Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Joy of Socks

The Joy of Socks
After living twenty-five years in Washington, after moving back home to Montana, I found myself unpacking boxes of socks. I stuffed, crammed and shoved socks into four large dresser drawers. Dress socks, floral socks, striped socks, plain socks. Cotton socks, woolen socks, rayon socks, flocked socks. Theme socks, purple socks, white socks, colored socks. Boot socks, sports socks, fuzzy socks, fussy socks. Thick socks, thin socks, long socks, short socks. I realized I might have a little problem.

I like socks. I kept buying socks. I went to town for a jug of milk and returned with two pairs of thick winter socks. On a shopping trip in Guadalajara, Mexico I bought socks for my granddaughters and a few for myself, Christmas presents. When I needed new gloves, I bought socks. Soon I could no longer ram the drawers shut. I looked for new places to put my socks. I hid them in hampers, beneath couch cushions, in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator. Under the influence of socks I made disastrous decisions. Finally I could no longer stay in denial. Socks were my problem. I could not control myself.

Like many another addict, I quit cold turkey. I declared a moratorium on socks. I would buy no more socks. By white-knuckle strength of will, after five years of no new socks, I was finally able to force all my socks into one dresser drawer, albeit the largest. One thing that helped me pare down my huge collection of socks is that I go barefoot in the house. Well, sock-footed. So I wear them out. If I were a good person, I would darn the holes (I learned how when I was six years old) and thus extend the life of each pair. But, alas, with total disregard for virtue and economy, I blithely tossed each holey pair of socks into the trash. Time marched on. Today I can close my sock drawer with ease.

So Saturday at the Montana Seed Show, as I hung out and watched the wool demonstrations, the carding, spinning and weaving, a recurring, but not burning, desire fleetingly visited my heart. Now and then I have wished I knew how to knit, to me, a seemingly esoteric skill. I wear a lot of wool. I like the feel of wool. Using the wondrous wools, such as these women were spinning, I could create beautiful and useful articles of clothing. I followed Hilary Maxwell, weaver, knitter, gardener, psychologist and all-‘round local personality, outdoors for a breath of air. “Do you think you could teach me to knit?” I asked. I hadn’t really meant to say that. The words flew out of my mouth before I could cage them back in.

“Of course,” Hilary answered. “It’s easy.” Not one to waste an opportunity, she immediately set a time for us to get together. Before I could backtrack and make excuses, I was locked in.

“I tried to learn once before,” I confessed. “I was eighteen or nineteen, living in Dodson. Bessie Black tried to teach me. Bessie was left-handed and I am right-handed, my feeble excuse. I couldn’t get my mind wrapped around the transposition. I was a hopeless failure. I can do anything with fiber or fabric except knit. I may be un-teachable.”

“I’ll start you out with a simple dish cloth. Then I’ll teach you to knit socks.”


Hilary laughed. “I learned to knit with socks. My first sock had two heels. But I always was an overachiever.”

I wondered if an underachiever like me would end up with socks with no heels.

“Don’t buy needles or yarn. I have everything you’ll need to get started,” Hilary continued.

“I would like to make my first pair with leftovers, scraps, bits of yarn in every color,” I said.

My head is filled with visions of knitting needles in every size, baskets overflowing with colorful yarns, and mountains of beautiful socks—chunky socks, thick socks, striped socks, rainbow socks. Foxy sox. Socks for you. Socks for me. Boxes of soxes. After all, I have room.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
March 15, 2012

The Seed Show, Nostalgia and Home-Made Pie

The Seed Show, Nostalgia and Home-Made Pie
Only a few days before the 63rd Montana Seed Show and a nearly palpable excitement shimmers in the Harlem air. It’s contagious. As I make my rounds in town, to the post office to pick up my mail, then to city hall to pay my water bill and on around the corner to Albertson’s for buttermilk because I have a yen for biscuits in the morning and across the street to the Senior’s Center to say hello to Katie and whoever is hanging around, I hear, over and over, “See you at the Seed Show!”

