She was our great aunt but us Stevens' kids always called her Aunt Cassie. She only stood about five feet tall in her stocking feet but she had more drive and energy in her little finger than most people had in their whole body. There wasn't anything that she couldn't or wouldn't do if she put her mind to it. To me, she was the epitome of the true American pioneer spirit.
The word impossible just wasn't in her vocabulary. If the old Farmall tractor needed a new part that wasn't available at the local Ashland parts store, she could always be relied upon to know where one could be found, bought or borrowed.
Long after Uncle Hal, had thrown down his wrenches in disgust and stormed off, swearing at the top of his lungs, Aunt Cassie would calmly come out of the house, wipe her hands on her flour sack apron, pick up the abandoned tools and proceed to repair the tractor.
Aunt Cassie was a woman who not only loved Uncle Hal, she also loved life but the thing she loved the most was a good dose of gossip. From time to time, she'd go to visit all the neighbors and after downing numerous cups of tea and ferreting out the latest, juicy story, she'd return home, anticipating the first chance she'd have to pass on the slightly embellished stories.
Aunt Cassie was an inveterate pack rat. She never threw anything away and she couldn't stand for anyone else to throw anything away either. She often made secret, furtive excursions to the local dumps where she'd joyfully spend the entire morning sorting thru other people's trash.
She never came home disappointed either. She'd immediately cart everything she'd found up to her attic that was located directly over her kitchen. Year after year, as Aunt Cassie slowly but surely accumulated more and more "treasures," the kitchen ceiling began to curve noticeably downwards. Everyone who knew her began making side bets as to when the ceiling would finally cave in.
By the time we were born, Aunt Cassie's three kids were all grown up and on their own. So, we, her great nieces and nephews became the ones to replace her own kids in helping, from time to time, with chores around their farm.
Aunt Cassie missed her true calling when she became an Aroostook County farmer's wife at the age of fifteen. She really should have gone to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Central Intelligence Agency. She had an uncanny way with a chocolate chip cookie that would make you spill your guts about all the gossip you'd ever heard and even some you haven't. If you told her some story that she hadn't previously heard before, her eyes would light up and she'd hastily shove another cookie into your grubby hand. Then, she'd lean a little closer and with her voice scarcely above a whisper, ask, "And then Tooter, what happened?"
Then came a day when Aunt Cassie thought she'd died and gone to gossip heaven. She'd finally acquired what Uncle Hal commonly referred to as "That God-Damned thing," the telephone. She finally got the phone by begging and pleading with Uncle Hal about how it would save them so much time and money not to have to run into town every time they needed a new part for the tractor or for the other farm equipment. She finally convinced him when she said that she'd call over to Presque Isle and have the parts they needed mailed out to them.
From the day it was installed, Aunt Cassie was beside herself with joy. From the very beginning, she had been connected to a six family "party-line." Each family was assigned a certain number of rings and when the phone rang for any family on the line, it also rang at all the other houses.
It wasn't too long before she'd memorized all the neighbor's rings and upon hearing the phone begin to ring, she'd immediately drop whatever she was doing and run into the parlor and pick it up. She could be found most anytime of the day or night, leaning over her old desk, with the telephone receiver cupped under her chin, listening in on someone else's conversation. Uncle Hal constantly complained that her cooking had gone to hell in a wheelbarrow ever since she'd gotten that God-damned thing!
She got into trouble quite a few times when she overheard some real juicy gossip and forgot that she was the rubberee and not the callee and she'd joined right in on the conversation before she realized what she was doing.
Over the years, the habit of holding the receiver cupped under her chin while she listened in on other's phone calls, began to take its toll. She took to holding her head at a slight angle as though she had a crick in her neck. Whenever anyone asked her about her health, she'd gingerly rub her neck and complain of a touch of arthritis here and there. Hearing this, Uncle Hal would snort and laugh that it wasn't "arthritis" but "telephoneitis." She certainly wasn't going to get any sympathy from him!
Aunt Cassie had a way of getting you to do something terrible by making it seem like a great big adventure. One day, when I went for a visit, she was happily washing her breakfast dishes when suddenly she knelt down and began rummaging through the cabinets under the sink. When she stood up, she was holding two small, empty lard pails in each hand. She spun around, looked me right in the eye, lowered her voice to a whisper and said, "Tooter, I found the biggest patch of strawberries this morning... Let's go!" With a big smile on her face, she'd hand me the two dainty lard pails, grab a huge milking pail for herself and off we'd go to the secret place where the wild strawberries were calling her name.
