Eva and Esther left the silence of the cemetery together. Eva drove her big car that used a lot of gas and followed Esther in her Chrysler back to the farm that Esther inherited from her husband George after he died.
George and Esther were planning a divorce, Eva learned. Esther was still crying, long after they had left the cemetery. Esther showed her around the old farm and pointed to the house where she lived with him for more than 40 years. Tears were streaming from Esther’s eyes like a rainspout. She missed George so much now. She wanted to divorce him; not see him dead. The divorce papers were already signed by Esther when tragically, George was killed in a car accident along old Ridge Road. He had been drinking. Esther immediately tore up the divorce papers and returned to the home where she lived as the wife of a farmer for more than forty years. She didn’t want a thing when she left him, but since he was gone for good, she realized that it was never really the hard life of living on a farm that got on her nerves. It was the drinking. Esther was not running away from the beautiful house and farm in the first place. She had other reasons for turning in her overalls for fancy city-slicker dresses.
Esther took Eva into her trailer and made her a slice of apple butter bread and appologized for crying so much. Eva immediately wanted to move in with Esther in her pink trailer.
“You should patent this. I’ve never heard of it before. It’s delicious.”
“Would you like to try some apple jack?” Esther asked.
Eva should have moved in. The girls went everywhere and spent every waking moment together. They often placed bets on who would find the richest man and marry again first. I sat in the back seat of the Chrysler and licked a lollipop while listening to the old hens decide how they were going to break out of their shells.
“I had a dream I won the lottery last night, Esther. In my dream a man who looked like Bob Barker walked up to me in the supermarket and handed me a cucumber with three numbers written on it– 6-4-3. I’m going to play those numbers in the lottery today and you should too. It was a sign. I’m either going to win the jackpot or finally find a man who knows how to do it right! Close your ears, Charlie,” Eva said while pointing her finger at me from the passenger seat. I knew what the women were talking about. I wasn’t stupid.
“I think Bob Barker is handsome. I’m going to be on that show one day,” my grandmother said while glancing at her outrageous friend with frizzy hair and thick dark glasses while starting the car. She knew it was going to be a fun day at the supermarket. Eva didn’t dream that often because she had bad nerves.
“Are you sleeping better at night with that Sassafras tea I made you?” Esther asked.
“I sure am. I’m horny now too. I think you’re a witch. Those concoctions you make are down-right sinful, Esther. I hope I do see a man that looks like Bob Barker today. If I do, I’m going to give him your phone number and tell him to come on up to your farm,” said Eva to her best friend playfully.
“Old rich men like Bob Barker like more than one woman,” Eva chuckled. “They all wish they had two or more women to tend to them. Don’t you grow up a be like Bob Barker, Charlie.”
“I won’t,” I promised.
“I don’t want to marry again,” my grandmother explained. “I enjoy the peace and quiet of living up here on the ridge.”
“You don’t have to love him. Marry him for the money! How much money do you have in the bank anyway? Don’t think I didn’t see your ad in the ‘Daily News’ selling off ten more acres. Don’t give away your farm Esther. It’s like you are selling George’s soul when I see your advertisements in the real estate section. You’ll hate living in town like I do. There are people everywhere and you never find a moment’s peace like you have up here on the ridge.
Grandma turned left and headed up a dirt road that was carved into the side of a steep embankment. Layers of slate stone were stacked like piles of paper along the side of the cut cliff. Eva looked confused while glaring out the car window. I continued to suck on my lollipop.
“Where are you taking me Esther? Oh no! Don’t take me down Ridge Road! You know those steep banks scare the living hell out of me,” demanded Eva as she rolled up the car window and tossed out an unfinished cigarette.
“You’ll be fine, Eva. I just put new tires on this car. I want to see how they handle the road in good weather, not after it snows. Remember what happened to George and his car?”
Eva remained silent until we reached the supermarket. She didn’t like to joke about Esther’s dead husband George or the ‘son-of-a-bitch’ she was once tied down to. Although she wasn’t religious, Eva didn’t like to taunt the dead. She believed they had control over ping pong balls in lottery ball baskets.
