Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Along Green Fields

Dad and my little brother Bill who was about 5 here. Dad always tilted his cap like that, just a little to the side. I guess he
liked the way it looked.

From one July to the next, life can change or it can be changed for you. Forget about running and hiding, climbing over golden bales of straw. I blame it on the bra.

Summers in the Midwest are hot, heavy, and humid--humid enough to coat skin with a fine invisible mist, and then cling, soaking. Wind was still, not a single whistle. Sweat ran down backs--rivers of sweat. By 10 in the morning we all were roasted, toasted, and dowsed in sweat.

Canning marathon started up just about that time. The kitchen's linoleum floor was slippery with sweat and splatters of vegetable carnage. Air was so saturated with steam that it could not absorb one more drop. It hung like clouds at the ceiling beneath which we labored canning tomatoes, canning beans, canning corn. Misery, thy name is canning.
When my father, Louis “Bud” Peck said, “Come on, Sis.  Let’s head out for a drive.”  I all but flew into the truck. He backed out the driveway and then we were on our way.
 
Did I want to leave the kitchen with canning jars lined up like little soldiers? You betcha. 
Driving up roads, rolling down windows, feeling a breeze wafting through the truck would be just fine. This drive would hold more visual stimulation than running a vacuum.
Sometime within a mile or two I realized just where and what we were going.  

Dad was driving about 20 mph, looking side to side at fields of corn and beans, his fields or anybody else’s fields. Inwardly, I groaned. A field check. I should have known. This is a field check drive, at a speed I could do on a bicycle.



“Well, I tell you what, Sis…” always meant a story was about to flow out in his stop-and-go style, raised eyebrows, and big pauses.  

Big pauses were the essence of Dad's storytelling, that with minute facial expressions. He was subtle in his words with just a dab of expression. Raising an eyebrow spoke volumes. Clearing his throat could mean just about anything; it depended on how long and how deep. A sigh brought weight into his story. He was brilliant.  

I leaned back against red vinyl torn seat, resting my eyes and waiting. There was no need for me to look out at cornfields, as I already knew what they looked like.
“Well, now.  Peck men from way back always found a way to stick money in their pockets. They done good. Got a bit puffy with themselves." Dad sneezed mightily. No essence there, but his sneezes were loud and violent. I always jumped when he sneezed.

“My grandpa, they called him “LB”, Louis Benjamin, come back from being Union 100st Illinois Regiment soldier in Civil War.  His own pa had bought up businesses and farm land, ‘cause some men didn’t come marchin’ home from places like….”


There was one long pause and he turned his head to check out Smithy’s field.  “He planted too early.  Look at those dried tassels…skinny cobs. Won’t get much there…”
"Wellll, LB just about owned the whole dang town.  Bank, grocers, dry goods…ole man strutted in a white suit, with a black bow-tie, lived in a big house." Dad sniffed, raised an eyebrow.

"LB got just about everything when his ole pa died. LB married good, a young woman with a big family, smart people. Annnnnd. That’s when my pa was born.”
 
 Ma Amy Peck and Grandma Laura Peck sitting.  Ol' LB Peck standing 
Dad slowed down, stopped, at Burns’ bean field, and nodded. “Good crop, there.”  He sniffed, then cleared his throat. But, his eyes were teary and silence grew.

Dad had gone to a place he had kept dark for over nearly 40 years: Pa. His father had died when Dad wasn't yet ten and weight of responsibility fell like a heavy brick on his boy shoulders. 

Buddy, you are the man of our family, his ma told him as funeral plans were being made. We'll depend on you. That is what he was told and then reminded, frequently.

He seldom told stories about that time. Pain and loss always gripped and tied him up in tight knots. When Dad released a bit of memory, it was like opening a locked door.


The invoice for the shiny black car; I found it in the folder Grandma Peck had made then.  Now it is nearly 80 some years ago.  It was just waiting for someone to find it.
A heavy sigh.  “My pa made money, and LB died.  Left a heck of a lot of money and land to his three boys.  But"…eye brow raising and pushing his hat back. 

