant stages of a typical inoculation. She had borne the anxiety alone, because she was sure her father and mother would have punished her had they known what she had done. The past was gone but the curiosity lingered. Perhaps it had a vestige of the scientific in its character as she took hold of the soaking bird.
“Mary, please run into the pantry and look in the lower drawer and bring me the old blanket we keep for pears.”
We had a pear tree in the yard and every year the pears were picked before they were ripe and rolled in this old blanket and put in a dark drawer to ripen.
Mary hustled off as bidden while Mother dried the rooster with her kitchen apron. Mary returned in what seemed no time at all and Mother tore off a piece of the blanket that was threadbare. Then she wrapped it around the bird and carried him into the house with all of us close on her heels. The kitchen range had a hot water reservoir and underneath it a warming-oven. Into this Mother laid the rooster. Father always kept whiskey in the house but we children were not supposed to know it, so Mother found the bottle and sprinkled some of it on the bird’s beak. Then she pushed him back into the warming-oven, put a few sticks of wood in the stove and went about her work.
We children were good ‘smellers’ and periodically we would call out,
“Mommy, we smell the rooster’s feather’s burning.”
And Mother would investigate and turn the bird over. She hunted up the magazine article and assumed a very scientific attitude. The number of hours the rooster stayed in the warming-oven is now more or less uncertain, but Pasteur himself had no greater thrill than Mommy when she found that the bird had changed position. She brought out the whiskey bottle again and after that it was only a matter of time.
When Father came home for supper Mother took him to hear the rooster’s sickly crow, and the miracle of his resuscitation became the piece de resistance of Mother’s conversation for several days.
The cacophonous recitals of his escape from death by H2O were the rooster’s final undoing, however, for Mother never could stand conceit. After a week (like the old witch in the fairy tale) she ended by boiling a pot of water and dropping him in. Science had been vindicated. It was time now for a fricassee.