Submitted March 2, 2011 by Martha Stevens-David
Growing up in Aroostook County, Maine, we knew a lot about potatoes, not because we were particularly interested in them but because they were always all around us and Dad worked with that specie all of his natural life.
In nineteen fifty-nine, I had just turned fifteen and Mother had finally agreed that I could wear a light colored lipstick but no other makeup. I still wasn't allowed to go to high school dances unless my older brothers, Walt or Jake would be there too. Walt, a senior, had discovered the fairer sex eons ago but Jake was a slow-learner when it came to girls. As far as he was concerned, they were last on his list of priorities.
Jake, still only seventeen, was running all over to heck and gone trying to trap any and all animals so that he could practice the art of taxidermy. Now, if there had been a female in the county who had fur down to her ankles or could climb trees like a porcupine, he'd have been mightily interested but at that point, he still hadn't found a girl who looked like that.
So, in the summer of fifty-nine, I'd taken a babysitting job for a French-speaking family in Ashland and their home was about five miles from our house on the Goding Road. I'd stay with the Morins all week and only return home on Sunday for a few hours visit and then go back to stay the rest of the week in town. I soon discovered that it was pretty difficult for Mother to hear what I was doing that summer in regards to makeup or boys because she only came to town on Saturday night to do her shopping and we still didn't have a telephone at home.
That summer, I learned how to lighten my hair with house-hold bleach, tweeze my eyebrows to a fine line and apply blush and mascara. I'd put all this stuff on my face very early in the morning and only wash it off before I went to bed at night. I used to take the two small children I was babysitting for a walk around town everyday but I never really got to meet very many boys because most of them had summer jobs too. But when I went home for a short visit on Sundays, I always had to remember to wash everything off so that Mother wouldn't have a conniption fit when she saw my pale face slathered with makeup.
Dad, after fathering five daughters, was pretty much unfazed by all us girls and left us for Mother to manage. I guess he figured that we were Mother's domain and she could run her mouth very well when she wanted to. The only thing I remember Dad saying, after one of his daughters had snuck his razor to shave our legs with, was, "Looks like these blades don't stay as sharp as they used to." And he'd look all around the kitchen at his guilty harem with a little smile on his face. And Grandfather Colbath used to put in his two cents worth too, upon seeing one of us with a lot of extra makeup on our faces, "Power and paint, sure makes a woman what she ain't."
The summer of fifty-nine was a turning point for me. It had been a warm summer for the county and the State of Maine as well. Dad, ever the potato babysitter, came home day after day, red-faced and sun burned to a crisp, swearing that if the crop didn't git some water pretty soon, the whole damn county was going to dry up and blow away into Canada!
Because he always slapped a hat on his old bald head just as soon as his feet hit the floor in the morning, it was always surprising to see just how white his scalp was and how the skin on his head glowed when he removed his sweat-stained hat at night. His poor ears would be peeling and sore but there was always a light in his bright-blue eyes and a grin on his face when he came through the door each night.
Finally, the heavens answered all the farmer's prayers and rain descended upon us and it was as though Mother Nature couldn't send enough 'wet stuff' our way. The poor, dried-out soil sucked up the first downpours but after a couple of days of incessant rain, the ground was totally saturated and water began running in torrents down the potato rows, washing out the half-grown plants and the small, pale, sickly lookin' spuds lay rotting in the fields.
Now, Dad came home every night still complaining about the weather but this time it was complaints about too much rain! Water ran everywhere and not only was Dad unhappy about the rain, he was upset because the rain-swollen Aroostook River had flooded and he couldn't get to his favorite fishin' hole on the Garfield side of the river. He was one unhappy man.
It was September and school started and as always, it closed almost immediately for three weeks so that the farmers, with the help of local families, could get their crops harvested and off to market. Picking potatoes back then isn't like it is now. We didn't have all the 'modern' machines to do the work for us. Mother used to get us up at four am and we'd hurry to eat and get dressed for the long, grueling, dirty day ahead. We always picked for our Great Uncle Hal each year and when his work was done, if any of the other farmers in our area still weren't finished digging, we'd go to work for them too until it was time for us to go back to school.
That fall, after a horrible summer that was too hot and dry and then, too wet and cold, it turned out to be pretty nice. I guess Mother Nature, after trying our patience for so long, decided to give us a better ending for the season. Anyway, from the first day of picking, the sun slid over the eastern horizon right on cue and it was nice and warm by the time Grampy Colbath dropped us off in the potato fields every morning.