Eva forgot all about the bet with Esther and her Bob Barker dream after Meme drove her down Ridge Road at top speed. She gobbled down a pill as soon as the car started winding down the narrow, steep, unpaved mountain road. She was fast asleep by the time we reached the supermarket.
We didn’t wake Eva while we went inside to pick up a few necessities– things that grandma couldn’t grow in her garden. She was particularly fond of kiwi. She bit into one and let me taste it too. “Here. Have another one before we get to the check out,” she insisted.
We did see a man who looked just like Bob Barker standing next to a pile of watermelon. Grandma made me promise not to tell Eva when we got back to the car, but it was too late. The man with the silver hair who looked like the host from the Price is Right was standing on the passenger side of the car talking to Eva about the outrageous price of Florida oranges by the time we made it through the checkout line.
“Did you see the way he eyed you up and down, Esther?”
“I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“My heavens, Esther, have some fun. There is nothing you can do to bring George back. He’s not a rose bush, you know.”
“Eva, shut your trap and don’t talk about my grandson’s granddaddy in front of him like that.”
Eva gave me the evil eye and kept her mouth shut until we made it back home to the farm. Meme married her garden after George died. Every seed that fell into the ground from between her thumb and middle- finger grew madly. Her potatoes were as big as footballs, green beans tasted like taffy and cabbage in her plot had heads bigger than mine. She told me I had a green thumb too, but didn’t trust me to help her pull weeds. I couldn’t distinguish the weeds from the real plants, especially in the spring before the vegetables appeared.
My father introduced my grandmother and her friend Eva to a new kind of produce in May 1973. He asked Meme to plant a handful of tiny, hard seeds in her garden. We filled a trench she hoed for the seeds with two wheelbarrow loads of chicken manure, not knowing how much influence the potent, digested nitrogen would have on the special seeds that we planted for Dad.
Eva was there that day while grandma and I did all the hard work of planting Dad’s seeds. She acted as if we were doing something wrong by placing the tiny seeds into the ground, six inches apart. My foot was six inches at the time, the perfect measurement for spacing seeds, grandma showed me. She taught me to talk down the rows and plop in a seed at the tip of my toe, over and over again.
“What’s that Esther? What are you planting there? I hope that’s not what I think it is. Isn’t that where you are supposed to plant your blue potatoes?”
“I don’t know what these seeds are, Eva. Barry gave them to me. He said they come from South America and they are supposed to be some type of medicine, like sassafras. I figured I’d throw them in the ground and see what happens.”
The plants grew taller than her trailer. They looked like trees to me.
One night in late August a deer was spotted eating grandma’s rhubarb. She shot it from her bed out the trailer window and called the Pennsylvania Game Commission the next morning and asked them to remove the carcass from her property.
It wasn’t legal for her to kill wildlife on her farm because she wasn’t officially a ‘farmer’ but she did it anyway because Eva’s son worked for the Pennsylvania Fish and Wildlife Commission. What was he going to do to her?
Dad stopped by Meme’s trailer for coffee before heading off to work the morning after the deer was shot dead.
“I called the Game Commission and told them to come get that dead deer out of my garden,” Esther joking informed my dad while boiling a large kettle of hot water and pointing out the window at the whitetail she shot between the eyes. Dad didn’t even notice the whitetail. He walked right past in on his way into the pink trailer.
“Mom, you have pot growing out there. Jim Bumgardener is going to see it and you could go to jail.”
“Pot? Hell, I thought that was a South American herb! Why didn’t you say so before I planted it? Oh my gawd, Barry. Hurry up, go pull it out and hide it up in the barn.”
“What are these huge holes in the ground out here, Esther,” Jim the game commissioner asked rather bravely after he tossed the dead deer onto the tailgate of his truck. Esther gave him a look as if he were still six years old and replied, “They were weeds, really big weeds, Jim.”
“Do you want to show me the pile of weeds?” Jim asked in an authoritative tone.
She pointed to a pile of black goat pellets he was standing in and explained that Roger, her goat, had eaten them. Jim shook his head and said he was going to tell his mom.
