The day the call came
We had just dished up the ice cream.
A special treat for a Friday farm dinner,
(Not to be confused with supper.)
Mother had made it early that morning in ice cube trays.
“Freezer ice cream,” she called it,
Vanilla, made with Junket tablets to keep it creamy,
Even as it froze.
Not as good as the real, homemade ice cream cranked by hand,
But a whole lot easier.
And America was just starting its long affair with convenience.
The call came over the telephone
Mounted on the farmhouse wall.
With two bells for eyes,
You spoke into its honking, beaklike nose.
The earpiece cradled appropriately
Where the right ear should be,
While a hand crank made a poor excuse
For a drooping left ear.
It was a party line,
So the snoopy widow woman down the road
Knew as soon as we did.
The call came, and the man on the phone
Said Grandpa had just keeled over dead
At the auction over in Poosey.
So, we all got up—Mom, Dad, Big Brother and me,
And climbed into the ’50 Ford sedan
Dad was so proud to own.
The first car he’d ever bought brand new.
By the time we got to the auction –
It was a farm sale, really —
Where the worldly possessions of one farm family
Were being sold off.
One at a time.
By the hypnotically fast-talking auctioneer.
Not as depressing as the foreclosure sales
That were all too common
Just a few years before in the Depression.
This was a voluntary sale,
But a little sad nonetheless.
Some farmer was getting too old to run the place,
And didn’t have kids—or leastwise kids who wanted to farm.
A lot of boys joined the service in those days,
Or headed to Kansas City to find work, and a little excitement,
Rather than stay and try to coax a living
Out of that hilly, rocky dirt.
The man at the auction told us
Grandpa had been standing there in the sun with everybody else.
They were just about to start the bidding on the John Deere hay rake
When he grabbed his chest and fell right over.
Years later, they told me when he was a grown man
Grandpa had gone down to the river,
And been baptized, and filled with the Holy Ghost,
With the evidence of no longer speaking in profane tongues.
For, it was well known Grandpa had been gifted
In the art of colorful language.
“He used to could cuss by note,” was how Mother put it.
But after the washing with water and the Word,
Grandpa was never heard to swear again.
I only knew him as a white-haired old man
With a merry smile, and infinite patience
With Grandma, who required it.
And that was it, really.
Nothing more to say,
Except for the understated condolences
Of the country folk.
Nothing more to do,
Except for my father,
Now lately promoted to the role of the family elder,
Who assumed the duties and made the necessary arrangements.
Although I didn’t know quite what had happened,
I felt a lurch … as something shifted beneath me …
And I was yanked one more notch forward.
By the time we got back to the house,
The ice cream had long since melted
And now was returning back to solid state,
As it curdled in the September heat.
NOTES: I got the news this week that a friend’s grandfather had passed away. This death was expected, and from all reports, merciful in coming. But there is still grieving to be done and respects to be paid. You can be happy your loved one is no longer suffering, but terribly sad that they’re gone.
This all got me thinking about my own grandfather, and day close to 60 years ago, and a bit of a poem I wrote about that day as best as I could recall it. It seemed fitting to haul this out of the vault, dust it off and publish it again.
Back in the 1950s on the farm, we didn’t have air conditioning. Shoot, we had just gotten electricity a few years before.
So when the long Missouri summers dragged on and the humidity rose, folks headed outdoors to keep cool. When the nights were really hot, we’d sleep outdoors.
The poem is about a day pretty much like the one documented in this photo. In fact, the events took place not too many days after this photo was shot.
Dad’s shirt bore proof of hard work,
and so did his hands.
NOTES: Dad was a son of the Great Depression, accustomed to hard work. He didn’t have the chance to finish high school due to the need to find work to contribute to the family. The work available was farm hand labor at a dollar a day. Hoeing beans, putting up hay, stripping blue grass. Good money if you could get it.
Too young for World War I, he got a pass for World War II because by that time he was the only adult male on his own farm. The idea was to keep all the farms operating to provide for the war effort. So while all 4 of his brothers-in-law went off to fight, Dad stayed home growing corn and soybeans and producing eggs and milk.