Uncle Hal had planted over two hundred acres that spring and he had smoked Camels until his own skin had turned yellow, worrying that he'd never get all the spuds out of the ground before the first snow flew into Aroostook County around the middle of September. At the beginning of harvest, he'd asked all of us to stay overtime every day while the weather was still holding. So, we were in the fields from sunup till nearly sundown. It made for a very long day.
That year, I'd grown an inch taller and I was nearly filled-out if you know what I mean. My best friend, Dorothy Rossignol and I constantly compared notes about our development and she still lagged somewhat behind me in the chest department. I had nothing to brag about either but I wasn't as skinny or underdeveloped as she was. But Dorothy was much savvier in the boy department because she had several older sisters and she'd learned things from them that I'd never even heard of.
Having been picking potatoes since the age of two, when Mother first took me to the fields with her, I knew everything there was to know and a lot I didn't want to know about picking potatoes. It was excruciating, dirty, backbreaking work. The farmer, sitting on his tractor, would go down the rows pulling the potato digger along behind him. The digger, back then, was designed to cover two rows and when it was lowered, the front part of the machine, dug into the dirt beneath the grown potatoes. The metal racks would roll back over the rollers and carry the uprooted potato plants along with it, filling the ground with freshly dug potatoes, rocks, potato vines, dirt and bugs. The farmer would continue in this mode until the field was dug, it was lunchtime or the digger broke down.
Back then, most people paced off a piece of the field that they felt they could keep picked and either dropped down on their knees to pick the spuds or put their basket between their legs and bent over and filled their baskets that way. No matter which way you chose, it was terrible, hard work and it took an awful lot of those spuds to fill a potato barrel. In 1959, we were being paid the scant sum of 25 cents per barrel. By the time you got home that night, your nails were but a distant memory, your nice, white legs would be black and blue from kneeling on rocks all day and dirt would be imbedded in any and all parts of your body.
That fall, we, younger girls, 'got lucky' if you want to call it that. Uncle Hal normally hired old, worn-out men, who were usually our cousins or neighbors, to help him drive and load the potato trucks but that fall, the older men, having been lured away by another desperate farmer who'd offered a better pay for the season, Uncle Hal had no choice than to hire a couple of French boys who were visiting from Canada and staying with relatives down the road from our house.
When my cousins and I heard who were going to be working for Uncle Hal, we were beside ourselves with excitement. Not only were these guys handsome and our own age, but they couldn't speak very much English either. It was going to be a very interesting harvest to say the least. Dad, after hearing all our talk about the new guys, cocked his eye at Mother and said, "Guess I'll have to oil my shotgun ah-gin."
Thus the quest to be noticed began as the female population of Aroostook County prepared for potato harvest. Dorothy and I decided that if we were going to be 'noticed' at all, we'd have to do something spectacular and we set about trying to decide what to do.
We bought and read every glamour magazine we could find at Chasse's Drugstore so that we could still look beautiful as we drug ourselves thru the mud and the dirt while picking potatoes. We devoured every up-to-date article about makeup, hair styles and lipsticks we could find.
We dyed our faded jeans so that they would appear brand new and secretly altered them until they fit just right. We stole some of our brother shirts and practiced tying them around our waists to make them fit better and we slathered egg whites on our faces because Mother had told us that fresh-beaten egg whites, made your facial skin softer and even whiter than the store bought beauty stuff.
We stole some of Dorothy's sister's perfume and sprayed ourselves with 'Tweed' until it left us gasping and coughing. But, we sure smelled good or so we thought.
To get ready for the potato field, we took long baths, washed our hair, shaved every place on our bodies where an offending hair might sprout, plucked our eyebrows until they were nearly nonexistent, cut and painted our finger and toe nails, applied several body lotions, deodorant and anything else that we thought might help us stay young and beautiful. We wanted to be the best looking, best smelling girls in that entire potato field!
Then, we ventured down over the hill and begged my great Aunt Cassie to give us a home perm. Hearin' our request, she looked at us for a long moment and then she said. "Tooter, both you and Dorothy have hair that is fine and wispy. I wouldn't dare to give you a perm even if I had the time. That lotion is purty strong and it jist might burn all your hair to a crisp. Why don't you do what we used to do when we were young?" Anxious to hear her beauty secrets, we plied her with question after question and then we rushed home to give them a try.
