Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Chapter Thirty-Three

June has arrived like the proverbial lamb. Scott and Sissy decide to stop worrying about what could happen next semester and celebrate what their kids have accomplished this semester. Rose completed her highschool educational goals and as far as Scott and Sissy are concerned has graduated.

Though the family home educates their children, they had planned on participating in a graduation ceremony sponsored by FPEA (Florida Parent Educators Association) which is a statewide homeschool support group. Of course large gatherings are now prohibited, nor do people have the gas or money to travel to the annual Orlando function even if it was allowed. Instead, several volunteers have gotten together and created a graduate website to showcase each graduate that submitted their information, complete with picture if desired. They also recorded a downloadable graduation ceremony with names being called out and with applause soundbites following each name. The sponsors of the website had to get special permission from the State because of the bandwidth required to operate the website.

Another neat feature of the website is that kids can sign a virtual yearbook. The concept is rather ingenious and several public and private schools are viewing it as a potential model for their autumn graduation events in case public gatherings are still prohibited. Unfortunately, along with the graduation page there is a "in memoriam" page for homeschool seniors that did not live to see their graduation. After Sissy catches the kids looking at each name in morbid fascination she sits down and has a long discussion with them. The kids are handling their situation superficially well, but things like the memory page or a news broadcast can disturb the precarious emotional balance they try so hard to maintain. Raising kids is never easy, but there is so much that you have to watch out for these days.

Rose and James have behaved amazingly well for your average teenager, all things considered. They settled down admirably after it was finally and irrevocably show that sequestering them was the best option for family’s well being and safety.

Scott and Sissy’s kids are no more immune to bad days than Scott and Sissy themselves are. No one is perfect but everyone is trying their best most of the time to work as constructively within the situational confines as possible. Their family wouldn’t be able to function successfully if the kids weren’t on board. The kids have their importance and contributions recognized regularly. Scott and Sissy receive acknowledgement of their responsibility and authority from their kids. All family members try to behave respectfully to each other even under difficult and stressful circumstances. Scott and Sissy try to keep their own relationship healthy and respectful so that they can set a good example for the kids. Consistent reinforcement is the key to good family management. By having everyone work together, cooperatively and respectfully, the great good of the family and its members are served best. Scott and Sissy’s family operates as a team; a winning team.

In addition to Rose graduating and having her birthday, Scott and Sissy’s other children have completed their year’s academic work successfully. They decide to have a party and call some friends and relatives and email others to celebrate. Sissy cooks a canned ham, black eyed peas, cornbread, fried squash, fixes a salad of cantaloupe and huckleberries, and bakes a no-egg spice cake she fills with canned apple pie filling between the layers and a dusting of powdered sugar for the frosting. Scott even makes up diplomas and plaques for the kids and he takes pictures of them using the digital camera he has kept charged. It may be some time before they can have the pictures printed up, but at least they’ll have some record of the day saved.

Speaking of pictures, one of the tasks Sissy has been keeping up with is a journal. Sometimes the journal is handwritten and sometimes it is computer printed. Sometimes there are pictures, magazine cut outs or pasted newspaper articles and sometimes there are hand drawings. Every family member participates several times a week by adding something, but Sissy makes sure that she writes in it every day. There are menus and recipes, inventories of barter items, tales of danger and tales of kindness. It’s turning out to be as much a therapeutic exercise for everyone as it is a chronicle of the pandemic. They call it their "ship’s log" though Scott has been known to slip and call it something much ruder – and more stinky – when he begins to enumerate what went on during those days he is out and about in the community.

The last couple of entries show that Sissy, James, and Sarah have planted the last of their Jerusalem artichokes, peppers, and some zucchini and crookneck squash, praying that the plants can survive the harsh summer heat that has arrived with a vengeance. The log also shows they’ve harvested the last of the potatoes, salsify, cardoon, celeriac, snap beans, garbanzo beans, and cucumbers. Scott used a pitchfork to dig the peanuts and then hung the plants to cure so that the unshelled peanuts can be pulled and stored in mesh bags for later use. They continue to harvest tomatoes and Sissy turns these into juice, paste, pasta sauce, salsa, and ketchup. They’ve also harvested pumpkins and winter squash varieties. Further north people store hard-skinned squash in their shells but due to Florida’s heat and humidity Sissy must can what they can’t eat right away. They also begin harvesting watermelons, though they lose two to an enterprising raccoon that Sissy wound up having to trap and dispose of. Scott gave it to Barry who dealt with it the way Mrs. Cleary advised him to … breaded and fricasseed.

