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From the book: Where the Green Grass Grows (True Spring and Summer Stories from a Wisconsin Farm)
by LeAnn R. Ralph
©2006 LeAnn R. Ralph
For several weeks, Dad had been planning a trip up north to pick blueberries. “The first nice Sunday when it's not too hot, we'll go,” he'd said. And today was the day, now that Mom, Loretta and I were home from church and had changed our clothes.
The sky was a deep, cloudless blue and the air was so clear that every white clover blossom in the lawn—every purple and white petunia around the light pole in the front yard—every leaf on the silver maples—seemed to glitter in the sunlight. I stood beside the car and waited for my mother to make her way down the porch steps, her crutches clicking each time she moved one forward.
As soon as Mom had settled herself in the car and Dad had come back from checking the stock tank to make sure the cows had enough water to last until we came home later this afternoon, Loretta and I climbed in the back seat. And then we were ready to go.
“Have we got everything?” Dad asked.
“I think so,” Loretta said.
“The berry pails are in the trunk, and so is our picnic lunch,” Mom said.
“And we've got lemonade to drink,” I chimed in.
Dad started the car. He backed around by the garage, and we headed down the driveway.
For two hours, we drove north. The landscape changed from farm fields to pine woods, and just about the time I thought I was going to starve to death, we arrived at a meadow with pine trees all around it.
“Should we eat now or wait?” Dad asked.
“Let's eat now!” I said. “I'm starving to death.”
“I hardly think you're starving to death,” Mom said. “But now would be a good time for our picnic.”
In the trunk of the car sat a cardboard box which held bologna and cheese sandwiches, cucumbers and carrots from our garden, bottles of soda pop that we had bought at the little country store a mile and a half from our farm, some of Loretta's homemade peanut butter cookies and the lemonade she had made this morning. Last night, Dad had taken two plastic pails, filled them to half with water, and then he had put them in the big freezer in the machine shed. The pails of ice were in the box to help keep our food cold.
Mom opened her door and turned sideways in the car until her feet were resting on the ground. Dad opened his door, Loretta and I each opened our doors, and with a cool breeze blowing through the car, we ate our picnic lunch.
When we were finished, it was time to pick blueberries.
Dad had known of this spot for years, but even though he hadn't been here to pick blueberries in a long time, he was pretty sure there would be plenty.
I had never been picking blueberries before. When we went to the restaurant in town while we were waiting for our pickup load of corn and oats to be made into cow feed at the feed mill, I always asked for blueberry pie.
We headed toward the meadow, Dad in front, Loretta following Dad and me following Loretta.
“Look at 'em all,” Dad said, as he waded into a thicket of knee-high bushes. “They're just loaded. We'll get as many as we want, and then some.”
“Oh, good, I can make a blueberry pie!” Loretta said, as she followed Dad into the thicket. My sister was wearing a pair of pink and white slacks, a short-sleeved white blouse and a blue bandana tied over her dark, curly hair.
Everywhere I looked, the bushes were covered with blueberries as big around as the end of my finger. Loretta and Dad each carried five-quart plastic ice cream pails, but Dad had given me a container he had made from a one-pound coffee can. The little berry pail had a wire handle, and it was the same kind of pail we used for picking blackberries. When I picked blackberries, I tied the pail to my belt loops so I could use both hands.
A cool breeze out of the north fanned my face and arms as I sat down on the ground by the first clump of bushes. I could never sit down while I picked blackberries because the brambles were too prickly. But here I could reach right around me until I ran out of berries.
I had already covered the bottom of the pail when Dad spoke up.
“Where's the kiddo?” he said.
“Here I am!” I said, popping up from my spot in the blueberry bushes.
Dad laughed. “Sittin' down on the job, are ya? Getting any blueberries? Or are you eating them all?”
“No,” I said, tipping my can toward him. “I'm not eating any. See?”
I had, in fact, eaten some when I first started. The blueberries smelled so good, and were such a deep, delicious blue, I could not resist. Fresh blueberries, I discovered, tasted as good as fresh blackberries.
Before I sat down again, I paused to look around. The ring of dark green pine trees stood out against a sky that was now decorated with puffy white clouds. The wind sighing through the pine boughs and birds twittering from the treetops were the only sounds I could hear. No cars. No machinery. No barking dogs. Nothing at all to spoil the afternoon.