"Pa had tooooo much pride.  Went out and bought himself a new Chevy, $675 dollars, plus some more. Don't know how much more."

"Mighty big money then. Big money even now. But Pa was feeling like puffing out his chest a bit, showing what he and LB had done."
My dad stopped and opened a rusty truck door and walked through tall grass.  This was his field, his corn, and his concern.  Dad had long legs, was a big boned farmer, and his stride was almost three of my own.  He disappeared into the corn. 

 Emerging from itchy green stalks, he had that smile of his, not quite a smile but more of a lifted corner of his mouth. Corn was just fine, ears full, silk cascading down. More silk, more kernels, more kernels, better crop. 
Driver's license


"…where’d I leave off…anyway Pa drove home with that shiny new car and Ma flew out the door at him, like a hen with claws ready to dig in and peck to death .  Words, man oh man, she clawed him up one side and down the other. I hid behind the porch railing, listening."

Dad cleared up a bit of phlegm, spit out the side of truck. Birds flew off. Speed did not pick up, not one little bit. He wiped his face with a red kerchief and blew his nose. He was sweating. I was sweating. Teenagers sweat more than any other person on the planet, or at least in the Midwest.

"Well, my pa, he withered under her pepper. Smaller he got, louder Ma yelled." An almost smirk shaped his face. An amused smirk was not far behind.

 
"WHAT did you THINK you were doing?!!" and "YOU are TAKING that back right this minute! WHAT will farmers LOOK at this and THINK?? Well, I'll TELL you what they will think, what'll they say..."

Chuckling: a rare addition to his stories.

"I will TELL you what... they will SAY: Oh those Pecks...they live in castles on a hill...then we borrow money from them...That Dorus Peck, nose up in the air, black car shining at us...well, those PECKS!...

Your ma, oh your ma, she will SKIN YOU ALIVE! Drag you to church and SLAM you down at that altar. YOU will NOT escape what she'll say!..."

Pa said, "Buddy, let's go for a ride."


"Well, now, that sounded just fine.  Jumped onto the shiny black leather
seats, fine white stitching, and we took off.  Ma watched us leave, and I tell you, steam was still comin’ off top of her head.”


"Pa and me drove over to Pittsfield and stopped at the courthouse. He opened that shiny black door, and smiled. This'll be good. Wait 'til those men see this. He stepped out the car, and Pa stretched like he just needed to take a rest for just a minute, like he'd been driving for a hundred miles. I peered over the steering wheel, watching as a whole bunch of his friends hurried, surrounded his car.”

This your car, Peck?...When’d you get it?...Man oh man, it’s a mighty fine…” Pa brushed his hand along shiny black metal, walked around it, pointing out features...shiny everything...pride beamed off him like a new dime. Yep, it's my car. Just got it...Chevy place a couple a' blocks over there...Yep, good deal... Pa leaned in, ducked his head, and whispered a price...yep, we bounced numbers back and forth, but my number won...yep..."
 "Then we headed to a whole bunch of places.  Places I never seen, heard of or been to.  Every single town, Pa did the same…” Dad stopped the truck, and his remembrance, climbed out to check his field of beans.


Damn! My brain was boiling in its own juices, under hot summer fire. How much longer can this last? Doesn't a truck need gas?

My shorts were riding up my butt, with the back of my thighs were sweat-glued to vinyl. Glued, cemented, pasted, stuck, adhered to, whatever. When we eventually would arrive home and doors opened, I knew I would peel my legs from vinyl, like a band aide ripping off a hairy leg.

Oh, please. Can't you drive any faster? Step on the pedal just a little more?
"…Let’s see…We drove to Winchester, Griggsville, Florence, Hamburg…everywhere Pa knew someone.  I was asleep when the sun was setting, and Ma came busting out the door and cut into him again.”


