Nooks and crannies

Learn by doing — and making a few mistakes

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I ripped open the envelope and pulled out the piece of paper. It was a check. I stared at the numbers for a few seconds, and soon the wheels in my head, treaded with dollar signs, began turning. We received money for every ribbon we won at Achievement Days, our Kingsbury County Fair in De Smet, South Dakota. If I earned almost seven dollars with ribbons I won this year (making only one or two tiny mistakes), just think of the money I could rake in if I took more stuff. Why, that 4-H premium check could be a major source of income!

I looked back at my first year in 4-H. Since my five older siblings had excelled every year, it was expected that I keep up the tradition. At the spring planning meeting, Mother and the “Little Sisters” club leader, Mrs. Russell, had helped me decide what to exhibit. Girls were expected to sew something (my sisters had made skirts, blouses and dresses), so “cotton table cloth” and “apron” appeared on my list. I wrinkled my nose, but figured I had plenty of time to whip them up — later. Those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer slipped by, and finally, Mom said it was time. She sat next to me, continually encouraging. A length of adhesive tape an inch from the needle made a track to follow. I pushed my leg next to the “go” lever, and the needle flew up and down. I managed to sew all the way around the green checkered square. Then Mother showed me how to pull out the strings on each side to make a frayed edge around the tablecloth.

We cut the pieces for the apron out of blue and white gingham. Mom taught me how to gather the top of the skirt by sewing it first with a long stitch. I broke the gathering thread at least three times and had to tear it out and start over. Frustrated, I tossed the garment down, ready to quit. Never losing patience, our mother assured me that that is how we learn — from our mistakes. Then she got out her seam ripper for me. Finally, the apron was about done. I pressed the hem and pinned it, only poking my fingers ten times or so. The machine zipped along. All at once I ran off the edge of the hem for a few stitches. A quick glance at Mom told me she hadn’t seen it, so I steered back on the hem and kept going. Why didn’t I stop? The whole seam had to be taken out. I hated that seam ripper!

The day before fair, Delmer helped me pick five nice onions and carrots out of the piles that we dug from the garden. I brushed the dirt off the dry brown onion skins, scrubbed and trimmed the carrots and arranged them on a paper plate.

Exhibit Day dawned. Mom instructed me to mix up my oatmeal cookies while she helped Delmer get his chickens ready. I wanted to watch them wipe down the white feathers and rub olive oil on the feet and combs, but I had to stay in the kitchen. Having practiced several times, I knew the recipe by heart. I got out the ingredients and blended the margarine and sugar. Soon it was all mixed, and I dropped spoons full of dough onto cookie sheets. Mother hurried in just in time to help bake them.

As we searched for five uniform cookies, she noticed that these looked different from my other batches. “Did you remember the oatmeal?”

There was barely enough time to make a new batch.

Two months later, gazing at the check for exhibit premiums, my get-rich-quick scheme chased away all memories of my mistakes. I dreamed of what I would take to the fair next year. Delmer and Don always got purple ribbons on their Duroc hogs. All you had to do was follow your pig around in the ring and look at the judge once in a while. How difficult was that? Maybe Dad would let me take one.

Deloris had scored highest in poultry judging when she was a junior, winning a trip to Chicago. She could give me pointers, and I could exhibit chickens and eggs.

Deloris, Darlene and Dorothy had won purples on their demonstrations. They had made milk drinks and deviled eggs with cottage cheese and unbaked chocolate cookies. It all looked easy to me.

So, the next spring at our club’s planning meeting I was ready. Mrs. Russell handed out papers for us to list what we wanted to exhibit. “Learn by Doing” the 4-H slogan, was centered at the top. An excellent leader, she encouraged us to try new projects as well as improve on last year’s.

Mom sat next to me as I compiled my list. Pig. Chickens. Eggs. Onions, carrots, green beans and potatoes. Dairy foods demonstration. Poster on oatmeal cookies. Mom’s lips turned up just a little. Banana bread. Mother glanced up at Mrs. Russell. They were probably wondering what banana bread would be like without the bananas.

I watched all the other club members intently adding to their lists. At last, I penciled in my final item, “cotton dress.” I did not notice then, but I am pretty sure our mother tensed at the image, then looked up, silently seeking help from Above.

Resisting the urge to chew on the eraser, I thought carefully. I shook my head. Finally, I scratched three dark lines through that last item and plopped down the pencil.

Mom breathed a huge sigh of relief. She remembered the seam ripper, too.

DeAnn Kruempel grew up on a farm near De Smet, SD, the sixth child of Harrison and Mabel Wolkow.  She attended school at Erwin and De Smet. Married Vicar Robert Kruempel and lived in Benedict, ND, Toeterville, Akron, and Missouri Valley, IA. The author now resides on an acreage near Logan, IA.

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