Well, nothing except for one little black insect crawling on my leg below the hem of my shorts.
About the size of an ant, the bug did not look like an ant. It was more round than that, and it had different kinds of legs. I tried to brush the insect off, but it would not brush off, so I picked it off with my fingernails. I tried to let go of the bug, but I could not because the pesky thing kept crawling along my fingers. I finally got rid of it by wiping my hand on the ground.
I was going to start picking blueberries again, but even though I knew the insect was gone, I could not get over the idea that it was not gone. I kept remembering the way it had felt when it crawled on my bare leg.
Every couple of minutes I stopped picking blueberries to check for another insect like the first one. But after a while when I did not find any more, I forgot about it and concentrated on filling my pail.
Bit by bit, the blueberries piled up in the little one-pound coffee can, covering the first ring and then the second. Filling the whole can seemed like a big job, but filling the can up to one ring and then the next did not seem like much work at all.
A couple of times during the afternoon, I went to the car to drink some lemonade and to talk to Mom, who said she was having fun watching the clouds make different shapes. “It's been a long time since I've sat outside and watched clouds,” she said.
The sun was still high in the sky when Dad announced that we should start for home so we would arrive in time to feed the cows and do the evening milking.
On the way home, once again I sat in the back seat with my big sister, and as we drove through evergreen forests and marshes with tall, green grass, it seemed to me that the whole day had been perfect. The sun had been warm but not too hot, and a breeze had cooled my face when I turned into the wind. But best of all, we had picked four five-quart pails of blueberries and half of another pail. Plenty of blueberries for my cereal and for dishes of blueberries with cream and sugar—and for Loretta to make blueberry pie—and for Mom to freeze blueberries so we could have pie during the winter.
It wasn't until a few days later that I began to wonder if the trip up north really had been quite so perfect.
I had come in from the barn, and Mom had decided she ought to brush my hair. Sometimes I was able to brush my own hair. But not today. It was too tangled. Ever since my mother realized she was stronger that what she thought from leaning on the furniture to get around, she had been a tiny bit better about not pulling so hard while she combed my hair.
Even at that, while Mom yanked and tugged, each minute seemed more like ten. So, when she abruptly stopped brushing, I didn't bother to wonder why but instead drew a deep breath and let it out slowly.
My sense of relief lasted only a few seconds.
“Yeeeeeek!” Mom screeched. “What is that?”
“What's what?” I asked, putting my hand up to the back of my hair.
Mom tapped my wrist with the brush. “Don't touch it.”
“Don't touch what?”
Loretta, hurried over to look at the spot where Mom pointed.
“Eeeeeeeek!” my sister shrieked.
I had no idea what all the yelling was about—but I knew it could not be anything good.
“What's wrong?” I asked. “What's the matter?”
“Ummm, uhhhh,” Mom stuttered. “It's…it's nothing. Nothing at all.”
“That's right,” my sister said in a soothing tone of voice. “Don't worry—it's nothing.”
What were they talking about?
Mom had tapped my hand with the brush and said don't touch 'it.' That in itself seemed like a pretty good reason to worry. Never mind all the yelling.
“Well?” I questioned. “What did you find?”
“It's…ahhhhh,” Mom said. “Well, it's ahhhhh, it's a wood tick. I think.”
“What's a wood tick?”
“An insect,” my sister explained.
An insect? If it was only a bug…
“Pick it off,” I said.
A long silence greeted my suggestion.
“We can't,” Mom said finally.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because it's embedded,” Loretta said.
“Embedded. It means it's stuck in your skin,” Mom explained.
“Wood ticks burrow into the skin, and then they suck blood until they get all puffed up,” my sister said.
“Yuck!” I cried, thoroughly disgusted by the idea of an insect sucking my blood. “Do something!”
“We will,” Mom said. “Just as soon as we figure out how.”
“What do you mean 'how?' Can't you just pull it out?”
To my way of thinking, pulling the wood tick out couldn't hurt any worse than Mom brushing my hair. It was only an insect, after all.
My mother gasped. “Pull it out? Are you crazy?”
