On a lazy Tuesday morning in December, I sit with my children, watching the snow accumulate outside of our rented townhouse in the Maryland suburbs. Schools are closed today, so my son is taking his turn with the TV, while my daughter patiently entertains herself by removing and replacing ornaments from the freshly decorated Christmas tree. These are wonderful moments, disturbed only by the snoring of Fred, our beloved bassett hound, who has refused to relinquish his spot on the sofa. A truly wonderful wintry day!
As I stare outside at the huge, tumbling flakes, I’m remembering a moment in my childhood in which I learned a valuable lesson about loyalty. “Playing” in our world was usually defined as any activity conducted with all or a majority of the six children. Usually, however, it did not end well for me and/or my little sister. As the first girl born after four boys, it was not in my best interest to play the role of a female. Rather, I just did my best to hang in there, often sporting bruises, scrapes, cuts and insults at the hands of my older brothers as a result of trying to be “one of the guys”. On a day much like this, I recall going outside in the snow with my brothers to “play”. The arena on this particular day was a three-sided shed that sat twenty yards from the orange brick rancher that was our house. The shed had a five-slatted wooden fence extending approximately sixty yards from both of its outer walls, and connected on the farthest end to form an uneven quadrangle of a pen, the shed itself completing the fourth side. The outside area was divided similarly into smaller pens, and was home to approximately 3-4 horses at any given time. I remember that my father’s sorrel horse, a huge 16+ – hander named Seli, was a permanent resident. Seli suffered from stress fractures in his shins, and would live out the rest of his days unridden as a result.
Like much of the livestock we maintained, the horses existed on a winter diet of hay, grain and alfalfa pellets. Anyone who has ever owned a guinea pig or rabbit is familiar with alfalfa pellets. However, unlike the smaller pellets fed to our caged furry friends, the pellets we fed to our horses were three to four inches long, the size of shotgun shells: perfect for an aerial attack! And that’s just what took place: an “us versus them” fight, with “us” taking up fort inside the shed, and “them” taking up fort outside in the blowing snow. Armed with buckets of alfalfa pellets, the “thems” marched to their posts in the frozen white blizzard. My brother John was a “them”, and I was an “us”. The game began as soon as the first pellet was launched and without an official start, as many childhood games often begin. Pellets flew through the air with both accuracy and speed, non-arching rockets launched in all directions, line drives that came at everyone, some hitting their targets, and others falling harmlessly at our feet and rolling away in the snow. The horses would have such a diet-wrenching treat later, an after thought that never actually formulated in our young minds!
Most of the shots we took hit our coveralls or shoddy coats, then bounced down to the ground. If they didn’t break, we could pick them up, and hurl them back at the other side! The game continued for a while, each of us growing wetter and colder from the weather all around us. One by one, the teams dwindled as players got too cold and miserable to continue and sought refuge in the warmth and glow of the bricks nearby. Pretty soon, the only two players left were myself and my brother John.
Hurling away at my older brother, I worked my way down to just a few pellets. Right at that moment, the pellet barrage coming at me stopped. I couldn’t believe my luck: my brother was out of ammunition! I could win this if only I could score a direct hit with one of my few remaining pellets. Slowly, I crept out of the protection of the shed, into the pen outdoors, into the snow that blinded me as I snuck around the fencing. I could barely see two feet in front of me – the snow was really coming down and whipping in the Kansas wind. I didn’t know exactly where my brother was hiding, but I knew the general vicinity. Slinking in the cold, I made my way into the storm, never spying my brother as I went. What seemed like a long time passed with no signal of his presence. In an effort to do some reconnaissance, I bravely stood up and poked my head over the top slat of the wooden fence within the pen. At nearly the exact moment that my head rose over the wood, a giant pellet came at me through the snow. I didn’t see it until an instant before it actually struck my face just below my left eye. Immediately, I saw red as the skin split open, spilling blood all over the fresh snow. I started yelling to my brother that I was hurt. Seeing the red mix into the white, he came running to me. Crying, I started for the house and my mother. As I ran towards the door, my brother kept pleading, “Please don’t tell Mom, Liesl. Please, please, don’t tell her!”. Over and over, he repeated his plea as we abandoned our war theater.
As I opened the door, my mother met me. She had heard my crying as I got nearer and nearer to the house. When I saw her pink robe, I clutched at her waist, burying my face in her pajama-ed midsection. While she wasn’t the gentlest of souls, she was a compassionate one, and she held my head against her until the sobbing slowed. It wasn’t until then that she pulled my head gently away from her, lifted my chin to look into my eyes, and asked me what had happened. Speaking between sobs, I quickly recounted the tale I’d just formulated in my mind seconds prior: I had been walking through the pen with my brother, and the snow was coming down so hard that I didn’t see the fence post in front of me, and me, being the silly girl that I was, walked straight into it! My mother then instructed me to go get a wash cloth from the bathroom, soak it with cold water, and place it on my eye. She then left me in the entryway with my brother as she returned to her bedroom in her bloodstained robe. I remember John thanking me for not telling on him, and I promised him then and there that the truth would never come out to our mother. As it turned out, the cut was just below my lower eyelid, and was not very deep. No stitches were required. It looked much worse in color than it was!
I never broke that promise. When my mother passed away in 2009, she left without the facts of the episode. It never harmed her to only know a fib, and I was able to keep my promise to my brother. After her funeral, we reminisced about the incident. I was surprised, truthfully, that he even remembered it as it had happened over thirty years earlier! It was no big deal, when I think back upon it. But it was my first lesson in family loyalty. The act demonstrated to my brother that he could count on me, both then and now. As adults, he knows that I would do anything for him, and him, for me! We have been loyal to one another ever since that wintry day back in Kansas. Kids being kids, siblings being siblings. A family learning how to be a family. I wouldn’t trade the injury or my brother for any amount of money in the world! But I sure would like to have one more alfalfa pellet – I never got to take my last shot, after all!
Your story made me cry Leisl. I too grew up on a farm without much to offer but the animals
and my younger sister and brothers. It was a life learning experience. Thank you so much for sharing the real Christmas Spirit. It is good to get to know you more through facebook, although our Army lockers were so close. Kay Willett
Just watched some footage of you in Judy Collins’ CHRISTMAS AT THE BILTMORE. I was very impressed with your playing, and upon Googling you, became even more impressed. It takes passion, dedication, love of music and just hard work to accomplish what you have…and in the Military, no less!
My hat’s off to you, Liesl, and wish for you and all your family a very Merry Christmas, and a peaceful, successful New Year.