“What the hell do you think she is going to do to me? I’m your mother’s best friend. You listen to me, Jimmy. I’m the only friend your mother has! You show me some respect or get off my land.”
No further questions were asked that day.
Jim’s mom Eva studied a Farmer’s Almanac to try and be more like her friend Esther. The yellow booklet was a roadmap for navigating through her stormy life filled with panic attacks and long periods of dark depression. She always knew when a full moon was on the horizon. She felt better when the moon was full. The Farmer’s Almanac sat on Eva’s coffee table next to a photo of Jim and endless supply of nerve pills. Esther turned her on to the most intriguing piece of literature published since the Holy Bible. Eva used the book for knowing when she would start feeling horny again and when the blues were on their way. Long term weather predictions in the almanac were more reliable than weather forecasts on local radio station, WHUN. The mysterious phrases in the book always granted the publisher a little room for error. The yellow paperback book was never exact when the contents of its pages spelled out periods of hot weather and the dog days of summer, but it was always close in its predictions, especially when it came to the moon.
Esther always planted her garden at the advice of the yellow Farmer’s Almanac. The chapter on harvests was almost exact to the date, and its growing tables notified Eva as to when Esther’s corn on the cob would be ready for picking. By studying the Almanac, Eva believed she was a farm girl too. It gave her more to talk about with her friend when she visited her on her farm and she felt less like one of the ladies who lived in town. She didn’t want to sound like a city slicker, the type of people that Esther could not stand.
Eva used the annual publication, given to her as a Christmas gift by Esther, to cast spells and enhance her knowledge of what some mountain folk in Pennsylvania call ‘witchcraft’. The book offers so much more than planting and harvesting guidelines and timetables.
Eva was just like Esther, even though she didn’t have a green thumb. She kept her distance from her neighbors and for a good reason. They were not real down-home country folk. Eva knew they would burn her at the stake if given the opportunity.
“Get off my property you little heathen or I’ll make you grow warts,” she shouted from her kitchen window almost every day at the town children who called her names and played in her front lawn.
When the farmer’s almanac promised the last full moon of the summer, her powers were in full- force. Her psychic abilities were at their peek at this time and she usually won the lottery at least twice during those long bright nights. She really believed she could make town kids grow warts. She often threatened to put one on my nose if I didn’t stop clinging onto my grandmother like a needy child.
Her sadness disappeared when the moon was high and dry. The kids who played on her lawn didn’t wreck her nerves when the moon was yellow. She was even nice to me when the moon was full, when she was “at her peak” and full of energy.
Eva nearly fainted when she turned to page 84 in the almanac to learn that a full moon was still three days away. Her fingers were already tingling and she believed she could ‘zap’ unsuspecting residents of Huntingdon with her ungodly psychic witchcraft and put curses on them. Eva’s trembling hands, caused by taking too many pills, was intensified by the psychological effects of a harvest moon still a few days away. She could hardly pick up the telephone to call her best friend to invite her out to Saturday night bingo at the Methodist church in Huntingdon. She sensed strange vibes from the telephone and on days when her energy was high, it was painful to make a phone call. She dialed Esther without an area code or prefix by simply sticking her finger in holes in a plastic dial and turning the numbers 5-7-0-3.
“How did you know it was me? I told you people lose a part of their souls when they make phone calls. You’re a psychic too, Esther. I hate all this modern technology. Do you remember what life was like before telephones? I tell you Esther, it’s the end of the world,” babbled Eva on the end of her wire.
“I knew it was you because you always call me when the moon is full. Where are you taking me– to bingo again?” Esther asked.
Eva put her hand over the end of the phone with the mouthpiece and whispered “That witch is more psychic than I am.”
She returned the receiver to her big fat lips covered in bright red lipstick and continued– “No, I thought I would tell you about the recipe for dandelion wine I found in the farmers almanac,” replied Eva with her fingers crossed behind her back.
“You know I can’t stand those hypocrites at the church,” Esther said, not falling into Eva’s plea to make wine that day.