The first of June is also the beginning of the dreaded hurricane season. Luckily Scott and Sissy have a solar powered weather band radio. Other people in the neighborhood are taking turns starting up their cars when the power is off to get the news. The first tropical storm of the season came and went with no more than a little wind and a slight breeze but another is out there and is causing some significant worries for the few forecasters that the American Meteorological Society still has on staff. It looks like it might reach hurricane strength and hit somewhere along the East Coast of the US, anywhere between Jacksonville, FL and the Carolina Coastal region. It is too early to tell, but folks are definitely concerned.

Its a very warm morning for the Chapman family. Humidity is near 100 percent after last night’s rain with temperatures hovering in the 90s. While Scott is off on a work run, Sissy and the kids are nearly finished with the morning chores when they head inside for lunch and to wait out the worst of the day’s heat as best they can. Sissy especially feel the effects of the heat. Even though she never caught the virus like the rest of her family, she has been the slowest to recover both physically and mentally from the whole episode. And ever since the violence of the night of the train derailment Sissy has suffered stressed-induced headaches, some of them nauseatingly debilitating. The heat only compounds the everything.

Suddenly, down the road comes an unusual sight. A large semi rolls in from US41 and backs into their driveway. It takes a minute, but Sissy realizes it is her little brother’s rig right before he steps down from the cab. If she hadn’t known him so well she would not have recognized him. The past months have not been kind. He has lost a lot of weight and he has more gray in his hair than she does. He looks far older than he should at 36 years of age. The mask and goggles he is wearing do not help either. But his same old prankster grin is in place as he strips off some of his PPE and says, "Hi Sis! Should I have called before stopping by?"

Sissy gives him a quick hug and a swat as she tries to pull him inside. He stops, saying, "I can’t stay long. Look, I found out those SOBs over at the depot are only going to pay me a quarter of what I was promised to haul this load in. It will cover fuel costs, but that’s it. Well, I’ve decided that if they are only going to pay me a quarter, that’s all the load they are going to get. I’m meeting a guy I used to work with at the Volunteer Fire Department in Dover in two and a half hours. I’m off-loading about half of what I’ve got there. I stopped by Mom and Dad’s place and gave them some of this stuff already. I’ve got some pulled for my family, and I thought you all could use some." That wicked twinkle is back in his eyes as he finishes up by saying, "Not to mention is was just too good an excuse not to come visit my big sister."

His shocking arrival and the sudden largesse he offers is eclipsed by the fact he has actually seen their parents in person. Her heart gives a leap and she quickly asks, "You actually got to see Mom and Dad? How are they doing? How long did you get to see them? How did you get there? I 75 or US19? We’ve been having a terrible time catching each other online and our phone service is terrible. I’ve just been worried sick since Dad ran out of his pills."

Her brother smiles realizing despite being over a year since they have seen each other, she is the same old Sissy. Talking a mile a minute and asking questions quicker than he can come up with answers. "I pulled into their place right at dusk to wait out the curfew, stayed overnight, then came here by I75. They keep a lane clear that is rigs-only. Fewer cars in the other lanes too, so it wasn’t bad. They’ve finally finished pushing most of the disabled cars off the road. As far as Mom and Dad go, a doctor in town moved in next to them and has been getting their meds for them in exchange for Dad keeping an eye on things when he is on rounds. Momma’s been cooking for him and doing his laundry."

"Moved next to them? Did that couple from Alaska sell that front five acres?"

Soberly her brother responds, "Well, no . . . look, I hate to be the one to tell you . . . but the Bodettes both died."

"What?! When?! But . . . Momma and Daddy never said a word."

