Growing up without some things gave me so much.
by Brenda Kissko
Transcript of Layer Cake Podcast Episode #4
Welcome to Layer Cake!
I'm your host, Dr. Angela Brumett, and this is your English fluency podcast. Layer Cake is sponsored by Parlay Vacay English Immersion Weekends. Build your English fluency online and in person at beautiful and relaxing destinations.
Layer Up your English!
You can listen to Layer Cake on your favorite podcast app, or go to Parlay ParlayVacay.com/LayerCake where you'll also find podcast notes, more about our guests, and learn all the new vocabulary and phrases in the content of our show.
And with that out of the way, let's get started!
For this episode, Layer Cake is honored to feature the work of American freelance writer Brenda Kissko. Brenda Kissko is a freelance writer, designer and marketer. You can find out more about Brenda at ParlayVacay.com/LayerCake
Layer Cake presents "Homemade" by Brenda Kissko.
I grew up in a simpler time. A time before central air and heat, cable TV and paved roads. I guess others had those things in the 1980s, but not me. I grew up on my family’s Texas ranch, one that’s been ours for more than 100 years, in a tiny house built in the 1920s. With two bedrooms, one bath and a kitchen that also served as the laundry room, pantry and gathering place—I guess you could say “the heart”—its footprint was just under 1,000 square feet.
It was a modest house—but a grand home.
It spoke to us through the creaking floorboards, the rumbling water heater in the kitchen and the moths fluttering against the lighted windows at night. Horseflies and dirt daubers clung to the screen doors, thirsting to be let into the room chilled by a swamp cooler.
This house was not built with modern amenities. There was no foyer, formal dining room, guest bedroom or office. For that matter, there wasn’t even a door to the bedroom that my sister and I shared.
But what it lacked in luster, it made up for in love.
Each night, we’d gather around the small table in the center of the kitchen for supper, holding hands to pray over our meal before we ate. Friends who came to stay with us remarked how “cool” it was that we dined as a family. Even then, many Americans were so busy with their lives that they frequently would scarf down a sandwich while standing over the sink, or microwave a Hot Pocket while staring at the TV.
The smallness of the house gathered the four of us—my mom, dad, sister and me—quite close in a way that modern, spacious architecture often fails to do. There was no room to retreat to for privacy on the phone. The three of us girls regularly fought for the bathroom, curling our hair and brushing our teeth over each other’s shoulders. We had only one TV with three channels, so whatever one person watched, we all watched together.
The 6-by-9-foot bathroom was wedged between the two bedrooms, with a door on either side. It was just large enough for a claw-foot tub, toilet and sink. If we wanted to take a shower, we slipped on our flip-flops and trekked 50 yards to the bunkhouse, where hunters stayed during hunting season. When we got older, my sister and I mostly chose that option, and I can remember running back to the house in the dark, praying that I wouldn’t step on a rattlesnake.
Yes, rattlesnakes were aplenty out there. Country folk know these creatures well. As soon as we were old enough to walk, my sister and I got a lesson on what to do if we saw a snake—don’t touch it! We lost many kittens to the vile reptiles and watched my dad shoot several. A rattle about 4 inches long lay on the windowsill above the sink, reminding us to watch out for them every time we washed up for supper. One time in high school, my dad thought it would be funny to curl a dead one up on the porch for my “city” friend to find the first time she came out to stay the night. He was wrong.
I learned a lot from the animals that surrounded that house, like how the scissor-tailed flycatcher will tell you summer is here, or the crawling tarantula means rain is coming. They also taught me about death. Sometimes the lambs didn’t make it through the winter, or a white-tailed deer would get tangled in a fence. I can remember crying through the screen door one summer as I watched my beloved blue heeler, Sassy, fight a fox in the middle of the day. Dad said the fox must be sick, possibly with rabies, to come up to the house with the sun at the top of the sky. Sassy had to be put down; it was awful.
In those days, I took growing up on a ranch in Texas for granted. When my parents made the decision to buy the ranch from the rest of the family, I begged them to buy a house in town instead. I wanted a house like my friends had. One that was walking distance from stores, where we could have pizza delivered, with a pool in the backyard. But they told me I would be grateful someday.
Now I am.
My ancestors traveled from Sparta, Tennessee, and homesteaded the ranch in Irion County, west of San Angelo. I can’t imagine the grit they had to settle in that wide-open land. My great-great-grandfather James and his brother, Hosea, were among the very first to live on the ranch. Hosea and his nephew, Houston, James’ son, built our ranch house and lived there as bachelors in the beginning. Dad said they actually stored hay in one of the bedrooms.