“What's wrong with pulling it out?”
“You'll get an infection,” my mother replied.
Once I had gotten an infection from a sliver in my finger. Mom tried to dig the sliver out with a needle that she had sterilized in the flame of a match. A little piece remained behind, and in a few days, a small pocket of pus had gathered around it. When Mom squeezed the end of my finger, the pus came out and so did the rest of the sliver.
“How can a bug give me an infection?” I asked.
“If the head breaks off and stays in your skin, that's how,” Mom said.
Well, okay, so maybe pulling the tick out wasn't such a good idea. A tiny bit of sliver was one thing—but a whole head?
“We'll just see if we can get it to back out,” Loretta said. “That will be better.”
“But what can we use to get it to back out?” Mom asked.
My sister patted her dark, curly hair. “Well, we can try peppermint extract, for one thing. And lemon juice.”
“And what about rubbing alcohol?” my mother suggested. “And merthiolate. Oh, and how about vinegar?”
“And we could try some of that salve you've got for burns, too,” Loretta said. “It's kind of stinky, so maybe it would work.”
“Okay, let's try that then,” Mom said.
My sister went upstairs and brought down some of the cotton balls she used to put witch hazel lotion on her face. She soaked a cotton ball in peppermint extract and held the cotton ball to the back of my neck for five minutes.
But when she removed the cotton ball, the wood tick was still firmly in place.
Next she tried lemon juice.
The vinegar didn't work, either.
And neither did the merthiolate.
I was worried about the merthiolate. When I was a very little girl and fell down and skinned my knee, or even now, if I cut myself or got a scratch from the barb wire fence, Mom always brought out the merthiolate. The stuff turned my skin orange—and it burned like fire.
Fortunately, merthiolate on a cotton ball held against the back of my neck did not hurt at all.
After Loretta tried the fingernail polish remover, the only thing that remained was the salve.
“But maybe that will actually work,” Mom said. “If the tick is smothered by the salve, it will have to let go.”
Five minutes later when my sister wiped the salve off the back of my neck, the tick was still firmly in place.
I knew I had been sitting on the floor in front of my mother for a long time, but I did not realize how long until Dad came into the house.
As he walked into the kitchen, I turned my head to look at him and saw his eyebrows inch upwards. Mom and Loretta were bent close to the back of my neck, inspecting the tick.
“What's wrong?” Dad asked.
“Oh, Roy,” my mother wailed. “It's an embedded wood tick. She must have gotten it when you were picking blueberries. What in the world are we going to do?”
“Do?” Dad asked, sitting down by the table. “You don't have to 'do' anything. Just grab hold of it and pull it out.”
My feet had gone numb a few minutes ago and now I could not take it any longer.
“Mom? Would it be all right if I stood up? My feet are numb.”
“Your feet—oh, yes. Yes, of course. Stand up,” my mother said.
I stood up and slowly walked around the kitchen, trying to work the pins and needles out of my feet.
“I don't see why you're so upset,” Dad said. “Just pull the tick out.”
My mother turned a fierce gaze in my father's direction.
“Pull it out?” she said. “Won't the head break off?”
He shrugged. “Yeah, it probably will.”
“But Dad!” Loretta exclaimed. “What if she gets an infection?”
My father scratched his head. “Nah. I don't think that will happen.”
“You don't think?” Mom said. “But what if it does?”
Sitting on the table were the cotton balls, cotton swabs, the bottle of alcohol, the bottle of lemon juice, the jug of vinegar, the little tin of burn salve, the bottle of peppermint extract—and the bottle of fingernail polish remover.
My father looked at all the bottles sitting on the table.
“Is that what you've been putting on it?” he asked.
“We are trying to get it to back out,” Mom said.
Dad laughed. “Ticks don't back out. I'm telling you, you've got to pull it out. Besides, if you've been putting alcohol on it—and lemon juice—and vinegar—and fingernail polish remover—and—” He reached over to turn the bottle of peppermint extract so he could see what it was—”and peppermint extract, I doubt she'll get an infection.”
“Well…” my mother said.
“How come you know so much about wood ticks, Daddy?”
He glanced at me and winked. “There's always been lots of 'em up north. I've gotten 'em while I was fishing, too.”