"About two years later, or was it three?  Anyways, the whole world fell apart. Pa lost everything. Never seen a grown man with tears running down his face. He and Ma sat so close together on the sofa they looked like one person, side by side, with her hand on his shoulder. We'll be fine, just fine. This will be over soon enough, and life will be like normal." 

"Pa's head hung low, then he leaned over, wrapped long fingers over his face. Now, Sis. Pa was a tall man but didn't have much muscle to him. It didn't take him long to fall. Pa folded up like a lawn chair, crumbling down on his fancy rug. He and Ma started praying, whispering together."

"Every single family in town and farms lost everything. Bank went bust, stores shut down, and all farm loans dried up.  Pa couldn’t bring himself to call their loans, take their farms. Ol' LB would have, but Pa forgave them all their debts.”
And then, Dad slowed down, turned down a dusty road, road of perpetual pot holes and stray big rocks.  “Pa lost his car. Ma and Pa drove it up to Springfield, turned it back over to Chevy, and took the train home.”

Oh, dear Lord! Not the Bluff Road! Not that!

"Ma, she was still mad.  It was one silent ride back home.  Before Pa died…” Dad’s voice got husky. “Before Pa died, all he had was a farm, the one Ol' LB gave 'im. Pa worked on his farm, just like all farmers. See that, Ol' Dorus Peck? In coveralls? Where's your black car, Peck?"

"He was never strong...wasn't a farmer, didn't have much farming sense.  Ma always said it was being sick with a quiet disease, that black car,a mighty big pride, being a plain farmer. When he knew he'd never wear a white suit with a black bow tie...that was just too much."


"Maybe it was.  Just know his heart broke that day.”


Dad turned around, after one more field check. The beans were looking good, and he had his half-smile. That was his happy face.
Finally, oh blessed finally, we turned into our driveway.  

Dad strode off, head down, hands in his pockets.  I heard Mom calling me.  “Susie, come peel the potatoes.  Oh, go pick some green onions…” and a list of other chores.

With great hesitancy, I climbed out. Rip, rip. I twisted around for a view of my butt and vinyl. Vinyl glistened with sweat droplets in a horse-shoe indent in the seat. Shorts were soaked, like I'd wet my pants. Thighs were bright red, like tomatoes which waited for me in the kitchen  

My brothers would have a field day about this one. Sweat has its way of finding opportunities to torture, as did my brothers.

But, the trip was worth peeking into Dad's life, no matter how hot, how sweaty. I watched Dad disappear into our old red barn.  I knew he’d be there a while.





Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Dark Clouds

Dark CloudsMarie felt her chest grow tight when dark clouds lingered out over the wheat fields. 

Oh, the sky was clear, with a brisk wind from the north, white billowing clouds perched and passing overhead.  Her three girls danced on porch planks, hopping from one to another, laughing and shrieking.  Even the baby, Irma, crawled giggling across side to side, followed by Minerva, or else. 

She watched Lewis carefully on those days.  Watched for heaviness in his step. Watched for his eyes to wander up over the tree lines, out through the woods. 

Watched for dark clouds sneak in to hang over Marie's house, creep in to grab her precious man.

Dark clouds came and went throughout the years since the Great War, when Lewis had slugged through blood streaked mud in the trenches, climbing over bloated bodies.  Unrecognizable but they once were someone's son, waving from a train at mothers gathered en mass. Come home.  Be sure to write!  Take care...be careful.  

Lewis wandered through and over trenches, passed by tilted white crosses. Names of friends were painted on those mud splattered crosses, but their faces were a blur in his mind. 

How could slaughter suddenly end?  How could guns grow quiet, cannons be silenced, hissing gas grenades abruptly stop? How could his hands, calloused and burned, put aside his rifle?  No more killing--taking aim and killing a stranger. Will his mother ever know?  

Walk, he kept walking.  Then on a ship to England.  Then home. Blessed home.