"You know the Bodettes weren’t young. Mr. Bodette just kind of gave up after their granddaughters both died. They both just kind of gave up. Mamie got sick with something, it wasn’t the flu. Mr. Bodette had a heart attack. Their son had been staying with ‘em cause his wife had kicked him out again for carousing. They were buried the same day. The doctor is some kind of relation to Mamie."

"Momma and Daddy must be feeling awful. The Bodettes were our first friends when we moved to Florida. We’ve known them – knew them – for over 30 years."

"Mom and Dad are OK. The Bodettes went together. I think the thing Mom and Dad worry about most is if one or the other gets left behind. I think they prefer the idea of going together like the Bodettes did."

"Well I prefer the idea of neither one of them ‘going’." she humphs.

"I hear that. Look, I hate to ask, but do you have anything food-wise that you can spare; anything at all? I’m trying to get the boys to come live with me. I don’t know how long this fresh stuff will last us." he quietly asks, a bit shamefacedly.

"We’ll figure something out, but not where the neighbors can see or hear. They’re mostly good folks but a few of them talk too much if you know what I mean. Is something up with the boys’ mother? She hasn’t taken my phone calls since way before Christmas. The only thing I’ve heard I’ve gotten second hand from Daddy. Mom is still too upset to talk about it since their calls are no longer being accepted either."

As they begin unloading stuff from the back of the rig Sissy brother explains, "You know she and her new husband were basically living on disability and the money I paid in child support. Well they’ve lost their disability payments because they failed to follow through on the required volunteer hours they were assigned. They thought they could get out of it because of their "conditions" and this time they’ve paid the piper. Their mother is now screaming for my blood because I can’t pay child support. I’ve been out of work. I’d pay it if I had it, but I don’t; all our savings is gone. Lucky for me the courts aren’t hearing any civil cases at this time. It’s a mess. Big T won’t talk to me and prefers to stay with his mom. He’s holding me responsible for their change in circumstances even though I had nothing to do with them losing their monthly check. Most everyone is in the same boat. He’s nearly 16 and thinks he knows all the real reasons this is happening. Little B though wants to come live with me. His Momma is hold our whole family responsible and has said she is cutting everyone off form the boys until she is paid what she is owed from me. But with her husband’s kids coming to live with them – and she ain’t too happy about that let me tell you – I’m hoping there might be a chance to work something out, like having the boys come live with me for a while."

As they step inside with a load of boxes Sissy tells him, "I’ve got some rice and other things I’ll give you that should last you a little while if you piece it out with this fresh stuff. What is in all of these crates anyway? It looks like some of these have Daddy’s handwriting on them."

Nodding his head he replies, "Yeah. Some of this stuff is from them. There are some blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and some sparkleberries. Plus Momma sent you all sorts of patterns and material and God knows what all. They’re clearing their place. I don’t know what all they stuffed in these boxes. Momma says they are downsizing."

"Why? They might need this stuff! And I know some of these dishes are family heirlooms," as she reaches into one of the boxes and pulls out an old ceramic pickle crock and a large glass butter bell.

"I hate to say this but with things going like they are, we might have to move up there with them. I’ve got more trucking contacts in that area and I’d be closer to the fields for direct hauling. My wife can help mom and dad and the boys will be better off out of the city. Big T is hanging with some crapheads and his mother thinks they are just being boys despite the cops having brought him home twice now that I know about, and I suspect more often than that. I checked public records and she and her husband have fines stacking up against them for failing to comply with social distancing and curfew rules. Not to mention, out in the country I know I can at least feed my family better than I can here. Daddy has hardly used any of his ammo yet ‘cause the Doc keeps bringing stuff to ‘em that people barter him for services."

Giving him a look to let him know that she understands his concerns, "You’ll be able to help Dad with the heavy stuff too. But what about your stuff here, your house?"

Shrugging he says, "We’ve talked it out and everything but one of the cars will fit in my trailer. I just need a ramp. If you all will watch the car until I can make another run this way, I’ll pick it up from here. The house . . . well, there isn’t much we can do about that. It is what it is. It’s getting no safer with us living there. People down our way are getting real peculiar. Wish our neighborhood had banded together like yours did. There is so much suspicion in our area that people answer the door – if they bother answering – with guns drawn. Two families around the corner from us were intentionally burned out of their homes just because someone thought they had food stockpiled. Or maybe it was fuel. I didn’t get the whole story because it happened while I was bad sick. Now that I’m back on the road, I’m scared to leave my wife alone."

