Tumpy Stays Home
Back in 1900 a young immigrant named William Story, working in Eastern Canada as a carpenter, met Ruth, a music teacher newly come from Scotland. Before long the two were married and headed for the prairies to claim a homestead.
Their oldest child was Tom, next came Ruth, her mother’s namesake, then little William, who for some reason was given the nickname “Tumpy.” This story takes place on a mild February day in 1921 when Agnes was a baby and Tumpy a lively five-year-old who did not want to get dressed up in his good clothes and go to town with his family.
Mom had ordered him to put on clean overalls and his woolen pullover and be ready when Dad brought the sleigh. But he hated that itchy pullover — and having to “behave like a nice boy” all day. Instead of going upstairs to his room he sneaked out the front door and ran to the barn.
He found his dad harnessing the driving horses and pleaded his case. “I don’t want to go along. I want to stay here with Norman.” He’d even fill the firewood box if he could stay home.
Norman, age fifteen, was an orphan his parents had taken in several years previously. He was one of the family now, a hard-working lad and Tumpy’s hero. If Norman was going to stay home and clean out the barn, Tumpy wanted to stay, too. Dad thought about this and gave his consent, along with the warning, “Stay out of Norman’s way when he’s working.”
After his family left Tumpy wandered around the barn checking on the animals. He’d heard his dad tell Norman that old Molly, their sow, was likely going to have her piglets today. “But she won’t need any help. You can leave her alone.” Tumpy went around to the “maternity pen” and watched multi-colored old Molly snuffing around contentedly. He and Molly were good friends. She was such a gentle sow he was able to ride piggy-back on her around the yard last summer and fall.
Next he wandered into the lane and got in the way as the work horses dragged the stone-boat out to the field with a load of manure. Norman told him to look out if he didn’t want to get splattered. “And stay away from old Molly. Remember what your dad said.”
Oh, the power of suggestion! Tumpy headed back to Molly’s pen to check on the sow. Sure enough, one tiny pink piglet had been born!
The Sick Baby Pigs
It didn’t seem to be moving very much. Maybe it was sick? In which case Tumpy knew exactly what to do. He’d watched his dad deal with sick piglets before. The tiny thing needed warming. So over the rails he went, snatched the piglet, stuffed it into his jacket and headed to the house. Molly offered a protesting squeal, then went back to the birthing process.
He ran into the kitchen and opened the oven door on the wood stove. This was piled full of green firewood to dry out for future needs. Tumpy tossed the logs onto the kitchen floor while the piglet squirmed and squealed inside his jacket. Thankfully the oven wasn’t too hot. His dad had told him how you need a gentle, even heat when you’re using the oven for an incubator. Just one log at a time. And you never close the oven door!
Tumpy needed rags, so he yanked open his mother’s towel drawer, grabbed several tea-towels drawer and laid them in the oven. On these he set the tiny pink piglet. Then he rushed back out to the barn to see if any of Molly’s other piglets needed saving. Maybe they all would? By the time he’d returned with #2 he could see the first pink piggy was warm and dry. He sat on the over door and stroked them for a moment before going for another.
On his fourth trip Norman caught sight of him at the pen and yelled, “Tumpy! Whatever are you doing with that? You’re supposed to leave Molly alone, remember.”
Even at his age, Tumpy understood how important Molly’s litter was to the farm income. “It’s sick and I’m taking care of it just like way Dad would do. And anyway, it was you he told to leave Molly alone.”
Norman didn’t see things that way and stopped his chores long enough to scold Tumpy every time he saw him dashing out of the barn with another squealing piglet inside his jacket. But Tumpy was saving their wee lives. Dad would surely be pleased.
A Speedy Recovery
After he’d stolen the seventh piglet old Molly was squealing angrily at his interference in her affairs, so he knew he’d better quit this rescue operation. And by the time he set #7 in the oven the others had miraculously recovered from whatever ailed them. Lively and hungry, they’d scrambled out of the oven and were exploring the kitchen, hoping to find their mom and protesting the lack of nourishment.
Tumpy decided to offer them some milk, but this didn’t pan out — or rather, it did “pan out.” He’d set a basin of milk on the floor and the babies overturned it, then waded through the puddle, spreading milk drippings all across the kitchen.
Whatever else might have ailed them, these piglets were blessed with healthy lungs. One little pig was wee-wee-wee-ing under the sofa. One was nuzzling a stick of firewood tossed on the floor. One was grunting from behind the wood-box. Another had gotten itself wedged under the treadle of her sewing machine and took this for the chopping block. It was squealing its little lungs out. Another had fallen down the cellar stair and was wailing about that. A couple more added their motherless cries to the racket.
Mother Almost Wept
Right about then the family sleigh pulled up to the door. Mother, carrying the baby, stepped into the kitchen. A wave of heat hit her from Tumpy’s faithful stoking of the wood stove. Then her jaw dropped as she saw the pigs, her once-clean tea towels, the milk — and heard the squealing.
Recovering from the initial shock Mom stepped carefully through the kitchen and set little Agnes down in the parlor. Then she returned to face the mess. By this time the rest of the family had come in and were staring at the scene. Dad took charge, ordering Tom and Ruth to “Go tell Norman to come get the sleigh and unhitch the team.” Then he turned to Tumpy. “How many piglets have you got in here?”
He spied Mom’s basket of ironing sitting on the counter, dumped out the clothes and started catching the squirming piglets. Norman came running in about then, saying, “I told him not to do it.” Dad assured him it was all right and asked him how many more piglets Molly had. “I think two, but I was scared to bother her.”
Soon the piglets were corralled in the basket, Dad tossed the ironing on top of them so they’d stay put, then he carried them out to the barn with Tumpy trailing after him. “You stay out of the way, Tumpy, while I get these pigs back into Molly’s pen. And don’t you go back to the house right now, either,” Dad warned him.
No doubt there was a happy reunion in the maternity pen. Tumpy doesn’t record what was said or done to him later as a reward for his efforts, but it had been such an exciting day that he was one hungry little boy at the supper table. But not for pork.
I read this account in the memoir of Bill Story, titled TUMPY, Stories of the Homestead Days, published in 1979. I’ve retold it in my own words.
WordPress daily prompt: Unravel
This is an extra-long blog post, I know. I debated whether to do this in one long post or divide it into two parts. What do you think? Would you have preferred half today and half tomorrow or are you happy with the whole account at one shot? Any comments?