Two days before Easter, I am driving on Highway 62 from Blue River to Corydon, Indiana in my father’s old Ford pickup truck, somehow sensing his presence beside me thirteen years after his passing and his bewilderment at this global pandemic of coronavirus that kills so many in so many places. I haven’t been off the farm in weeks, and my excitement at driving to town to put letters and overdue bills in the mailbox might just as well be that of heading out toward California for a cross-country trip. I keep my speed slow to relish each passing mile with a child’s gaze of wonder.
The dogwood hang heavy with white blossoms as if each tree were a memorial to the many that have died this month. They seem to cast beautiful mourning for those that have gone before, and I think of my sister lost to ovarian cancer many years ago when her children were not yet teenagers. I remember my grandparents who spent their entire lives in Harrison County, working each day on this old farm, going to church each Sunday and looking forward every year to the greatest event of the year, the County Fair. And my parents, too, Dad beside me now, haunt the pastures where we worked in summer, the woods we hunted for morels in spring and the ponds where we fished with my great uncle Arnold on Sunday afternoons. Arnold taught me the quiet pleasures of squirrel hunting, warning me never to assume it were dead once on the ground. If it were merely stunned from a poor shot, I could lose a finger picking it up. He showed me how to step on the head and jerk up the tail just to be safe. I sense all of them now in the scent of white blossoms blowing in the warm air through my windows.
When we were children on the edge of being adults, so we thought, my sister Gilda and I would walk through the white oaks and shag-bark hickories to the Tipton field to look for arrow heads where the Wyandotte had sat chipping away at flint even in the first year my ancestors had settled here in 1813. We found what others had not already gathered: small ones for birds and rabbits, larger ones for deer and the big ones used for scraping hides. Mostly we found the chips from the one made whole, the pieces singing for the one they had hidden yet to blossom, and the mistakes when the flint had split on the makers when they were halfway finished and had come too close to what was hidden. The stories had it that they were a quiet people that kept to themselves until too many traders’ wagons had begun to pass too closely to their small village; then one day they were gone, and no one knew what direction they had traveled. I suspect they had had enough of the white people’s ways and wandered far from the wonders of civilization as we like to think of those trinkets and toys now.
On one such day, my grandmother Lelah had made us peanut-butter-and-grape-jelly sandwiches for our adventure on that soft, white store-bought bread, one of the wonders that came from the Corydon JayC grocery store where my uncle Chalkie Miller was the manager. We packed them along with well water in a Mason jar and tied up our hefty lunch in a big red bandana, unseen to the prying eyes of squirrels,attached to long tomato stakes over our shoulders, each of us a hobo in Robin Hood’s Southern Indiana Sherwood forest. We were ready for Wyandotte or for the Sheriff’s men, whomever we were first to encounter.
I had armed myself with Granddaddy’s single-shot .22, a curious weapon with an octagonal barrel, worn wood stock and a single, curved lever to chamber the round. I had not asked to take it but had pilfered it when Grandmother was busy with the laundry that she did by hand in an old tub. I snatched the rifle—the “ground-hog gun”—the only one he owned from under the yellow flowers of forsythia where I had hidden it. We were quickly over the hill and out of sight from the house.
When we reached the mound under the old maple where the Wyandotte had made their weapons, we gobbled up our feast and sat watching birds calling out their songs to one another. A blue-jay’s screech sent the robins deeper into the green shelter. Not twenty feet away, a brilliant red cardinal landed on a branch, singing, it seemed, just to us. My sister, always skeptical of my oldest-brother skills, threw a dare into the air: “You couldn’t hit it, if you tried.” I looked at her and slipped the one shell from my pocket into the chamber. Without a word, I propped an elbow on my knee, gripped the fore-stock firmly and drew the bead down into the bottom of the notch on the sight. I kept my eye steady and gently squeezed the trigger just as I had been taught. The pop was loud.
To my shock, the cardinal fell ten feet down, dead upon the ground.