Or, she'd sit you down in her cluttered kitchen, with the wood stove stoked to the brim, hand you a couple of freshly baked molasses cookies and ask you how you'd like to earn a quarter. In nineteen fifty-two, that was a lot of money to most people, and especially for us Stevens' kids, so we usually said yes. It certainly didn't take us long to catch on to her ways.
She was a master of suspense too. She'd never tell you right away what the job really was. She'd hand you a hat, boots, gloves and an old jacket and then she'd take off at a fast clip towards the barn and you'd have to run to keep up with her. Before you knew it, you'd rounded the corner of the building, past the outhouse and you were out behind the barn. It didn't take overly long to get the gist of her plan, what with a huge smelly pile of cow manure staring you in the face!
After you'd swallowed deeply several times, to keep all those cookies down that she'd just fed you, she'd thrust a three pronged pitchfork into your hands and say, "I jist need, oh maybe three or four trailer loads of manure for the flower beds and my garden. And oh yes, I nearly forgot, I guess we can't forget the lawn, now can we?" You knew right then that this was going to be an all day affair! God! How I hated that smelly, disgusting job! But, Aunt Cassie would work right alongside you and she sang all the while she was slinging forkful after forkful of "poor man's fertilizer" into the manure spreader. You can't say all this stuff wasn't "educational" though. To this very day, I know how to grow a pretty mean garden and my flowers are to die for and oh yes, I can still sing "Mockingbird Hill" all the way through.
After the garden had been thoroughly covered with rich, black manure and the earth turned over, then the lawn and flower beds had to be covered. Then everything had to have a good dose of water and she'd move on to another important task.
For the next couple of weeks, we'd be extremely careful not to visit Aunt Cassie unless we absolutely had to. If the Aroostook River had receded off Uncle Hal's flats on the island, we'd take the long way around to go fishin down to the island. Instead of going straight down the road past her house, we'd run down over Mr. Beaulier's property to the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad tracks and cross them and go down thru the woods to get to the river. It took us a great deal longer and added miles of walking to our fishing trip but we knew that she couldn't see us.
If her "eagle" eyes happened to catch us slinking past her house to go fishing or strawberrying, she'd thrust her curtains aside and shout from her kitchen window, "Jake!" "Tooter!" "Bub!" "Helen!" And we'd all have to go and see what it was that she wanted. God!, didn't the weeds grow huge in Aunt Cassie's garden what with all that good rich cow manure on it and Lord!, didn't the grass grow fast on her huge lawn!
Aunt Cassie considered herself an "expert" in givin home permanents. All any of her female relatives had to do was to mention that they "needed" a new perm and Aunt Cassie would whip out her old Marcel waving kit and begin.
It was fascinating for us kids to sit in her kitchen and watch this mysterious, malodorous event take place. Aunt Cassie would saturate each clump of hair with a poisonous, smelling liquid then she'd wind the hair up in a rusty roller and clamp the roller into place with an aluminum clip. Once the victim's entire head was rolled up, a kind of chemical reaction would take place and blue, sulfur-smelling smoke would drift into the air and we'd hold our breath, half expecting the victim's head to burst into flames or for them to be electrocuted!
God forbid that Aunt Cassie received a telephone call at that moment of if she heard the phone ring on the party line for someone else, because she'd be gone. She'd abandon the unwitting person in a heartbeat, leaving them sitting in her kitchen with blue smoke rolling off their head, while she rubbered in on the latest news.
After an indeterminate amount of time, she'd reappear as though she hadn't ever left and begin removing the perming paraphernalia. Sometimes, only half of the hair had taken properly and the other half had been fried to a crisp. Upon seeing the look of horror on her latest victim's face, Aunt Cassie would grasp the dead hair in her hand, laugh and say, "Ain't that jist like the fashions in gay Paree!" Usually, it took at least a year before anyone's hair had grown in enough for them to need another perm. Few were ever foolish enough to mention that they "needed" another perm in front of Aunt Cassie again.
When things got too boring at our house, we'd always sneak off down the Goding Road to Aunt Cassie's house to see what was going on there. Usually, we were never disappointed. The farm was always filled with new and exciting creatures and experiences.
