Thursday, November 13, 2014

Lantern in the dark

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

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.