Nobody asks, “Are you going to the Seed Show?” It is understood that unless one is stuck in the hospital or off vacationing in the Bahamas, this weekend one will take in the Seed Show. The Montana Seed Show is an essential ingredient in the glue that holds Harlem together; a bonding element that makes Harlem our home.

My Uncle Jim was one of the founders of the Seed Show. He was the family member who encouraged my Dad to transplant us from southern Indiana, from a small farm near the Ohio River to a much larger farm on the much smaller Milk River. I was in the seventh grade when I went to the Civic Center with my Dad for my first Seed Show.

The Civic Center, an imposing two-story building complete with a basement, occupied the block where the bank now sits. It housed the city office, the police station and jail, the telephone office, the library and a gymnasium with a balcony above and a stage to one side. This venerable building was the heart of our community. The school, city government, and business, professional and civic groups used the Civic Center. Our Harlem Wildcats played basketball there. We high school students strung the gym with crepe paper streamers for the school carnival. Every year old time fiddlers from all around took to the stage, tapped their feet and plied their bows to ancient melodies. And until the building burned to the ground in January of 1968, it was the home of the Montana Seed Show.

I close my eyes and memory takes over. I walk through the doors of the auditorium. Rows of planks across sawhorses, trays of seed potatoes, sugar beets, wheat, oats, and barley. Sheaves of baled hay or gently tied bunches of loose hay, and trays of stinky (to my nose) silage. Colorful ribbons designate rank of achievement. In my mind, I walk beside Dad, up and down each row and inspect every agricultural offering. None hold the least interest to me. I poke at mounds of sheep’s wool with their distinctive odor and feel of lanolin. I cast a cursory glance at the commercial displays ringing the perimeter of the gym. I linger over the pie display. I imagine the anticipation as the few chosen women assemble ingredients for the bake-off under the watchful eyes of the judges.

Soon Dad is deep in conversation with other Valley farmers or perhaps with one of the town merchants. I slip away to find school mates, shed my heavy winter coat and head scarf and toss them in a pile on the bleachers. Arm-in-arm, we girls walk ‘round and ‘round the gym. I imagine that a certain boy might look at me with a special twinkle in his eye, because I certainly am looking at him. I would be mortified if that boy spoke to me. That wasn’t done. How times have changed.

Most of the farmers and ranchers wore heavy plaid wool coats and hats with ear flaps. My Dad’s coat was red and black. Town men wore dressier coats, longer and most often of a solid color. All the men sported black rubber buckled galoshes, an item of dress necessary for both farmyard and Harlem’s dirt streets. Women wore either cotton house dresses or rayon “Sunday” dresses with hats and gloves and handbag. If she were a farm wife (an excruciatingly apt term), a woman might wear humiliating black galoshes. Town women wore clear plastic overshoes that fastened with a snap on a flap, designed to fit over high heels. I may have been only twelve, but I noticed the difference.

Though there is no sugar beet industry in our area and few potato growers, the Seed Show still stresses the value of “good seed, good fellowship and good neighbors”*. Today’s Seed Show, now located at Harlem High School, has changed vastly. Tables have replaced planks over sawhorses. A canvas covering protects the finish of the gym floor. In addition to the traditional baked goods, the pies and breads, this year the committee has added cup cakes. An entire area is devoted to needlework and quilts. The school’s old gym houses an art gallery with an auction Friday night. Out in the industrial arts building one can ooh and ah over restored tractors and cars of yesteryear. Wool displays now include demonstrations of carding and spinning. Add woodworking, the health fair, the educational and commercial exhibits, and one of my favorites, the chili cook-off.

Today men are not excluded from baking or women from wood working. Today you cannot distinguish farmer from townsperson by dress. The black overshoes disappeared long ago. One thing I must mention is the home-made pies served in the cafeteria. In my well-fed opinion, Harlem ought to be designated the pie capital of the world. See you at the Seed Show.

*p.524 Thunderstorms and Tumbleweeds

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
March 8, 2012