“And once, when I was just a young sprout, I got a tick in the middle of my back. It was a spot I couldn't get at from neither top nor bottom, so I didn't know it was there.”
I felt my eyebrows moving closer together in a frown. “If you didn't know it was there, then how did you know you had a wood tick?”
“Didn't take much to figure that out when I saw the blood on my shirt,” he said.
“Yup. Saw it when I was getting undressed to go to bed. I must have leaned back against something and smashed him.”
I suddenly felt sick to my stomach.
Mom and Loretta looked a little green around the gills, too. That's what Mom said when someone looked sick—a little green around the gills.
“But where was the rest of the tick?” I asked.
“Oh, he was still stuck in my back. I asked one of my friends to pull out what was left of him.”
“Did you get an infection?” I asked.
Dad shook his head. “Here,” he said, standing up and reaching for the pliers he always carried in his pocket, “If you don't want to, I'll pull it out then.”
“NO!” my mother and sister cried out in unison.
My father shrugged. “Suit yourself. But the only way it's coming out is if you pull it out.”
“We'll use a tweezers,” Loretta said. “I've got one upstairs.”
“I'm going back outside to shut off the water in the tank and to check the cucumbers to see if they should be picked,” Dad said. “Yell if you need me.”
My sister went upstairs to get the tweezers and Dad went back outside.
But instead of pulling the tick out, Loretta poked and prodded it with the tip of the tweezers.
“Hey!” she exclaimed after a couple of minutes. “It backed out!”
“It did?” Mom said.
“Yes, look, it's right here.” Loretta held up the tweezers with the tick firmly grasped between the two points.
My mother took the tweezers from her.
“I can't begin to tell you how relieved I am,” Mom said, as she gingerly laid the dead tick on the table.
I bent closer to get a good look at the thing which had caused so much trouble.
“That's a wood tick?”
“Yes, it is,” Mom said, nudging the insect with the tip of her finger.
“But,” I said, “I had one of those crawling on my leg when we were picking blueberries.”
“You did?” Loretta asked, turning to look at me. “Why didn't you say something?”
“How was I supposed to know that it was a wood tick?”
“No, I guess you wouldn't know, would you,” Loretta said.
A minute later, Dad came into the house again.
“Did you get it out?” he asked, as he sat down to take off his shoes.
“Yes, finally,” Loretta replied.
“Decided to pull it out, did you?”
“Oh, no,” Mom said. “It backed out on its own.”
Dad turned to set his shoes by the wall.
“They don't back out,” he said, swinging around in his chair. “I've never seen one yet that has. I don't know—maybe they can't. But I'd bet money the head is still in there yet.”
Mom and Loretta exchanged glances.
“It backed out,” Loretta insisted. “I know it did because I didn't pull it out.”
Later on, after Loretta went upstairs and Mom had gone in the living room, Dad asked to see the back of my neck. I went over to him, and I could feel the calloused roughness of his finger touching the spot where the tick had been.
“Is the head in there, do you think?” I asked.
“Yes,” Dad said in a low voice. “I think it might be still be in there—because I think it broke off at the head.”
I turned to look at him.
“Don't worry,” he said. “After all the alcohol and the vinegar and the merthiolate and the fingernail polish remover and the peppermint extract and the lemon juice and whatever else your mother and sister put on there, it won't get infected.”
“Do you think we should tell Mom and Loretta?” I asked.
Dad shook his head. “What they don't know won't hurt 'em,” he said.
In the end, my father was right. The tick bite did not get infected. My neck was stiff and sore for a week afterward from leaning forward for so long. But the tick bite did not get infected.
And that was almost as good as getting to eat all of the blueberries I wanted with sugar and cream.
Well—not almost as good.
Nothing was as good as blueberries with sugar and cream.
LeAnn R. Ralph is the author of these books:
* (e-book) (2004)
* : True (Spring and Summer) Stories from a Wisconsin Farm
* (True Stories from a Wisconsin Farm) (2003)
* : Tried and True Recipes from Wisconsin Farm Country
" A heartwarming anthology of true anecdotes of rural life on a Wisconsin dairy farm." -- James Cox, Editor-in-Chief/Midwest Book Review