Winter time, specifically snowy days, on the farm when I was a boy, were special days – especially when I was at my grandparents. Snowy days meant you could not work with the soil. They were days off from work. On snow days, the only work that needed to be done was to keep your self and your livestock warm and fed. If you had prepared during the year, this was easy.
My grandfather chopped enough wood that he had learned was necessary to heat the house all winter (they had a wood burning furnace) and Granma had canned as much food as she could to keep meals on the table until the garden began producing the next year. She prepared so much that jars of canned vegetables stood on the shelves for several years, and some were still there when she died. I don’t know if anyone tried to eat, or even open, the ones with the most dust on them.
Chickens were the only animals that I remember them keeping all winter. They were necessary for their eggs and an occasional chicken dinner. Granma always hoped she killed “a poor layer” when she would butcher one, but there was no way to know before hand. Only while removing the guts of the chicken would she know. If the chicken had been “a good layer,” there would be a string of partially formed eggs inside the chicken in preparation to being laid. I saw them with amazement.
The largest of these was just about to be laid. It had it’s shell and might have been laid later that day. Behind it was one almost as big. The string of eggs would continue down to one the size of a pea. As the eggs got progressively smaller, the shell became progressively thinner. A few eggs after the largest ones, the shells were soft enough to poke. You had to be careful handling them, you didn’t want to poke a hole in them. They were eggs and were kept to be eaten. Granma would keep the ones somewhat larger than her thumb. The others were too small to bother with, and they went out with the rest of the guts. My grandparents didn’t have pigs to eat the guts, so I don’t know what they did with the innards. Maybe Granpa made a pile of them away from the house, on the other side of the windbreak, for wild critters. If they had some food, they wouldn’t try to get the chickens!
One special activity of this relaxing time involved jigsaw puzzles. After the ground had frozen and snow came, which happened about the same time, Granma would get out her card table. Then she would look through her boxes of puzzles. If you happened to be there at the time, you had a voice in the choice too. The puzzles all had 500 or more pieces. Any less was too easy. Most of these puzzles were old. Having grown up with scarcity, she saved puzzles, as well as most other things in case they may be needed. One of her puzzles was so old, the cardboard was double or triple the thickness of current puzzles, another was probably even older; the pieces of it were wooden! I don’t think we used them too often. She didn’t want to loose a piece and, with children involved, that was always possible.
She would make the selection, and then begin to assemble the puzzle.
She would use the bottom of the box as a base to support the top of the box so we could easily see the entire picture while sitting in chairs at the table. The first parts to be assembled were the edges. These pieces were the easiest to pick out of the pile and fairly easy to assemble. When connected together, they indicated the size of the entire completed puzzle. Next, we would put together specific images in the puzzle: a house, or barn, or boat, for example. It should be noted that most of the puzzles were rural photographs. Granma was most comfortable with those landscapes, especially with barns and farm houses. Those were her world. With the trees outside bare of leaves and the land outside barren of crops, she liked to the see the greenery of the other seasons. I don’t know if autumn colors were her favorite, but they were, and are, mine.
Searching for a usable puzzle piece became a welcome, communal time. No one hurried, no one rushed. Everyone had as much time as necessary to determine if the colors matched another piece, and if its configuration was compatible. Often times one piece came close to matching, but some little detail would be off. The searching taught observation and discrimination. Granma would not allow anyone to make fun of anyone else if their piece did not fit. We were all “safe” there. And, there was no limit of who could participate, except for age. If a baby might put a puzzle piece in it’s mouth, then it was kept away. Little ones were gently taught to respect the puzzle pieces and table they were on. If older children wanted to participate, and a younger one was around, Granma would take the younger one into the kitchen where she always found something more entertaining for that child. If it was impossible to distract the child, or there were too may of them, the puzzle table was simply picked up and moved into the dinning room which was normally closed off in the winter time unless a special dinner was to be held.
Those puzzles united everyone, except the very littlest, in the family. We all enjoyed that communal activity. We were all equal in the ability to look for the right piece, and every piece found that fit into place was a cause for congratulations. It was a winning situation for all who chose to participate, and everyone in the family joined it. Putting pieces in a puzzle was the one thing we all joined in.
Granma hasn’t been able to host any puzzles for several decades now, I don’t even know what happened to the puzzles when her house was emptied. I just know I miss those puzzle making winter times.