When spring finally rolled around, off we'd go to see all the new piglets, baby calves and chickens. The new calves were so cute, especially the ones that had just been born and were trying to stand on their wobbly legs. Aunt Cassie would allow us to pet them and brush their coats only after we'd agreed that the stalls would be so much "nicer" without all that smelly old cow shit all over the place! The deal was, that we could pet and brush the calves tour heart's content, after we'd cleaned out all the stalls. It sounded like a fair deal to us at the time.
We also loved to look at and hold the soft yellow chicks and this was ok with Aunt Cassie too if we agreed to pound up a few old crockery jars into feed for the hens. We'd sit down on the ground around a large rock that she called her "chicken" rock. It had a deep indentation in it from all the years of pounding bits of broken crockery on it. We'd always fight over who got to use the hammer first and hearing us argue, she'd chide us from her kitchen window, "Kids!" "Kids!" "I've got more than enough broken dishes from the dump to go around. Now don't be fightin over that old stuff!"
As Mark, her oldest grandson grew; he often came to visit his grandparent's farm. When we knew that Mark was there visiting, we'd drop everything and head down over the hill to play with him. We used to call him the "city" kid because he lived in Ashland which was about five miles from our house.
To say that Aunt Cassie doted on her grandson was putting it mildly. We knew that if Mark was with us when we took it into our heads to chop down a "few" trees or if we just "happened" to pull up some of Uncle Hal's potatoes, then we wouldn't get into too much trouble. Mark was our "insurance" policy, so to speak.
Mark didn't get to visit his grandparents too often because his parents thought that Uncle Hal's swearin and other vices might had a bad influence on him. When he did get to visit, Mark would act like a kid let out of jail. He'd want to do everything that he wasn't allowed to do at home. He wouldn't take a bath unless Grampy Sutherland took one too and he'd imitate his grandfather in every possible way.
Uncle Hal knew that Mark wasn't allowed to swear and he'd wait with baited breath until Mark's next visit and then he'd purposely try out every cuss word that he knew and a few that he'd made up. Mark soaked up all these new and different experiences like a sponge. All the while, Uncle Hal would smile to himself and he'd wait to hear the explosions that were sure to come from the direction of Station Hill after Mark had gone home.
Mark's last name was Michaud but as soon as he got to the farm, he'd insist that we call him "Sutherland." He'd always tell us that if we didn't call him that, he'd blame everything that we'd done on us. Being a bunch of kids, we didn't care what we called him. If he wanted to be called Sutherland, that was fine with us.
I'll never forget that fine summer's morning when Jake, Bub, Helen and I were down to Aunt Cassie's. Mark had just arrived the night before and he was going to stay for a week. We were sitting in the grass on Aunt Cassie's lawn arguin about what we were going to do for the day. Jake wanted to go down to the island, steal dad's boat and take it on a fast trip around the island. Bub wanted to go out to the back fields and smoke some Indian tobacco. Helen and I wanted to go strawberrying in the overgrown hay fields across the road. Mark wanted to go down to the railroad siding and find some snakes to put on the tracks before the next train came through.
Aunt Cassie looked out her kitchen window where she was washin dishes and yelled out to us to ask us what was wrong. Jake lied to her and said that we were thinkin of goin down in the wood to chop down some trees to build a log cabin. Hearing this, Aunt Cassie stopped what she was doing and looked at us for a couple of seconds, then with a shrewd look on her face, she said, "I don't know about you, but if it was me, I wouldn't go down in them woods right now, what with all those skeeters and mingies around. And it's God-awful hot today too!" We all looked at each other and waited. "Why don't you play right here?" "Where?" We all yelled. She looked out through the screened in window with a big smile on her face and she knew that she had us.
"Well," She said. "You know that I've gut that old chicken coop right over there behind you and it's empty right now. I think that it would make a perfectly fine playhouse, don't you?" We turned and looked where she had pointed and sure enough, there it was! Reeling us a little closer into her trap, she continued. "There's only one problem though kids. It really ought to be cleaned out before you play in there. It ain't been cleaned in years!" "No problem!" We all yelled. Jake ran to get the wheelbarrow, Bub and I ran to get the shovels, Mark ran to get some gloves and Helen went to get us some drinking water from the hose. We scurried up the small incline to the shit-filled chicken coop like an anxious husband on his honeymoon.
