Monday, October 7, 2013

On Oscar's Nob: Ma's Lye

Ma had nerves of steel. She was orphaned at seven and worked in an uncle's home until fifteen when a boy six years older took her to be his. Wilbur, Nettie, and Ray died as babies, but with a farm to run and plenty of living children to tend, grief was an indulgence, action was necessary and family was grace.

Rising before dawn, Ma's day started at the stove. Fuel had to be chopped and gathered by the boys before school. Buckets of water were carried up the hill to a big iron pot for laundering clothes. Fire under the black belly boiled stink from rough cloth as lye soap dissolved dirt. Clothes were stirred, scrubbed, rinsed, rung, and hung no matter how hot or cold the air might be. Ma's hands were red raw. 

She often said, "Poor doesn't have to look poor." Using a triangular flatiron heated on the stove, she pressed pride into dresses and collars.
Mrs. Lemuel Smith courtesy freepages.history

Washing was done outside but other chores were done in the main room of the house on the hill. Food was constantly cooking to provide for the day and week. Toil in the garden began with sowing and yielded canning and preserving for the cold season. No day was without cleaning, baking, sewing, and the unexpected

Ma's ninth baby, Hannah, was alone for a moment. Old enough to walk and talk, she knew Ma scooped bright white flakes from the forbidden bucket of lye. Safe in the place of food, a tiny hand lifted a bite into her mouth.

And then she screamed.

Out tending the wash, Ma didn't need to see -- the anguished cry told her exactly what happened. She didn't flutter her apron and scream for help. They were three miles up an Appalachian hill, far from any road. She ran to the kitchen, scooped lard from a tin and swiped the baby's mouth clean.

Not a speck was swallowed, the deadly bits grabbed by thick, white fat. Hannah's tongue was scarred but it was a small price to pay. Ma held her second youngest tight, an infant boy the only other Oscar home, and thanked the Lord for his mercy and grace. 

fun link to lye soap: