North Dakota Toy Land
By Debbie Bernard
“Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who are you are.”--Jose Ortega y Gassett
Melba Marie McDaniel was born on a bitter cold morning in Courtney, North Dakota in December, 1923. She was the seventh and last child of Frank and Josie, and was born in their bedroom while a blizzard howled outside the farmhouse.
North Dakota farm country is so flat that you can see for hundreds of miles in every direction. When the harvest moons of autumn appear, they are taller than any grain silo; deeper orange than any pumpkin ever seen.
When winter comes and the snow blankets the grain fields for what feels like an eternity, the landscape looks like the moon. Flat and white with craters. You can see Frank McDaniel’s footprints in the snow, going from the house to the barn to milk the cows, coming back. They say that Neil Armstrong‘s footprints on the moon will be there forever, since there are no windstorms to cover them.
Not so in North Dakota. On the morning that Melba was born, the blizzard covered every footprint, every tire track, every hoofprint, and threatened to cover the farm structures, too.
When the storm subsided, Josie pulled herself out of her bed and looked out the small bedroom window. She swore it looked like that fluffy white Seven Minute Frosting that she made for birthday cakes whenever there was enough money for sugar. There were always plenty of egg whites, since they raised their own chickens, but sugar was a luxury.
“Oh, good, you’re up!” Zella Erickson said cheerfully. Zella was Josie’s oldest daughter, already married, but who had come back home to act as midwife for the birth of her last baby sister.
“We were worried about you, Mom,” Zella said. “Giving birth after 40 is harder than when you’re younger, isn’t it?”
Nobody knew much about Post Partum Depression back then. But everybody, including little baby Melba, would later learn that when Sarah Josephine McDaniel first held her last baby in her arms, she burst into tears. She cried because this little baby girl was “so homely that nobody could ever love her.”
Zella took her baby sister home and kept her until their mother could get past that dark depression and properly welcome the newborn into her home.
Little Melba soon joined the family. She was a cheerful and optimistic child, and always felt loved, though never particularly pretty. Her family teased her that she was spoiled, since she was The Baby. Her dad doted on her and her big brothers and sisters adored her. Her Mom also loved her, though probably didn’t enter her in any Cute Baby Contests.
Melba had the ability to make any situation fun.
She came home from kindergarten one day to find that her family had slaughtered several chickens.
The five-year-old Melba ran into the chicken yard to see what was going on. She was wearing her school clothes, the plaid skirt that had been worn by her three older sisters, then carefully repaired and handed down to The Baby.
She wanted to see what was happening.
And then she found the pile of headless chickens, laid out in the yard as they waited their turn to be immersed in the big black pot by her oldest brother. Each chicken was scalded for a few minutes in the hot water, which made the plucking of their sleek white feathers so much easier.
Melba had helped to feed these chickens, and had named several of them. It was a practice that her father discouraged. He would gently remind little Melba that these chickens were going to become eventual Sunday dinners.
Melba ran, squealing, toward the chickens. Her father feared that she would be saddened by their deaths.
But no! She realized that this was a perfect opportunity for a party!
There was a chopping block in the middle of the chicken yard, a square piece of wood just the right height for a tea table. Melba carefully avoided the piles of chicken poop-- after all, she was in her only pair of school shoes--as she placed three of the headless chickens around the block. She ran in the house and got four cups and saucers and arranged them on the chopping block. And there she presided over her makeshift tea party, pouring water out of a dented tin scoop for the tea. The family was really too poor to have money for such frivolities as dolls, so Melba’s temporary dolls were these chickens.
Years later, it would embarrass her when I told the story of her tea party with the chickens.
“Oh, you make it sound like we were so poor when you tell that!” my Mama Melba said.
“We weren’t poor-- or if we were, we didn’t know we were poor. Everybody was in the same boat as we were!”
When little Melba was in her 70’s, we went to a midnight buffet on a cruise ship. It was an opulent, bourgeoisie salute to excess and over-the-top food preparation. And of course it was spectacular.
In addition to the ice punchbowls, carved to look like leaping dolphins, and the watermelons into whose rinds had been carved the uncanny likeness of Albert Einstein’s face, there was a string quarter made entirely of headless, rotisserie chickens. The brown chicken carcasses each held a miniature musical instrument, and were suspended above the buffet table. My favorite was the carcass with the cello.
“Oh for heavens sake!” Melba said when she first saw the orchestra.
“We have got to photograph this!” I said. She was reluctant, but I finally talked her into it.
The finished photograph shows a pretty, 70-something woman in a stunning evening gown, smiling and waving one hand at the chicken orchestra. She was finally reunited with her kindergarten party mates, nearly three-quarters of a century later.
The broad, mocking smile on her face seemed to say,
“See? I told you that headless chickens could be fun at a party!”