We took our faltering steps to look at my wanton kill. Such beauty, now still to sing no more, to fly nowhere else. Both of us sobbing, we pushed our small fingers into the dirt and dug a small grave to hide my careless sin and placed the bird in it. We put a big rock on top, our notion of a tombstone, and Gilda whispered a prayer. We drank the last of our water and started back to the house. Neither of us had a word to say, and we could not muster even a hymn to sing.
I take a curve slowly and redbud blossoms break into my sight. Their purple flags wave at me as if they were singing like a cardinal. From October to May for many years, I have performed my penance with black sunflower seeds in steady offerings of atonement. Now I remember the bag at home is almost empty, but should I risk giving or getting the virus just to buy birdseed? I have a mask in my truck, so, after I go by the post office outside mailbox, I will head to Tractor Supply for another bag of seed. That’s the least I can do, I tell myself, for using Granddaddy’s rifle without his permission, for my sister and for that cardinal.
My grandfather “Judy” was a quiet but kind man, and he looked old as long as he lived from what I could see then, just as I must look old now to my own grandsons. He helped the neighbors with their work, and they helped him, sharing horses and, later, tractors to bring in the hay and the corn. Farming this old clay and rock was a daily challenge. Sometimes, when my son Brian and I are trying to sink a posthole with an old augur, I am sure there is more rock than clay in this ground where so many of us have walked and worked and finally died for so many years.
Granddaddy was a bad driver in his old age, and he scared me every time we went to town for a haircut or the weekly groceries, usually both in the same trip.He would straddle the center line and move into his own lane only when a car approached. Even then, I knew this strategy could end in a head-on crash. Like me now in the time of Covid-19, we never went to town when it was not absolutely necessary. He didn’t like that I called him Granddaddy, for it reminded him of the spider with the long legs. Still, he tolerated the name, and we seldom came home without a stop at Jock’s for whatever kind of ice cream I wanted.
He taught me many things as a boy—how to call in the cows when evening time came for the milking, how to spread the hay before the stanchion and slip the latch tight to hold the head, how to place the bucket and sit on the three-legged milking stool, how to firmly squeeze the teat down until the rhythm of my fingers brought the ping-ping-pingsounding on the side of the bucket. He taught me how to drive the old Allis-Chalmers C, so the men could throw the bales on the wagon. When I was old enough to think myself a man and to throw the bales on the wagon myself, I soon learned how much work that was, and he taught me how to stack the bales on the wagon, so they would stay in place when bringing them home on the winding country roads. He did not tell me the stacker also unloaded them from the elevator in the hayloft that was full of dust and 120 degrees. My grandfather taught me what it meant to work hard, whether making hay or concentrating on the rows of corn when plowing out the weeds from between rows.
He was angry at me only twice that I remember, but he never knew about that cardinal. The first was when I was very young and playing in the weeds by the side of the cornfield that he had to plow on grandmother’s twenty bottom acres by Blue River. He’d stop for lunch and we’d go across 62 to Eldon’s gas station for cold sodas with our sandwiches. On that day, I had been warned of copperheads, but, finding none, I had discovered small black gems that I was sure were somehow valuable. When he stopped to fetch me for lunch in the shade and cold drinks at Eldon’s, I held my hand out proudly to show him my treasure. His slap of my hand was hard and hurt and sent my treasure flying: “Those are rabbit turds!” I had to ask, what are turds?
I was older the second time, and his anger came in words. Like all eighth-graders, I had had to learn vocabulary words such as isthmus and contour plowing and what they meant. Never mind that Indiana was a thousand miles from the ocean and no one in a city with a good job would ever plow in any manner. I asked him why he plowed up and down the hill instead of around it in contoured fashion to save the soil from erosion. At the smart aleck age I was, his wisdom was less than gratifying: “That’s the way it’s always been done.” And he was pissed, I knew, at the whip-smart kid with his own blood. I asked my dad, a Purdue graduate in dairy agriculture, about it. He had had the same argument, but his explanation was clear. When the old-timers plowed with mules, they went up and came down straight, so the mules could, they thought, rest a little going downhill. When tractors came into use and they could afford even a little one, they could save gas going downhill. Every penny counts. That’s the way they had always done it.