Lewis returned to broad flat fields of his home.  Wheat waved at him, green fat grains soon to be combined and harvested. Where scents of cow dung and tractor oil threaded and blended together.  No smell like this anywhere...  

No dark clouds yet.  They hung away, tiptoeing in when a twinge of memory popped up, triggered by sounds, smells.  


'Lifting distressful hands':
source
Oh, dear God...the smells won't fade...rotting corpses, rotting men... my friends...heads shot clean off...

In mid-darkness, Marie awoke with Lewis rolling to his edge of the bed and sitting up. 

He stared out the window into a starless sky, his back ramrod straight and muscles bunched tight.  Ready.  He was ready. 

Kneeling up, Marie wrapped her arms around him, hugging him to her breasts. Shhhh now, let me help you, comfort you.  Lewis leaned his head back onto her arm, sobbing softly.

"So many...I killed so many..." 

Marie rocked him in her arms until Lewis relaxed and lay down to a restless sleep. Marie curled up to his side as his arm moved to cushion her hair.  When Lewis breathed evenly, Marie allowed her tears to course down her cheeks, soaking feather pillows.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Love's Labor Lost--Almost


Theodorus Peck, 1918
Amy Nichols, 1916
Theodorus Peck, 1918

























This love story should not have been possible. 

One world was from the farmlands of Illinois, where Theodorus’ family were affluent landowners, bankers, and shop owners.  The other world was from the cities of Michigan, where Amy’s family were more gentile, educated, and ‘with prospects’.

The likelihood of their meeting was very limited, fate stepped in.  The key factor was the restlessness that filled Theodorus.

He was extremely intelligent and eager to see more than the rolling fields of corn.  Tall and lean with pale blue eyes, Theodorus was not a physically strong man; farming would have been a difficult life for him.  Theodorus “Dorus” was already 35 with no serious attachments.

With his parents’ blessings, Theodorus went on a “stroll-about the United States”.  The stroll went West to Utah and up to Idaho.  It took him through mountains, deserts, and ultimately to Michigan.

He had friends in Michigan from his growing-up years and from his travels.  They showed him different towns and cities.  One city was Detroit. 

Amy came from a town nearby, and had just received her Pharmaceutical Degree.  Finding a job in Detroit meant that she would receive a good salary.
Amy Nichols on her way to the Drug Store

What is a bit vague (from her reminisces) is about her family.  At one time they had been comfortably situated, but something about the father’s gambling and drinking had left them in financial straits.  There were three daughters and one son.  Amy was the oldest and was considered to be a ‘spinster’.  She was also brilliant.

Amy was so mentally gifted that she had begun studies in medical school to become a doctor.  She was the only woman in 103 men.  Two years into her studies, the family was nearly destitute.  With their pleas for help, Amy switched her studies to become a Pharmacist.
Only part of the class photo, with Amy Nichols at the top

At the age of 28, Amy was behind the drug store counter, filling prescriptions and laughing with customers.  She was a big woman with a big personality—tall with brown eyes and an easy smile. 

Theodorus needed something from a drugstore, so his friends took him to this store as it was the closest.  Brown eyes meeting pale blue eyes, well, you can picture the exchange.

They began the courtship.    

Her family was not happy.  No, they viewed Dorus as depriving them of their source of income.

What to do?  They eloped.

When my grandmother said this to me, I was about 14.  My jaw dropped; I looked at my very traditional elderly grandmother, and these images did not coalesce.  “You mean—out the window, down the ladder elopement?”  She said, “Well, almost.”

When the dust had settled and days had passed, Amy’s family cooled down, considered their standing in the community, and held a reception for the newlyweds. 

Reception corsage

Their love story will continue on another posting.

I realized recently that many followers had never seen or read this post that is part of the backstory.  This might answer some questions about Amy and Dorus Peck.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Love Heals


Lewis Parker Cardiff


Love stories are not as unique as we like to believe. 