We pushed open the sagging chicken coop door and gagged at the sight that awaited us. The walls and floor were covered with chicken droppings and the smell was horrendous! We each grabbed a tool and we shoveled, we swept, we carted and we cleaned all morning and after about five hours, the "play house" was beginning to look pretty good. Well, we could finally see the floor anyway.
Suddenly, through the dust that hung in the air, I looked over at Jake. His red hair and face were completely covered with a fine, white dust. Beads of sweat ran down the side of his face like small rivers and he was thoroughly and systematically scratching himself. I looked at him for a moment and then I felt the sudden urge to scratch too. Mark, watching us, began to scratch and whine about feeling all itchy. Bub and Helen were standing in a corner and they looked just like the rest of us. We dropped everything and got the hell out of that hen house.
Mark ran screeching down the hill to where Aunt Cassie was watchin from her kitchen window. She looked out to where we were standin, scratchin and itchin and asked. "What, tired of playin already?" She asked and she seemed to be laughing a little as she said it. "Grammy," Mark whined. "Do chickens have lice?" "God yes!" She replied. "But don't worry kids. Chicken lice don't stay too long on kids!" And she burst out laughing.
Jake looked up at her face in the screen window and asked, "Well, how long do they stay?" "Oh, not more than two or three days," She replied. We all looked at each other in horror and Mark shot into the house.
As we tiredly rounded the corner of her house, headed for home, we heard this parting shot from the direction of her window. "By the way kids, anytime you want to come and play in the other chicken coop, jist let me know. It ain't been cleaned in a long, long time!" To this day, I swear that I could hear her laughter in the still afternoon air behind us as we straggled, filthy, itching and scratching, up the long hill towards home.
NOTE: I hurriedly finished this story so that I could present it to Aunt Cassie in honor of her ninetieth birthday on March 18, 2001. After she'd read it, a relative asked her how she'd liked the story. She mulled the question over for a couple of seconds and then she said. "I don't mind that Tooter said that I liked to dig in the dump, because I do! I don't mind that she said that I liked to gossip because that's true too! And I don't even mind that she wrote that I liked to rubber in on my neighbor's telephone calls because I did! But I don't like it that she wrote that I had a crick in my neck because I don't!"
NOTE: July 7, 2004, as of this writing, Aunt Cassie is still alive and well and still living alone in her old house on the Goding Road and she turned ninety-four on March 18, 2004. May God Bless you Aunt Cassie. I will always love you.
NOTE: March 21, 2007. As of this writing, Aunt Cassie is still alive and well but she has moved into what she calls "Wrinkle Village" a (euphemism for the Home for the Elderly) in Ashland for the winter. I spoke with her yesterday and after a long and happy conversation, she asked, "Is there anything I can do for you Tooter?" "God no!" I replied. "You did more for me when I was a kid that I can ever repay you for." "Well," she said. "What were a few cookies? When I close my eyes, I can still see your little blond head as you walked by my house, goin fishin or you seated on Uncle Hal's lap as you helped him cultivate the potatoes. You know Tooter, I hope I can move back to my old shack when warm weather comes and have a little garden. I want to plant a potato plant for Hal." I hope you can move back too Aunt Cassie and plant a potato plant for Uncle Hal for me too. I will always love you, Aunt Cassie.
NOTE: May 15, 2007. As of this writing, Aunt Cassie is still doing well but she still had a little problem when I spoke with her last week. It seems that after having gone a lifetime without actually knowin what her age really was, she finally found her birth certificate and she called me in a state of panic. ""Tooter," she said. "I finally found my birth certificate!" "Well," Aunt Cass, "That's good news." "No," she replied, "It ain't." "Why not Aunt Cass?" I asked. "Well, you know, these fools went and gave me a big birthday party because they thought I was ninety-seven and I'm not!" "Well, how old are you?" I asked. "I'm younger than I thought I was, I'm only ninety-six!" I had to laugh at that and then I asked, "Well, isn't that good news?" "No," she replied, "It ain't!" "Why?" "Well," these fools will think I lied and now I'll have to give back all the presents!" "Oh" Aunt Cass, you may only be ninety-six but you're still the oldest person in Ashland." She had a think about it and then she said, "I guess you're right."
