Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Truth about Small Places....

"Be present at our table, Lord.
Be here and everywhere adored.
These mercies bless and grant that we
may feast (dwell) in paradise with Thee."

When our family gathers, it is for three reasons:
  1. For a birthday
  2. For a holiday.
  3. For a meal.
  4. Any combination of 1 or 2, but always 3.

And when we gather, we pray. Often Blake's dad says the grace.  This is the man who calls his sons regularly during the long winter days to complain about Democrats, calls during baseball or football games to castigate coaches and managers: he is rock solid in conviction and integrity, a man who eased into flexibility late in life, coincident with the birth of his grand and great grand children .But when he closes his eyes to say a blessing, his voice is husky with emotion; when Charlie thanks his Creator for this family, this land, this work, this season of harvest, his gratitude wells up from deep within.  The amens around the table, or in a corn field, or around the Christmas tree or before fireworks are serious, heartfelt, and unanimous.

This is ground zero for our family farm. Blake's mom and dad, their three sons and daughters in law, and now a host of grandchildren, all farm together here in Atchison county, Missouri, not the western most outpost of the Corn Belt, but certainly on the fringe.  Folks irrigate on the Missouri River bottoms and 100 miles west of us, the productive lands soak up their moisture from the underground river surrounding the Platte. That is Nebraska.  One hundred miles north, the summer fronts stall and drop their beneficial rains on corn that is never more than 6 feet tall and never yields less than 200 bushel per acre.  That is Iowa.  But here in north west Missouri, our prairie soils  do their best work in the summertime, gathering the quarter inch, one third inch and one half inch rains and metering them out to the corn and soybeans wrapping the hills in ribbons of contoured rows.  In the tradeoff between soil and moisture, we have advantage soil, but its a rare year we live through a cropping season without a six week hiatus from rainfall, wishing for a monsoon in New Mexico or a hurricane in the Gulf to break the meteorological spell.  

Some farmers are born; some farmers are made.  Blake is a scion of a scion of a man and woman who survived the dirty thirties without knowing they were survivors; starting from nothing...again...was not unusual for that generation.  Sturdy, stubborn, hard working but also  frugal, clever and forward thinking: Blake's grandfather and mother and then father and mother grew their farms and their families with one eye on the future and another on their bank accounts.  Experience can be a brutal teacher.  Exuberance is not to be trusted.  Optimism should be relegated to baseball.  Blake and his brothers lived and breathed the family ties: the hierarchy, the expectations, the responsibilities, the fables and stories and oral history of the community, as well as the wet spots, rocky slopes, sandy points and gumbo of the land.

And this is the real reason our country needs small places. I am reminded of this every holiday, every turn of the calendar to a new year, every Memorial Day that my neighbors show up for planter boxes of flowers to set out at the county cemeteries.  'For when two or three are gathered', the talk will turn to relationships 'unto the third and fourth generation'.   I did not learn this at my mother's knee, but I began my apprenticeship thirty seven years ago in a similar bitter cold Christmas season in the dining room of my future in-laws.  The room was paneled with a walnut chair rail of lumber salvaged from the previous house on the same site; the conversation was peppered with references to families resurrected from farms and homesteads with occasional interjections and clarifications about who married whom, or what year they graduated, or where they were buried. I learned a mighty lesson that day: that time is a perennial in farm country, dormant perhaps, but long lived.

We have lots of family nearby, but still plenty of out of towners and young people old enough to hunger for their past.  Christmastime at Blake's aunt and uncle's is a jolly affair with the little kids shedding their church program finery for fleecy footie jammies and wishing the old folks would move on so Santa can make his stops.  Years past, we'd shed our coats as we passed the threshold of Grandma Nelson's house, tossing them on the immense mound on her bed, making our way to the kitchen where carrots and dip, chips and Mogen David, cheese and crackers accompanied the jokes and reminiscences. Memories are never far from the surface; this night we piece together a mental quilt of Grandma's yard...the cistern, the goose, the front yard swing,the name of her Doberman (Tilly) and now-what-was-the-dog's-sister's-name? (Mary Ann had her....)

Tradition sends us to the next stop on our Christmas Eve rounds; here the Yule log scents the room. We need pliers to pin our Christmas wish close enough to the crackling wood without scalding our fingers..mine slides off but incinerates into dust instantly.  This has always been a house with lots of children at the holidays and still is; they are well past the footie jammie age though. Someone is getting an immense copy of an 1882  Atchison county map for Christmas; I am drawn to maps like the Yule sparks fly up the chimney.  We gather around, pointing out the locations of our current farmsteads along the non existent roads of 19th century Atchison county, noting the now phantom railroads linking the communities they brought into being, and keenly aware of the ephemeral nature of man upon this prairie.

On Christmas Day, Blake's mom hands him a heavy volume in his stocking....its a book with a note listing two pages and "the back cover". He says, 'whoa, you need to help me figure what I should recognize on this back cover..' , a collage of black and white snapshots from the 1930s, 40s, and early 50s. Turns out not to be much of a problem; the dark haired young lady riding a goat between a young man in a uniform and an older gent in cap and dungarees has got to be one of Blake's aunts and before long we figure out it is aunt Lyllis.  Lyllis and Millie have each contributed a tale to Lye Soap and Sad Irons, a book of pictures and stories by the people who grew up in northwest Missouri; it is a treasure, living history at the most immediate and elemental level. To leaf through this volume is just like sitting around the table Christmas Eve at aunt Debbie's or drinking coffee on a winter morning at Millie and Charlie's.

And this is the truth about small towns, the little farming communities with speed limits that scarcely make you slow down, the blasts from a past when what necessities you didn't raise yourself could be had at the intersections of two lettered roads.  Sure, these days the bounty of the land provides food, fiber,exports, etc., etc., etc., to places far flung from flyover country. Yes, we denizens of farm country are breathing evidence that nothing stays the same, like it or not.  But the people of the land, the rooted ones, the hangers on, the folks with mailboxes that match their headstones: these are remnants of our national nature, the institutional repository of knowledge so arcane, it may as well be the Biblical 'begats'.  We need them; we need to know this part of our historical culture is still out here, to realize that all the satellite news, social media, technology micro- and mega- has not completely erased nor replaced the "deep geography"of our rural past.

Read a weekly'll see.

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