Of course, when I was falling in love with my future husband, it was the love of the century.  The stuff of books, legends, and movies-- that was what we had.

It is only now in the present that I find myself looking back at the grand love affairs that led to my existence.  In looking at my mother and father, their respective parents, and back for generations, one will find a man and woman whose eyes spoke of longing and desire.  Then they fell in love.


My mother’s parents were Lewis and Marie Cardiff.  Their love was always clear to me in the way he patted her behind as she walked by him, even when they were in their senior years.  It was the way she giggled when he did that, blushing a little.  They held hands at the table.  Love.

This is the photo taken of my grandfather before he left for France.

They met near Grandpa’s childhood home, right after WW1.

Grandpa had experienced the worst of the war, the most horrible carnage, unimaginable to those at home.  As a skilled hunter and sharp shooter, Grandpa Cardiff (his father called him "Sam"), and another farmer like himself were assigned to scout behind enemy lines.

They were on the run, sleeping in barns and ditches, and making their way back to deliver information about the enemy troops.

The things he saw, the things he had to do scarred him forever.

 Shortly before he died, Grandpa told my brother some of those things.  Horrible things he witnessed the Germans, taking a baby, bayoneting it. and tossing up to be speared by another soldier.

The major battles, Saint Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne, were and forever would be etched into his mind.**

He returned home a battered soul who just wanted peace.  He got a job collecting milk for the local dairy company.  Along long stretches of quiet green pastures, Grandpa guided the horse-pulled wagon, and collected the milk cans that farmers set out for him early in the morning.
Caroline Marie Shive with her mother and Aunt Daisy.  Wearing a new dress ,. Graduation from 8th grade?  Leaving home to be a home helper for a cousin.  Twist of fate.
A young woman had observed that lonely journey day after day.  Working as a serving girl for a large farm family far from her own parents, Marie was homesick and watched the world go by from the kitchen window.

Barely 18 then, Grandma decided that she needed to be on that road just when he went by.  They waved at each other for days.  Then he stopped and talked for a few minutes. 

Over a period of weeks, they learned about each other through the spoken and unspoken language of love, always respectfully.  Lewis was, after all, ten years older than Marie.  One evening after supper, Grandpa showed up at the house where Grandma was a serving girl.  She went out onto the porch behind the kitchen where he waited, hat in hand. 

He scooped her up in his arms, their eyes meeting.  Grandpa said, “Marie, I want you to be my girl forever.”

My grandfather was a farmer before and after WW1.  He suffered lung damage from the toxic gas used in war.


That was it.  The next day or so, Grandma packed up and went off with Grandpa.  They were married in a simple straight-forward ceremony.  Grandpa had $100 from his army discharge.  With it, they bought a bed, a plow, and a sewing machine.

This was Grandpa and Grandma Cardiff's home.  



A love affair to remember?  Like Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr?  You betcha.  As for the other side of the family, my father's family, you will have to return to learn about them about them.

Lewis Parker Cardiff   Lewis Parker Cardiff
** How did I know all of this?  I was 12 years old, had an excellent memory, and eavesdropped in the bedroom, while this story unfolded in the words of a man who needed to tell this to another human being.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Road Runs Both Ways

Long Road Back
Not sure.

What is this?  Are these segments fiction?  Did you make up all this?  What are you going with this? Is there more following?  So many questions, so here is a scanty explanation. 

When I visited my parents back “home” until my father’s death in 2005 and mother’s in 2011, we always did these few traditional actions, without fail. I had a sense that these were essential rites that we absolutely must do.

We always went to Pam's Cafe, and ate catfish or buffalo carp “fritters”, deep-fat fried, served with two slices of white bread, a big slice of strong onion, and cocktail sauce at Pam’s, the best and only restaurant in their town. Dad always had a cup of the blackest coffee I had ever seen at that time.

The waitress, usually a wild exotic teenager who grew up to be a worn-out waitress--Wanda?  Betty?, brought refills of coffee by.  She never asked if my father wanted a refill; he would tap the cup on the saucer to let her know.