They continue talking back and forth while the kids finally take their turn crowding around him for attention. Sissy packs up rice, dried beans, powdered broth, brown sugar, salt, and ten pounds of flour. She also throws in some easy flatbread recipes, five pounds of popcorn, and a small stash of feminine necessities she thinks her sister in law will appreciate. It ate into her storage but compared to seeing him and getting some real news about her parents’ lives, not to mention all the produce and stuff he had taken the time to bring by, it was nothing. Her brother soon left and Sissy beginss dealing with everything her brother has brought. She will shed a few tears tonight as she recounts the story to Scott, but for now there isn’t time.

First Sissy deals with the produce that includes nearly 10 bushels of snap beans that had been machine picked and originally destined for a NC cannery. She lays them out on sheets in the house to keep them from souring in the heat. She sets the girls to cleaning and snapping them as quickly as they can. She takes nearly a gallon of the beans over to where they are fixing the weekly batch of stone soup. The people tending the fire can clean and snap the beans straight into the cook pots.

Answering her neighbors’ curious questions she just tells them her parents sent her some stuff and left it at that. She likes her neighbors well enough but she is an inherently private person and she remains cautious about sharing her personal information. Luckily her brother was able to pull his rig back to within just a few feet of her front door. The "L" shape of the house prevented people from seeing what they were doing on one side. The other side was screened from view by foliage and the orange grove. Despite these precautions, Scott is sure to be grilled by the gossips the next time he goes to the market.

Sissy hurries back to the house to find that Rose and James have already started going through the remaining produce. There are tomatoes from Ruskin, but most of them have some green on them so they will need to sit and ripen. There are peanuts from up at the Florida/Georgia border, but they look pretty green as well. There are about two dozen watermelons, about four bushels of cucumbers, a dozen pumpkins, and what amounts to about three bushels of different varieties of squash. There is also about four gallons of blueberries and twice that many blackberries and raspberries. And there are some weird looking fruit from south Florida called sopadillas that she doesn’t know what to do with.

It is an incredible bounty. The tomatoes will be canned in various forms. The peanuts will be dried in their shells and later roasted and ground into fresh peanut butter because they are quickly running out. The watermelon will be eaten fresh and then the rinds will be pickled or made into watermelon rind preserves. Some of the cucumbers will be used fresh but many of them will find themselves being brined for canning. She will bake the pumpkins as she needs them, for as long as they will keep, as she still had plenty of commercially canned pumpkin puree. Or she’ll make a batch of pumpkin chips if she has time. The squash she will try to eat fresh as well but she may have to can some. The small fruit will be canned in various forms, and some of the blackberries made into blackberry shrub for summer drinking as she is running out of lemonade syrup. She is pretty sure the sapodillas have to be eaten fresh, but that is a research project to tackle later in the day.

Sissy hopes she has enough empty jars for what she needs to do. She bought a large case of rings and seals before the pandemic, but they won’t last forever either. With so many snap beans she thinks she will give making leather britches a try. That is where you string snap beans on a string and leave them to dry. She isn’t sure if it will work or not because humidity usually causes the beans to sour and grow fuzzy mold. If the power comes back on soon enough, she will definitely be drying what she can in her electric dehydrator trays. Now might also be a good time to experiment with a homemade dehydrator that they can set up on the lanai. The screening will keep the bugs out and it can be used even with the power off.

So much to do, and not near enough time to do it in. Sissy realizes she will also need to deal with whatever Scott manages to bring home this evening. She is tired of being tired. She doesn’t have any choice but to keep on going and dealing with situations as they arise.. She would rather have to deal with being tired now than seeing her kids go hungry later. She imagines this is very similar to what pioneer women used to feel in early American history or any woman who lived before the 1950’s. Their families survived and so will hers; she is determined to see to it.

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