Eva held the black phone receiver a few feet from her ear and tapped the ear piece twice, blinked her eyes and asked again– “Are you sure?”
Esther felt a sudden tingling rush up her arm and across her forehead– a feeling she normally only felt when her friend Eva worked with her in the vegetable garden. The feeling was strange, yet alluring. How could Eva do that to her over the phone? Esther was shocked.
“I invited that man who looks like Bob Barker to bingo,” Eva tempted.
“I’ll come along but only because the price is right– ten cents a game and a $100 jackpot!”
“I’ll pick you up at six and I’m doing the driving!” Eva promised
“I can’t stand your son, Eva. You know he was up here yesterday raising hell.”
“I’m sorry Esther. He was only trying to do his job. He told me about the strange holes he found outside of your trailer. I hope he didn’t figure out what we are up to.”
“His only job is to pull deer from my property when I kill them. You got that?”
“I own this damn property, not the state of Pennsylvania! Tell that little bastard where his place is Eva before I smack his ass like you should have when he was little.”
The two widows never told the truth over the phone. They were paranoid that their phones were tapped. That’s the way life was in Central Pennsylvania in 1972 when half of Huntingdon County was smoking weed. Jim took his job far too serious. He knew the ‘illegal’ activities his mother was involved in along with her best friend. Eva couldn’t keep her mouth shut. She never should have told Jim about those special South American plants that Esther was growing up on her farm, otherwise he would never have known where the holes in the ground came from.
Esther and Eva were quite nervous running an illegal business on the top of Stone Creek Ridge, and very well they should have been. All the married women in town with husbands still alive didn’t trust them. Their phone conversation about playing bingo at the Methodist Church was referring to dandelion wine making season– the last full moon of the summer which officially is the start of Fall. According to the farmer’s almanac, August 31, 1972 was the perfect day to make homemade wine.
Eva waited all year for the harvest. She didn’t win the lottery like she thought she was going to and her dead husband didn’t leave her enough money. She managed to keep the neighbor kids from her front yard all summer long and cultivated an unusual abundance of dandelions in the yard that they insisted on playing in. Neighbors called her crazy because she stood outside for hours each day in the Spring blowing delicate feathery thistles from the caps of the matured lawn weeds all over the neighborhood.
Eva watched her front lawn turn gold. She was waiting impatiently for Esther to give the okay to pick them and bring them up to her farm where they could make their highly coveted and expensive concoction that they called ‘dandelion wine’.
“Pick the heads of the lion now and soak them on the stove. The yellow flowers are perfect for pickling when the moon shines with the flavor of Fall–” the almanac advised for August 31st.
Eva knew Esther read the words too and had a hunch this was the time for them to do their thing and mix- up thousands of dollars in flower wine with a twist of what Eva called “lip balm”.
Eva didn’t want to know what went into making the lip balm ingredient– the thick, Vaseline like substance that my grandmother kept in the butter compartment of her refrigerator. Eva’s only responsibility for the home- based business was picking and growing the dandelions. She had no part of the illegal activity of boiling down ‘lip balm’. The process of making the sticky balm was simple. Buds from the marijuana plants were thrown inside large pots of rapidly boiling water and allowed to simmer for several hours. Esther strained the water through cheese cloth to remove the bits of the plant. After cooling for several minutes, my grandmother was able to skim off the oily substance at the top of the water. It was as simple as removing fat from broth when boiling chicken down for soup.
“Hurry up and throw some in. I don’t want to see it. If we get arrested, I’m going to insist that I knew nothing about it,” Eva cried with a paranoid tone when the special secret ingredient was mixed into the batch of Esther Tea.
I held the cheese cloth.
Eva walked right past the twelve feet tall shrubs with little green buds every time she knocked on grandma’s door as the summer progressed. She pretended she didn’t notice them. Even I knew what that stuff was– my dad liked it more than his beer.
Funny, Esther thought– Eva has something to say about every flower in my garden and she does not want to discuss those beautiful green girls or stop to smell them on the way in. Meme got $100 a pint of her special tea. Locals paid top dollar for just a little bit of it. One cap- full could cure almost anything. Its juices could heal chapped lips, even mine.