My folks always sat in the same corner table that gave them the best view of the front door.  That way they would know who came or left, and then they would tell stories about them to me.  Oh, those stories. What these old wrinkled people who walked through those doors did with their lives could make a sailor blush.  

We always went across the “new” Missouri-Illinois Pike Bridge that spanned the Mississippi River (The River)to drive up Hwy. 79 in Mih-zer-uh (Missouri).  

The bridge was built in the early 1920's and opened up for traffic with a Gala Potluck. He was only six years old and had to pee.  Badly.  "Ma" told him to pee over there on the slope next to a tree.

Well, then.  He was  in his best clothes--knee pants, high socks, seersucker jacket--and just as he was getting his business done, he slipped on the long grass, sliding down the slope into the mud.  That is all he told me about that.  

We would drive up and around that road until we came to the places to stop—could stand there and look down The River and its spots of little islands.  Each stop gave us a new love for The River.

And we always went to visit  the cemeteries.  My father’s side of the family was buried in the small Nebo Cemetery in Illinois, while my mother’s side were buried in the sizable Crescent Cemetery in Pleasant Hill, Illinois. The farm where we lived for 40 years was a mile north of Nebo Cemetery.

The most interesting things about these places are that I did not know 97% of its occupants, and I really didn’t care.  My folks would walk around looking at headstones, talked about what those people did in life, and my father would speculate whether or not if they made it to Heaven. 

His staunch opinion was they did not.  In fact, my father generally believed that most of the people he knew were damned to hell.

Nebo Cemetery became interesting to me when two of my brothers were buried there in 1997 and 1999. I would go by myself in my rental car to place silk flowers at their graves, talk with them a bit, and look around the corn fields, at the rusted abandoned train tracks, and try to remember the town as it was in my childhood.

Now, I cull volumes of photos of those visits and re-live it all with stories my folks told me. Connecting those memories with faces, and reading letters not meant for my eyes have connected me with a totally different world one hundred years ago.

*The stories here in following posts are non-chronological and have a strong basis in truth.  A few tidbits here and there have been added for the story's sake. But, I have to say, just a few. 

** This is actually a re-post from years ago, which now can be called a back story.  I apologize for not providing readers with this cement.

***My mother told me other stories--oh my goodness, the stuff she knew!  Another day. 



Thursday, January 8, 2015

Letters to Lewis

Postcards and letters from that era

When word went out from the Post Office about the letter, the town’s curiosity raised more than just an eyebrow.  No one received actual letters in Lewis and Marie’s town.  Bills were natural and expected, but a true letter?  Postcards which were passed from hand to hand before reaching the addressed house were common.  But a letter with a stamp and postmark?

The town women flocked to the post office, cackling all the way with speculation.

When Postman Harold Sims swung the bag over saddle back and then mounted, he turned to the brood.  “Y’all old hens go on about your business.  If’n I see one of yous, I’ll tattle to the preacher aboutcha.”  Then Sims clicked to the horse who began the memorized mail route.

Grumbling and clucking, women dispersed to their own cozy coops.  We’ve never gotten a letter…Why’d they get a letter?...speculation lingered unanswered.

Marie swept dust off the porch, watched Minerva and Rosemary with a sense on contentment.  My children!  Our babies!  She placed a gentle hand on the rounding belly, anticipating a January birth.  It was a chilly November now with Lewis and other farmers bringing in the corn and bean crops.  A smile of joy lit her face.

Sims rode and stopped at her home, with Marie ambling to meet him. Her smile dropped like a bushel of rocks as he handed her the letter addressed to Lewis.  The postmark and two-cent stamp brought a shiver across her.  Minnesota?  October 30, 1927?  Lewis Cardiff?

Marie shushed the girls inside, with the letter in her deepest apron pocket.  What to do?  What to do?  Marie carried the letter and shoved it into an old show box way back in the closet.  I’ll think about it later.