In the post-war prosperity, Dad prospered and saved his money. Finally, in the late 1950s, he made the one big entrepreneurial move of his life, sold the farm, and went into the farm implement business.
We moved from the farm to the farm town of Marshall, got a house with indoor plumbing and central heat.
Things went fine for a few years, but then something happened. I was young and didn’t get the full story. But either through some poor marketing decisions, or through some financial shenanigans by a partner, the business went into debt and had to be sold.
It was a defeat for Dad, but he didn’t let it defeat him. He landed a job in the shop at Reeder Auto Parts. It had to be tough going from the boss to being an employee again, but Dad never complained.
He just showed up everyday and kept chopping wood to do what it took to pay the mortgage and keep hamburger on the table. I recall a time when I was whining about needing a few dollars to buy some knickknack or the other.
My older brother Larry took me aside and gave me the older brother admonishment. “Shut up and quit bothering Dad,” he said. “Don’t you realize we could lose the house?”
I had no idea.
But, Dad kept working away. Mom got a job baking pies at the MFA Grocery Story and we didn’t lose the house.
Let it be said that Dad was a master mechanic. He made things work. He also was perpetually marinated in grease and gasoline.
He would clean his hands with Goop grease cutter and then wash his hands with Lava soap. But they never really got truly clean.
When I hung out with him I usually got the job of cleaning parts in gasoline. I grew to hate the smell, and my mechanical ability has suffered accordingly.
He eventually went on to establish a freelance mechanic business. He primarily served the farmers around Marshall, making house calls to repair balky tractors, combines, corn pickers, and hay balers right where they died out in the fields.
His services were in demand, and he had all the work he wanted. Sometime the farmers would pay him in produce. Like the old German farmer Ludwig who sent Dad home with a quart jar of canned horseradish.
As the family story went, brother Larry returned home late one night scrounging around in the refrigerator for something to eat. Seeing a jar of something that looked like gravy, he unscrewed the lid and took a big snort.
Farmer Ludwig’s horseradish nearly blew the top of his head off.
When I came to his poem “Touch Me,” I had to pause. This poem seemed to be hitting some of same notes. Much deeper, but with little glimpses of the same melody.
The two poems are very different on the surface — mine is a sonnet, his is free verse. He makes different observations about nature.
But the season is the same — late summer. And there is something similar in the underlying emotion. Here’s his poem:
Touch Me –Stanley Kunitz
Summer is late, my heart. Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that’s late,
it is my song that’s flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only, ++++++++++++++ and it’s done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.
Late summer’s sun has baked the grass to brown.
The days grow shorter with each passing day,
Soon, autumn’s chill will make the leaves fall down.
All of this aching beauty will decay.
And yet I love the shadows’ slanting trace,
The once green grain gone golden in its rows,
And how I love the lines etched in your face.
It’s funny, as love ripens how it grows.
The number of our days we do not know.
No sleeper knows if he will ever wake.
So come, let’s join above, between, below.
My dear, let’s cause our fragile clay to quake.
Let us make love as if it’s our last go.
Let us embrace like dawn will never break.
NOTES: It’s not really late summer yet, but it feels like it. It has been hot and dry, giving us the sense of late August when July hasn’t even ended.
The seasons seen to come and go more quickly of late. Perhaps I’m paying closer attention. Perhaps I realize more summers now lie behind me than still ahead.
Something in the air caused me to pull this sonnet out of the vault today. I snapped the photo on my late afternoon walk.
The pasture is brown,
and snow has left the mountains.
But the sky. The sky!
NOTES: Late summer signs are coming early to the Pacific Northwest this year. This past winter we broke a 122 year record for rainfall in Seattle. We got 44.67 inches of rain from October through April. Which was the wettest such stretch since record-keeping began in 1895. (We rack up almost 9 inches in February alone.)
But not to worry. This is the Pacific Northwest. No matter how dry it gets this summer, we know that the rains will return in the fall and remain with us for what seems like forever. So we can relax and appreciate the beauty around us.