…could the garden have said
to the gardener, I made you grow?
Before I was ten years old, I never thought of farms, nor of gardens. I was a typical white American boy living in Columbus, Ohio. My father was a stained glass artist who thought of himself as nothing more than a glazer—my mother, a homemaker who occasionally experimented with door-to-door sales of Tupperware, Westmorland Silver, insurance, and Highlights for Children.
In the city, my experience of open space was limited to occasional fishing and hunting trips with my uncle Jack. Otherwise, I had the big field off Clinton St., its wild apple tree and the top branches of the tall pine tree I climbed regularly, giving me the sense of flying and the quilted view of the rooftops and the concrete and gravel rivers of streets and alleys that flowed through my daily life.
Because my parents had friends named Whittington, who owned a farm in Galena, Ohio, I received a fortune that continues to serve me more than a half century later. I loved the Whittingtons’ farm—its seemingly vast and varied distances. The road to the farm tunneled through endless corridors of corn, interrupted only by dashes of houses and barns at the ends of long strings of driveways. They had ten acres each of oats or wheat, soy beans, and corn for the cattle. There were also three acres of corn for sale at grocery markets and the family’s consumption. The main house was large and sat back off the road about a hundred yards. To the left, a ten-acre field rotated from corn to alfalfa to soy beans, with a pasture for cows and a small barn beyond that. Another hundred yards back sat a large, classic red barn with a Dutch roof and a tall silo across the drive, with a long chicken coop one one side and a hog pen on the other. Far down the drive were the remaining fields, rotated between wheat, legumes like alfalfa and soy beans, and field corn.
In 1956 the population of Galena was about 400 residents, mostly farmers. Allen Whittington was one of them. He was an assembly worker for Ford Motor Company by day, and worked forty acres of farmland until dark. He was a man about my father’s height, 5 feet 11 inches, with thin, muscular arms and tremendous energy. When Allen wasn’t smiling, you knew something was seriously wrong. He never complained. He wasted no time. His wife Lillyann was the same, managing the household and tending to chickens, pigs and cows while caring for and raising three teenage daughters, Carolyn, Joyce, and Diane. Johnny was the only boy—he was five that first summer, happily following me everywhere and teaching me much about the chores of a farm. Dinner was ready when Allen arrived home each day. He chatted with his kids while he ate, all seven of us gathered around the long oak table he built.
Where can you learn what is most valuable in life in just three years? Where can you see your limitations made perfectly clear in a way that encourages, rather than threatens? What kinds of challenges forge in you a strength you never dreamed you had? Those summers on the farm led me into a world profoundly different than the one I knew.
Each day I helped Lillyann gather eggs, feed chickens, and slop hogs through the morning hours. Allen assigned me afternoon chores before he left for his job at Ford. A choir of animal voices filled my days there, a consonance that permeated the air as I moved from place to place; the bright and narrow nestling aisle of cornfields and their mesmerizing susurrations, and in them the surprise appearances of pheasant, foxes and quail, moving through the stalks. I found a peace in the golden sway of a wheat field. Many evenings I sat alone on the front porch or sat on the edge of the cistern wall listening to the calming, watery echoes as I watched the soft and sable settling of the day.
With Johnny’s help I began my tutelage suckering corn on those three acres. When corn grows, at some point it begins to put out new shoots on the main stalk. These are called suckers. In those days, farmers believed suckers diminish nutrients to the corn that will eventually emerge as the stalks grow higher. Suckering corn is breaking off these offshoots, stalk by stalk. It transformed my city back into that of a farmhand’s. It was clear that my idea of a farm would be adjusted, as would my appreciation for hard physical work. The suckered corn stalks we took to the hog pen for food.
One weekend not too long after I began my second summer, Johnny climbed the gate and fell in the pen with a sow nursing her piglets. Sows have powerful jaws, weigh about 500 pounds and stand waist high to an adult. And they are mean and protective. Johnny knew this. He cried out in absolute fear as the sow tore herself away from the suckling piglets and charged toward him. Without thinking I jumped the gate, landed on my feet, threw Johnny over, and jumped back just as the sow snapped, then snorted away back to her brood. We never spoke of the incident. Johnny was not allowed to climb on the gate. It remained our secret. We were fast friends from that day on.
In my second summer on the Whittingtons’ farm, I graduated to learning how wheat and oats were harvested. Many days I rode on the tractor as the harvester threshed the spikes and beards of wheat from their stalks and deposited kernels into a bin. As the harvester made its rounds, rabbits dashed out ahead of it and then scrambled back into the dense, standing field. Dozens ran free into the harvested field as the final rectangle was cut. The wheat was taken to the weigh station the next day, a price determined and the grain put into storage.
On a family farm, I learned everything has an intention. The first summer I sensed a difference in that life than how we lived in the city. Each day, each person worked at their own job, went to school, and gathered for meals at day’s end, but there was a connectivity to their actions, even the idle time when Allen smoked his pipe and read Louis L’Amour, Lillyann wrote or knit, the girls practiced their songs for the next local performance, and Johnny busied himself with wandering in the yard. They rested. There was no anxiety in that house about the day past nor the day to come. They wanted no more than what each moment needed.
After the harvest, after the trip to the weigh station and payment, I would do something I do to this day after I’ve completed an arduous, physical task. Sometimes in the afternoon when the girls and Johnny were at school, I would walk to the freshly harvested field and look out at the straw piles waiting to be baled, the sounds of Bob White calling in the nearby distance and the occasional rabbit coming into view. At the far edge of the stacks of golden stems was a railroad track, eye level on its raised dirt and gravel platform. If I was lucky there would be a train passing, its whistle blowing for the intersection of approaching road. I know now, what I felt in those moments was the true reward of working a farm. With the same backward glance I realize that my own father’s work had, at its heart, a similar prize—the work itself.
Photo by Stiller Beobachter, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Richard Maxson.
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