That night, before going to bed, we washed our wispy, blond hair and then we tried what Aunt Cassie had told us to do. We laughed and giggled as we soaked our locks in her secret beauty agent, rolled our hair in stiff, pink plastic rollers, tied a scarf around them and snuck up the stairs to bed.
We didn't get much sleep that night because every time we laid our heads on the pillows, the teeth on the rollers bit into our scalps and those tiny plastic teeth caused a never-ending pain in our heads. I remember looking across at Dorothy and was shocked to see that she‚'d found a way to sleep just the same. She was lying there with her head hanging over the side of the bed, snoring long and loud. Envious of her ability to sleep, I slid down on the end of the bed, hung my head over the edge like she had and finally, finding relief, soon, I too, was sound asleep.
The next morning, Mother yelled up the stairs for us to get up and we straggled down the stairs to the kitchen, holding our sore necks and aching heads. Mother, took one look at us and burst out laughing. "What in God's name were you thinking?" she asked. "You're not going to a beauty pageant you know." We glumly nodded our heads and took another bite of her homemade doughnuts and prayed that our heads would stop aching sometime before noon.
Finally, it was time to take the rollers out of our hair. Dorothy, started to unroll hers first and as I struggled into my potato picking clothes, I heard her let out a scream. I turned and looked at my friend. After all that time and struggle, she had only managed to get one roller out of her hair! Her hair was curled all right; it was curled in a frozen position with the roller still inside the curl.
It seems that Aunt Cassie's hair curling potion had worked too well and the rollers wouldn't come out without pulling half of your hair out too. Dorothy looked at me and I began trying to unroll my curlers with the same result as Dorothy. Our hair was stuck together and to the rollers too. With a loud wail, we looked at each other and rushed down the stairs to complain to Mother.
Mother, hearing what Aunt Cassie had advised us to do, couldn't stop laughing. She was laughing so hard that she had to sit down. Finally, she wiped her eyes on the edge of her apron and said, "I don't know but if it was me, I'd soak my head in water and then take the rollers out." "But Mother," I cried. "We don't have time to do that and dry and curl our hair again before we have to leave." Mother laughed again and said, "I wondered what happened to the rest of that can of Carnation milk that was in the fridge."
Dorothy and I decided that we'd just have to leave our hair in the rollers and wrap a scarf around our head like a lot of the older, married women did and pretend that we were just trying to keep the dirt out of our hair.
We carefully applied our makeup which meant foundation, rouge, lipstick, eye shadow, mascara and penciled in our skimpy brows and then went outside to wait for Grampy to come and get us. We'd just have to make it through the day and then we could wash our hair when we got home that night.
That was the longest day of our young lives. When we'd gotten to the potato field at six am, it had been foggy and damp but by ten o'clock, the sun had come out and it had turned hot and humid. Hurrying from the freshly dug row to the potato barrels with our heavy baskets caused us to sweat and the sun beating down on our bound-up heads soon caused Aunt Cassie's secret hair-setting solution to start running down our necks, our faces and into our eyes.
It wasn't too long before, all kinds of nasty insects, drawn by our putrid smell, began buzzing, biting, diving and flying all around our heads. Dorothy and I, with jaws tight and painted lips curled into a thin, red line, commenced to picking with a fury, hoping and praying that Uncle Hal or Cousin Arthur wouldn't drive up to where we were picking our section with those two handsome French boys on the back of the truck.
When six o'clock finally rolled around that night, we didn't wait for Grampy to come and get us. We shot out of that field and walked home as fast as our tired legs could carry us. We couldn't wait to get that sour, stinky milk out of our hair.
Aunt Cassie later told Mother that she'd watched out of the corner of her kitchen window as we'd slunk by and that she'd yelled out to us that if we ever needed any other of her 'beauty secrets,' to jist come and see her any old time.
We didn't even respond, we tucked our smelly, insect laden heads down and headed up the long hill for home.
That weekend, Uncle Hal dropped by our house on his way to town and had a chat with Dad. He said that everyone in the potato field that day could look up and tell where we were jist by the huge swarm of mosquitoes, moose flies, wasps and bumblebees that were buzzing all around our heads. Uncle Hal allowed that he didn't think that Dad had any worries about us getting carried away with those two handsome Canadian boys because the boys thought Dorothy and I were the strangest girls they'd ever seen. They told him that they had never seen any French girls in Canada that had attracted bugs like the two of us.
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