It was a box-and-strip house, a popular method of construction in West Texas at the turn of the 20th century. They laid a box frame on the ground, and then 1-by-12-inch boards were nailed side by side vertically to the frame with thin, 1-by-4-inch strips nailed over the gaps. There were no 2-bys anywhere in the house. Nor was there any insulation in the 1-inch-thick walls. Single sheets of newspaper were added as insulation later in the ’40s, when the house was sheathed with plasterboard.
It takes a tough soul to survive the long winters and blistering summers in a house like that. But I wasn’t the first to do it. The first woman to live in that house was Great-Aunt Lorene, who married Houston. She was from green and lush Seattle, Washington, and she must have fallen head-over-heels in love to leave the Emerald City and move out among the mesquites and prickly pear.
She lived in the house before it had electricity and was instead powered by a wind-charged battery system and lit by kerosene lamps. In the mid-1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt started the Rural Electrification Administration, which brought co-op electricity to rural farms and ranches, and I’m sure made Aunt Lorene’s life a lot easier.
My granddad described her as “prim and proper,” always donning a nice dress and gloves when she went into town. She was known as a great cook, famous for her chocolate pie and strawberry cake. She is the one who planted the two spartan juniper trees that flanked the house and the pecan trees in the yard that my sister and I played under.
Granddad planted an oak tree in front of the house and later added more around the barn. I think about how the generations before us gave to the land rather than took. They simply built what they needed, nothing more.
There is now an oil lease on the land, and I watch as it is populated with wells. My mom passed away the year after I moved out of that house for college. To me, the house never was the same after that.
My dad remarried. So over the years, he found two amazing and tenacious women who loved him enough to move out to the ranch. He is one lucky man.
Our growing family created more demands than that tiny ranch house could meet. It is now gone, replaced by a larger one, fit for entertaining and big holiday gatherings, but it served its purpose while it was here.
Ironically, as I write this memoir, our air conditioner has gone out, but it’s not so bad to me. I say to my husband as we lie in bed with the fan on and the windows open, “It’s like the good old days.” The bugs and birds outside sing us to sleep.
Growing up in that old ranch house taught me many lessons. It taught me that I don’t always have to adjust the planet to fit my needs; that sometimes I need to adjust (myself) to fit the planet’s needs. It taught me how to be still, listen to the environment and be content being by myself. It taught me that granite countertops and Jacuzzi tubs, though nice, don’t make a house a home. It’s the people inside who do.
Did you hear any new words or phrases? Check out the transcript and the fluency builder lesson online at Parlay Vacay.com/layercake
Brenda Kissko is a freelance writer, designer and marketer focusing on travel, nature, literature, faith and community. A Texas native, she has lived in West Virginia and is currently based in Arizona.
Brenda grew up on a West Texas ranch, influenced by the healing power of nature. She writes for people navigating their way through life with a message of unplugging and living to the fullest.
Brenda has finished her first novel, a coming-of-age story set in West Texas. To know more about Brenda and her work, please visit her site at brendakissko.com.
Layer Up your English!
These items may be useful before and/or after listening to the recorded episode.
Key concepts are followed by the Vocabulary and Phrases then Questions for understanding and Discussion Topics.
Items are presented in the order they appear and are defined only as used in the featured piece (other uses may exist).
