Janet Sheridan: How I made my money
May 10, 2018
Mom said, "Janet, if you can quit reading long enough, Mrs. Argyle needs help washing and sterilizing her canning jars. She'll pay you 15 cents an hour. Or, you could put your book down and mop our kitchen floor instead."
I wanted money for movies, Malted Milk Balls, Ben Hur perfume, pop beads and shoes beyond black and brown, so I worked. I cleaned houses poorly, weeded onion fields slowly and plucked turkeys imperfectly, but I excelled when the job involved children, cherries or chickens.
As a babysitter, I tended preteens who resented my presence, children who told knock-knock jokes that didn't make sense, toddlers who ate anything they found on the floor and babies who needed diaper changes. To celebrate the passing of each fun-filled hour, I added up my take-home pay. Since the going rate was a quarter an hour, I didn't need higher math.
I enjoyed babysitting, especially when the departing parents told me to help myself to anything I wanted to eat. I regularly hit pay dirt at the Millers: Twinkies, Cheetos, Tootsie Rolls and Kool-Aid. I thought of asking if I could move in.
I didn't have time to eat at the Bradfords, where four boys threw baseballs at each other and decapitated houseplants, even as their parents warned me to keep a close eye on them. Whenever I addressed the oldest boy with a request or question — "Could you quit standing on my foot?" or "Where does your mother keep the Band-aids?" — he replied with the same meaningless answer: "Nay-duh kuh eyeballs." This strange witticism caused his brothers to laugh until they choked on the uncooked wieners they'd sneaked from the refrigerator.
After five hours of such merriment, I went home with $1.25 and considered myself rich.
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Cherry picking offered seasonal employment and all the cherries I could eat. In the cool light of dawn, my sisters and I crashed ladders into trees and climbed into high branches, thickly ornamented by glistening fruit. We stretched long to gather cherries and plunk them into metal buckets we hung from hooks on nearby branches. Our arms and fingers working automatically; we chatted, laughed and occasionally moved our ladders or dumped our buckets into the name-tagged baskets sitting beneath our tree.
When a chugging tractor pulling a flatbed trailer approached, we scrambled down our ladders and watched carefully as the orchard boss weighed the baskets and recorded our earnings. At three cents a pound, he, too, didn't need higher math.
Chickens found me when I was 13, standing with my mother in what would be a strawberry patch outside our recently purchased home on the side of a two-lane highway bordered by fields, orchards and scattered houses in a cluster of outbuildings and farm machinery.
I watched as a green pickup pulled into our driveway and a robust man chewing an unlit cigar rolled down his window and directed a booming voice toward Mom. "Ron McKell from up the road. Say, I've driven by a few times, and it looks like you've raised some kids who can work. Think they'd like to work for me?"
Within an hour, I walked into the dusty haze and sharp ammonia smell of long chicken coops in which, over the years, I would collect eggs, hook designated non-layers for somebody's Sunday dinner, spread feed in trays, check watering systems and isolate chickens that were lame, sick or lethargic. I'd then walk home with money in my pocket, longing for a shower and hoping Mom wasn't cooking chicken for dinner.
To this day, I can't buy a carton of eggs or a package of chicken parts without thinking about the clucking critters of long ago who gave their all to feed folks and, in doing so, helped me buy a poodle skirt.
Sheridan's book, "A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns," is available in Craig at Downtown Books and Steamboat Springs at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore. She also blogs at auntbeulah.com on the first and 15th of every month.