I was not yet old enough to go to school when I heard it for the first time. I had slopped through the feed lot, those white shoes and lace-trimmed socks no longer one bit white, to get to my father and his grandfather Charlie. I wanted to see what they were doing.
“Oh, boy. Your mother is not going to be one bit happy when she sees what you’ve done to those shoes,” Grandpa Charlie said, “The way I see it, no matter what happens next, it builds character!” He picked me up, his arms out straight, and set me back over the fence I had worked so hard to climb. “Now, go tell your mother what I said.”
What happened next was a stream of water from the garden hose, so shockingly cold it took the breath away, and a spanking to remember. I was busy building character.
We had lots of ways to build character on those farms, the land so wide open we could explore a new section every day. We searched for cowboys, we filled our pockets with arrowheads and flint, we caught tadpoles in the creek and carried them home in a bucket just so we could watch what would happen next. A good old sturdy stick found in the woods could become just about anything we wanted it to be.
When the rain ran some kids inside to crayons and coloring books, we were drawn to the barns. It seems we spent much of our childhood in “the far barn”, as we called it, to distinguish it from the other barns. We climbed those sturdy built-in ladders as high as they reached, taking us in to the very top of that old barn. I silently made up great stories or silly rhymes in my head, listening to the rain hit the tin roof so close to our ears. My older sister moved bales all around as she designed fancy rooms in the straw mow, with tunnels to get to each one, then told me what to say when we played out the story she had concocted in her head.
When I ran to the house to get a sleeve of saltine crackers for our feast, my only instruction was “just hurry up,” the order I remember hearing most from my big sisters. My job was to not raise any questions as to what we were doing.
We were building character. We knew our boundaries, but boy, could we push ’em! If my sisters dared me to do something, I was stomping all over it. No way was I willing to be called a baby.
In our way of looking at it, our play was as important as our work, and none of it cost a dime. There were no fancy play sets built in our back yard. If we wanted a tower to watch for encroaching enemies, we climbed a tree. If we wanted to slide down something, we built it with whatever we could find on the junk pile back in the woods.
The next day that junk might become our kitchen, or a bucking bronco. Great tree limbs that dipped low served as the gentle horses we wanted so badly on that dairy farm, where horses were referred to as hay burners.
So, we created our own. Baler twine became our reins, an old towel our fancy saddle.
My name one day might be Margaret, the cleaning lady, with not a single line to say. The next, I might be a brave warrior, blazing through the wild West, and I could holler up a storm while doing it. We could whip up a lasso, set a trap, create a saloon or a jail; every single prop, every possible setting was within our power.
And on any given day, I might find myself wading through slop up to my ankles.
We were girls, but we most decidedly were not sissies. We took our lickings if we had to, with a stiff upper lip.
We carry all that character, including the grit of survival, with us to this day.
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