As soon as my grandmother agreed to ‘go to bingo’, Eva ran outside with paper grocery bags and picked her dandelions– ‘Bingo’ was the special code word that they used to begin the harvesting process. Eva was careful to not to miss the petals which surrounded the faces of the dandelions– that’s what gives the wine its shine according to my grandma.
Esther had to start selling parts of the farm as soon as George died in a terrible car accident. It was driving her nuts that she didn’t learn George’s secret moonshine ingredients. It pissed her off that she had to get a job at the sowing factory when her husband was killed. The wine making business was her secret revenge on a society that sometimes overlooks older women.
She set out with her partner and friend, Eva and a new type of seed given to her by her youngest son and learned how to make wine from dandelions and marijuana. Esther wanted to die owning more land than her husband George, or his father Miles who also owned a farm but grew only tobacco for smoking.
It was a warm August afternoon in 1972 when Eva picked the most succulent dandelions ever to be made into Esther Tea. It happened to be the same day my grandmother was struck by lightening. Grandma said it wasn’t God who struck her with a lightening bolt. It was my granddaddy who was down in Hell– pissed off because she was a woman who knew how to survive without a man.
Just as Johnstown was flooding due to the remnants of Hurricane Agnes, the red headed farm girl got zapped by a thunderbolt while working outside in a storm, trying to bring her harvest inside before the storm spun over. A deep dark cumulus cotton ball of pure tropical moisture was floating lower than the rest of the wispy clouds in the sky. They don’t get tornados on the peaks of the Appalachians, but the cloud looked threatening. It crept along the summit of Stone Creek Ridge like a bat flying in search of June bugs. The chickens had been acting strange all day. Rain never kept them in their coop. Even Sally, the chicken raised from an egg in an incubator stayed inside that day. The green, arm-like leaves of the corn were turned upside down– a sure sign of a dangerous electrical storm according to the Farmer’s Almanac. The rain tapered off briefly and Esther thought it was safe to go outside and salvage her harvest of ‘green girls’ for the making of dandelion wine.
“They’re calling for 40 mile an hour winds and eight inches of rain, Esther,” her friend Eva screamed over the phone on her second phone call of the day. “You better get outside and pick those flowers before that God forsaken hurricane hauls ass up over that ridge you live on. I got six bags of dandelions today Esther. If we don’t get yours picked we’re not going to have very much wine to sell this year. Bob Barker said the price is right on television today, Esther!”
“The rain and wind are not going hurt my girls, Eva.”
“Well, you know how they close up when the ground gets wet. Who knows how long we’ll have to wait for sunshine to open them back up. By then, my flowers will be too old for making good wine,” Eva said as the receiver of the phone shook terribly in her left hand.
She didn’t know the ‘split-tails’ were already harvested and hanging in the barn. My father pulled them out and hid them before Jim, Eva’s son, came up to our farm to do what Esther said was his ‘game commissioner job’– removing the dead deer carcass from her vegetable garden.
After getting Eva’s call, grandma grew paranoid and started to become quite concerned about the crop she was drying out in the top of her old barn. There were no windows in the barn and the plants were very light. Yellow dandelions grow everywhere, but if she lost her special weeds, her life would be ruined, at least for another growing season.
She used an old rusty pitchfork to carry what was the equivalent of a bail of hay prior to bailing towards her pink trailer. She had almost made it to the door before all hell broke loose. While reaching out with her free hand to open the screen door, Meme was struck by lightening for the second time in her life. It seemed as if the devil himself struck the red- haired woman and sent her flying ten yards into the naked spot in her garden where the large South American plants had once grown.
It is strange how lightening works. It’s nothing like a contact high. I was walking right next to her and I didn’t feel a thing!
I knew not to call an ambulance or the game commissioner. I pulled the plants inside and rescued my grandmother and her friend Eva from the eye of a hurricane. By the time grandma woke up, Eva and me had the pots of water boiling on the stove.
Eva still calls me Bob Barker.
“What happened,” Meme asked when she awoke.
“God was bowling,” I explained.