Words from the Range, Hunger Games

My cousins and I seldom darkened the door of our kitchen when they came to visit. We were too busy hunting mice in the woodpile, playing cowboys and Indians in the barn loft, racing our horses in the meadow, balancing on the top rail of the corral fence, discovering new kittens or chicks in an outbuilding, wading in the creek with pitchforks to spear carp, or making roads for our toy trucks in the sand that passed for a driveway beside our ranch house.

We engaged in outdoor activities because my cousins only got to visit during summer vacations. The rest of the year we were prisoners in various schoolrooms around Western Nebraska, and had little contact.

My mother was just as glad to have us out of her hair, I’m sure, although she usually made us tell her where we were going. Not that we always went there, mind you, or stayed where we started out to be, but we were of the opinion that what adults didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. Besides, space in our little house was limited, and it would have been nigh onto impossible to contain all that energy in the one large room that served as kitchen, living room, and dining area. No, the outdoor life was easier on everyone.

All that activity enhanced our appetites, however, so in mid-morning or mid-afternoon we crowded into Mom’s domain begging for a snack. She always looked at the clock before answering. If it was past ten a.m. or four p.m., we were turned away.

“It’s too close to mealtime. You don’t want to spoil your supper, do you?”

Well, of course we did. How could she not know that? But prior experience told us that arguments would get us nowhere, so we disappeared, and were careful to time our requests better in the future.

Sometimes, the smell of fresh baked cookies drifted out an open window and drew us in, but more often it was bread right out of the oven. There’s no finer feast than warm, home baked bread, generously spread with freshly churned butter and strawberry jam.

Recently, one of my cousins said he was hungry for a mustard sandwich. That’s one I had forgotten, but the tangy taste came rushing back. If the cookie jar was empty, and the only bread on hand was left from yesterday, my mother would spread a thick slice with mustard and fold it over for a sandwich. An alternate plan was bread, butter, and ketchup. We liked these offerings and devoured them quickly, sometimes asking for seconds.

I’ve mentioned mustard or ketchup sandwiches to some of my peers who grew up in similar circumstances, and no one else has ever heard of them. I disremember ever eating them at a neighbor’s house either. In retrospect, I don’t credit my mom for being particularly imaginative, but suspect that this was all she could afford at the time.

People my age often look back on the “good old days.” They were good for us, because our parents were of the opinion that what we kids didn’t know about their financial struggles wouldn’t hurt us. We were poor as church mice but we had everything money can’t buy and just enough of the things it can. But, in reality, we were rich because we never went hungry.