NOTE: During the Ashland Days Celebration on the Fourth of July, 2007, Aunt Cassie was honored again. She was awarded a cane and a plaque and after all the uproar had died down, she called me to tell me the news. "Tooter," she said. "These fools went and made a big deal over me agin and they had a ceremony and they gave me a beautiful cane and a plaque with my name and age engraved on it."." "Oh," Aunt Cass, that's wonderful!" "No it ain't!" she replied. "Why not?" I asked. "Well," she replied. "Tha damn fools gave me a beautiful cane and then the sons-ah-whores took it back!" "En if that wasn't bad enough," she went on, "They gave me a plaque and then they asked me where I was goin to hang it in my apartment. I looked that old fool right in the eye and said, "I'm not goin to hang it anywhere, I'm goin to put it under my bed!" She wasn't at all impressed with the plaque but she sure did want that cane!
She went on to say that her family had "surprised" her and hadn't told her about the ceremony in her honor and when they'd come to pick her up, they hadn't even allowed her to change her clothes. Then they'd taken her uptown and put her in a buggy that was hooked to a horse and it had pulled her all over to hell and gone. She wasn't happy or impressed with that ceremony either. She said that a newspaper reporter had come up to her and had taken her picture for the Presque Isle Star Herald and he'd asked her how she'd liked the buggy ride. She said that she had told him that at age fourteen, her father, Old Ock Bragdon, had told her that she was grown now and that she'd best be lookin for a husband to support her. So, he'd put her in his horse cart and they'd driven the long ride from Buffalo into Ashland. She said that she hadn't liked the buggy ride with her father eighty-three years ago and she didn't like this one either! Aunt Cassie went on to tell me that she sure hoped that they'd gotten this "honorin" thing out of their systems and that she sure to God hoped that she didn't make it to one hundred because she dreaded to think what them friggin fools might do to her then! But I sure hope you do make it to you hundredth birthday Aunt Cass.
NOTE: February 18, 2008. Aunt Cass began losing ground right after Christmas and is now in a nursing home in Caribou. Today is her 97th birthday and she is going softly into her good night. I'm sorry to lose you, Aunt Cass but I certainly don't want you to suffer. May God bless and keep you till we meet again.
NOTE: March 13, 2008. Great Aunt Cass left this earthly realm last night at 6:15. Her family set about arranging for the funeral and it was scheduled to take place in the Catholic Church in Ashland. This seemed ironic because the only time Great Aunt Cass ever set foot in a Catholic Church was to attend a christening, a wedding or a funeral. Folks who attended the packed ceremony related to me later that it certainly was humorous to hear the priest call Great Aunt Cassie by the wrong name. Throughout the ceremony, the priest kept calling her "Casey" and every time he did so, heads would turn and look at others and this mistake caused much silent laughter in the church. I'm sure Great Aunt Cass would have laughed at this too and with a twinkle in her bright blue eyes, looked at me and said, "Well, Casey's not so bad. I've been called a lot worse in these 97 years!" She's not suffering anymore and I'm certain Heaven is a much brighter place now. I wrote the following poem just for her:
For Aunt Cass
I haven't come to say goodbye
Because you didn't really die...
You're in the sky and in the trees
And all my lifelong memories...
You are in all the things that grow
And in the very winds that blow...
So, I'm not sad now that you've gone
My memories of you go on and on...
So wait for me now that you sleep
For I have promises to keep...
-- An original poem by M. Stevens-David 031508
Her house stands lonely on the hill, no birds are singing, all is still
The grass has grown, her flowers droop, there are no chickens in the coop...
The cows are gone, the fire is cold, the house is sagging, it's grown old
Her spirit lingers, just out of sight, it comes around most every night...
At fifteen she came to stay and live, so much hard work, so much to give
She started young, her family, a little girl, two boys, make three...
Some eighty years upon this hill, and then to spend no more
And every time I look for her, she's gone thru Heaven's door...
-- An Original Poem by M. Stevens-David
Autobiography of a Simple Soul
Memories, Another Place - Another Time
Recently Published Articles include:
Great Uncle Hal
Charley, The Lazy Goose
Diary of Death
Ashland High School Graduation - 1963
Mr. Bunners & the Snowman
M. Stevens-David Review: "I Am a Wish" by Marie Callegari
Childrens Stories include:
See also Vengeance is Mine a short mystery novel published at Magic City over 4 days.
All works by Martha Stevens-David published at Magic City Morning Star News are her copyright property and may not be reproduced without her permission.