Breakfasts, dinners, and supers passed over the kitchen table day after day.  January came, and with it a little girl.  Lewis attempted to hold back his disappointment about it not being a boy, but Marie knew with all her heart that the girl she held in her arms was another child who would not replace Bobbie.  They named her Irma after Marie’s best friend, loving the girl each day.

Marie Cardiff on the farm
In March during planting time, when Lewis would work sunrise to sunset, Hal Martin’s wagon from the train station drew up in front of the porch, with an unknown woman and her son descending.  Marie peered through her starched lace curtains as the two walked hand in hand to knock on the door.

Marie cautiously and slowly opened the door.

“Miz Cardiff?  My name is Norma Swenson and this here boy is my son Billy.  He’s only twelve, and a might shy.”  She shoved Billy forward where Marie could view him.  Brown hair…tall…and blue eyes just like Lewis…

Norma Swenson rambled on about Billy being Lewis Cardiff’s son and could Lewis take Billy for a bit as she was getting work down in St. Louis through the summer and---

Marie saw red, blood red as she grabbed her broom and batted the two off the porch, shouting words she didn’t think she knew.  “If you EVER come back, I will shoot you myself!  You and your bastard son.  You go to St. Louis and do what do best… lying on your back with your legs in the air!”

She hit them with all the force a strong woman could.  Hal Martin tipped his hat to Marie, whispering, “Them whores! They picked up soldiers like yer Lewis just as gold pieces back then. Don’t you worry about this’n.  You’re a good woman.  No one won’t hear a word about ‘er.”  Hal and his wagon of huffing lady and confused boy disappeared.
Lewis, on his way to The Front

Marie hurried to retrieve the shoe box and its hidden secret.  When Lewis came in the kitchen the door, Marie shoved the letter into his face, shouting for him to read it, read it right now.  His face turned ashen white and then crimson as he read.  All the stuttering excuses did not save him as Marie swatted him as if he were a blue bottle fly.  Lewis stumbled backwards, sprawling on the dusty ground.

Marie volleyed his dinner at his face.  Then she shut and locked the door.  Lewis would eat pig slop for the next week all the while wondering if there were any more bastards up north.  What will I do?  What will Marie do? Those questions would linger for some time.








Thursday, November 13, 2014

Lantern in the dark

Ear of Corn Ready for Harvest in a Corn Field Photographic Print
Source 

Somehow after breakfast, conversations led Dad to tell about a desperate time in his life, horrible time after Pa died.  July to August to September to October led to harvest in a sharp, cold November.  The corn sown in May had become hard gold on cobs, surrounded by brown stalks. 


“I tell ya, Sis, those were hard times.  Oh they were hard. Pa and me had planted that field together, with Helen carrying the bag of seed corn.  He told me, Buddy!  No big handfuls thrown on the ground!  Take just this much, and he held my hand just so.  Then cast it easy like…yes, like.”

Dad looked at his big calloused hand, “Pa’s hands were big, but not ham-hocks like mine.  No, his hands shoulda been playing a piano…” Dad’s head turned away as he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket.  He wiped his nose and his eyes. 

“I shoulda known Pa was sick, shoulda seen it somehow in the way he walked up the back porch steps.  How he reached for aspirin so many times.  But I didn’t.  Nine years old, that’s how old I was…nine years old when Pa died.”

His face turned away, like he was looking at the clock, like he had to be somewhere at a certain time.  But he didn't.

Dad cleared his throat, I can still hear how he cleared his throat before he told a story.  “Well, I’ll tell yuh straight.  A boy who don’t have a pa anymore gets treated different at school.  Out on the grass, racing and playing around, a boy gets pushed around, teased, Orphan!...Orphan!  Aint's got no pa….  No pa to go over to those fathers and set them straight about those boys.  No pa to stand behind you..”
Dad is the boy holding the ball in the front, after his Pa died.  
Mom set a cup of coffee on the kitchen table by his hand, with her hand drifting along his shoulder softly, like a feather on straw.  Steam drifted up, disappearing in the kitchen.