the 1980s, 1920s, ’40s: the decades beginning with 1980, 1920, and 1940
a simpler time: a past era when life was less complicated than it is now
to take for granted: to be consider something normal when it is more special
the good old days: the times in the past which were better than the present times are
country folks: people who live in rural areas
memoir: a story containing the memories of the teller
Vocabulary & Phrases
central air and heat: an advanced heating and cooling system in modern homes
cable TV: a service providing access to television channels broadcasted beyond the local area
paved roads: roads covered with cement or bricks
the heart: the center of something
its footprint was just under 1,000 square feet: the total area was a little less than 93 square meters
creaking floorboards: pieces of a wooden floor which make noise with pressure
rumbling water heater: a water heater that makes a deep noise while it’s working
to flutter: to move wings or other material rapidly
horseflies: large flies
dirt daubers: insects that are also called "wasps" that build their nests from mud
clung: past tense of cling which means to adhere to or hold strongly
screen doors: doors with openings covered in material with tiny holes for the air but not insects to pass through
to thirst: to be thirsty
chilled by a swamp cooler: made a cooler temperature by a device which uses
modern amenities: the latest versions of comforts
foyer: a waiting or sitting area in the front part of a home
luster: the visible presence of luxury or a shiny surface
made up for in love: it compensated for what was lacking or missing with love
holding hands: two or more hands around each other
to pray over: to say a prayer to bless for something
scarf down: eat very quickly, sometimes without tasting
Hot Pocket: a popular frozen pie cooked in the microwave
staring: looking at something for a long time
smallness: the characteristic of small size
to gather: to form a group of people
spacious architecture: building construction and design with a lot of space
to retreat to: to find safety or comfort in
wedged: in a tight space between two objects
claw-foot tub: a antique style of bathtub with legs that have feet which resemble claws or animal feet
to slip on: to put on quickly and easily
flip-flops: sandals without backs
trekked 50 yards: crossed 45.72 meters
bunkhouse: a building mainly for containing many beds
rattlesnake: a heavy-bodied American snake with horny rings on the tail that vibrate and make a rattling sound as a warning
hunting season: the time of the year that is best for hunting
aplenty: in a plentiful quantity
kittens: cats who are less than one year old
vile: extremely unpleasant
rattle: a device which when shaken can make a rapid succession of short, sharp, hard sounds
windowsill: horizontal structure or surface at the bottom of a window
to curl: to form a circle with
porch: a patio usually attached to the front of a house
“city” friend: a friend from the city; a friend unfamiliar with rural life
. . . scissor-tailed flycatcher: bird with an extremely long, divided tail whose arrival is a signal that summer has started
crawling: moving, usually slowly, and with the body close to the ground
to make it: to survive
get tangled: become trapped
beloved: deeply loved by someone
blue heeler: a dog breed used for hunting
rabies: a virus typical in dogs and other mammals with many symptoms including agitation that is usually fatal if untreated
put down: euthanized
in town: in the city or in the central commercial area
walking distance: a distance which can be covered easily by walking
ancestors: relatives who lived a long time ago/in the past
to homestead: to use for the first time to create a home and often a farm (land)
box frame: a rectangular structure
side by side: next to each other
bachelors: unmarried men
hay: the typical grass plant food for horses
gaps: open spaces between
2-bys: wooden boards of the typical size of 2 inches by 4 inches
sheathed with plasterboard: covered with flat pieces of plaster
a tough soul: a person who does not quit
blistering: hot enough to cause damage to surfaces
lush: full of green plants
fall head-over-heels in love: to suddenly and completely love
Emerald City: Nickname for Seattle, Washington, a city in the Northwest US
the mesquites and prickly pear: a type of tree and a type of cactus typical in the desert
co-op: cooperative business; can be for profit or nn-profit
prim and proper: well-behaved and groomed, usually used to describe females
donning: visibly wearing
spartan: minimal in detail
flanked the house: appearing on both sides of the house
oil lease: paid permission to extract oil
tenacious: persistent; not likely to quit
one lucky man: an especially lucky man; "one" can be used with any adjective and noun
fit for: appropriate or suited for
holiday gatherings: groups of people who come to the same place to celebrate special days
to serve its purpose: to perform its intended function; to be used as planned
Ironically: happening in a paradoxical, unexpected, or coincidental way
gone out: stopped functioning
sing us to sleep: sing to us until we fall asleep
to adjust the planet to fit my needs: to change the environment of Earth to serve me
to adjust (myself) to fit the planet’s needs to be still: to change myself to serve the Earth’s need for me to quiet myself
being by myself: being alone
granite countertops: a kitchen’s working surfaces covered with decorative hard stone
Jacuzzi tubs: a brand of tubs for soaking one’s body to soothe tired, aching muscles
navigating (their) way: figuring out how to do something new
unplugging: spending time away from electronic and battery-powered devices
living to the fullest: enjoying the best life possible
coming-of-age: the time leading to when a young adult reaches maturity and makes the transition from child to adult
Questions for Understanding
1. Which rooms did Brenda's childhood home include?
2. How could Brenda and her sister take showers?
3. Why were rattlesnakes especially dangerous?
4. What were some of the details given about Brenda's aunt and her life in the house?
1. Did your ancestors have it easier or harder than you do now? Why?
2. Which animals were you taught as a child to avoid?
3. Describe a home you lived in a long time ago? Did it feel like home and why or why not?
4. What makes a place feel like a home?
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