Horses in the harness rig
Dad sipped hot coffee.  “Corn was ready for picking late that year, November.  It was cold, getting cold.  I tell ya, snow would be falling in a week, and that corn had to be brought in quick.  Ma harnessed our old horse, Salty we called her, and I hitched up the wagon.  Couldn’t do it by myself, too heavy, I’d turned ten in October, but that didn’t make me any stronger.”

Dad never had a full smile, it was always a half-smile.  Only his eyes could tell if he was really smiling.  His eyes never smiled as he told this story.

“Now, Salty didn’t much like me, and I sure didn’t like her.  She grumbled and shook her mane.  I pulled her, finally got her going.  I pulled her to where I left off picking the corn the day before.  My Pa’s farm gloves lay on the wagon bench from pickin’ day ‘fore.  The inside still smelled like him, and I liked wearing them.  Can’t tell you why, but I just did.

They were too big for me and they kept dropping off, on the ground.  Took ‘em off, laid them on the bench like Pa used to.  I didn’t want to lose them in the dark.”

Another sip of coffee.  “I hadta pick the corn by hand, and I tell yuh, Sis…Corn stalks and such are hard on a boy’s hands.  Cuts from the day before and the day before that still stung.  I’d pick, shuck, and toss into the wagon, then pick some more.  Over ‘n over with Salty movin' down the row.

Wouldn’t get the field done, I could see that.  Maybe tomorrow…or the day after…  Then I looked around.  Dark, oh it was dark... had sneaked in quick after the sun went down.  I was lost in that big black cornfield and I didn’t know how to get back.

I grabbed Salty’s mane and burrowed my face into it.  I was crying.  I was so lost, so hollow.”

Mom pulled her chair over to Dad, and took his hand.
 
Dad cleared his throat.  “I tell yuh, Sis, and this is absolute truth:  If there had been a cliff nearby, I woulda walked right off it.  Right off it.”

Hearing Dad say these words snagged in my heart and cut right through it. Desperation and sorrow incarnate.

Silent, the kitchen was silent.  Even the clock stopped beating, I swear.

Dad leaned to put his big arms on the table, pushing the coffee cup away.

  “Heard a sound and it got louder.  Couldn’t tell where it came from at first.  Then I saw a lantern light, coming close and calling, ‘Buddy!  Buddy!’ Ma had come lookin’ for me.  She called my name and I called hers.  Don’t think I was ever gladder to see someone as I was to see her.

I held onto Salty as Ma set the lantern on the bench.  I wanted to grab onto Ma and hug her forever, but I didn’t. I was supposed to be the man of the family, and I couldn’t let myself be weak like that.  But Ma hugged me instead.

Ma’s face was in part shadow, but I could tell she’d been weepin’.  'Now, you get on up there, Bud.  And you eat those biscuits and bacon I brought you.'  

Ma took ahold of Salty’s harness and guided us home, with the lantern sittin’ by me, lighting the cornrows back to the barn.  She sent me on into the kitchen while she unhitched and settled Salty with feed in the stall.

Yup, Ma brought me back home.  She called me Bud the rest of her life.”

Dad stood up, placing his John Deere cap on his head.  Just so.  He always angled the hat like that for as long as I can remember. He gave Mom a loud smacky-kiss and went out the porch door.

I asked Mom if she had heard this part of his life before.  She shook her head.  “No, first I ever heard it.”


Grandma Amy Peck in center.  Dad is on the left, Aunt Helen in the back, and Uncle Bill is on the right.
I am sorry about the time lapse between these posts.  Sometimes dredging up stories told to me are difficult.  The voices of those I loved have to ring true.  I am glad you like them or find them a slice of history you would like to find out from your own family.  Find those stories and hold onto them.