Now I turn another curve and just beyond the magnificent redbuds is a field of perfectly contoured furrows. It looks like a picture on the cover of a farm magazine from sixty years ago. And I think how much these furrows are like our ugly phrase social distancing. One field evenly spaced to save the degrading soil, the other even spacing to save our diminishing lives. But I cannot bear to consider the comparison of no-tillage seedbeds to refrigerator trucks full of bodies in New York. Our planet grows for our grandchildren from mass graves.
When I was very small, I saw a picture of my grandmother, a slim and dark-haired beauty who even in the photograph seemed to have the countenance of a woman who never trusted men after they had grown from little boys. Lelah never lost that hard glint in her face, though she did her best to be as kind as she could be. She was never fond of Granddaddy’s sisters Aunt Anna and Aunt Abbey who lived with Anna’s husband Arnold in the house I now call home. When I stayed with my grandparents and visited them in the summer months throughout the years, Lelah always seemed a touch resentful, complaining that they put too much butter on the toast (she was right about that—a half stick for each slice) and that “a child” had no business watching their favorite soap opera Days of Our Lives, though I was sixteen at the time.
Now, I wonder if an old man at seventy has any business watching daily body counts scroll along the bottom of the television screen.
Lelah never left the house except for church or to have Granddaddy take her once a month into town to have her hair done—and it was grey, I think, when I was born, for she was an older woman by far than Granddaddy but never wanted anyone to know that. Whenever she returned, she would criticize the other women for the dresses they wore and the make-up on their faces, just like “shameless floozies,” she would say. And she did not think much more of the women in church, but the fashion critique kept her going from Sunday morning until Sunday morning. Like me, in my own harsh reactions to the many who refuse to wear masks to protect the lives of others or who crowd you from behind when all you want is one bag of “essential” birdseed, she could be relentless. Grandmother Lelah did not think too much of canoodling in any circumstance whatsoever.
Perhaps her harsh judgment came from the tragedy of her sister Aunt Belle who had spent the rest of her life in the state asylum in Madison after her fiancé failed to show at her wedding. Granddaddy and Lelah always had had separate beds, my mother told me much later. I had sometimes slept with Granddaddy in his bed when loud summer thunderstorms would roll in during the night and wake me crying and frightened as a small boy who feared the lightening, but I was too young to know anything. Mom said Lelah thought that wives who shared their husband’s bed for any reason but to have children were doomed to hell just as dancing and playing cards were sure to do the same for people who did such things. Though Grandmother had me read the Bible with her daily, I never recall turning to The Song of Solomon. Lelah and Mom did not get along at all.
I wonder now, as I coax my truck along the road and pass the houses on the outskirts of town, if the houses hold couples who are in quarantine, if each husband and wife are in separate rooms, sleeping alone in a bed out of love for fear of afflicting the other, if each yearns for the kiss and touch of the beloved. Do they see from their windows these redbud blossoms screaming the passion of spring fevers for each other? Would they risk death and hell for one more time to be entangled together? Do they wear masks that hide their anxious smiles from each other? Will they survive to love each other once again?
Some will, I know, survive the loss of their loved ones. Granddaddy’s brother Hobart had gone off to World War I in 1918. His picture hangs on the wall upstairs now, handsome and straight in his posture, proud in his uniform to be doing what he could to end all wars. He was sent to Seattle to train in the Army for the front and to weather the trenches and the mustard gas that would float above those boys, happy to serve their country when it called them. He never saw Europe, for the Spanish flu leveled the barracks where he slept, one ordinary man who, like the many thousands more then and now, sacrificed themselves for no purpose at all. I have often wondered what he thought as he lay dying, if he thought at all. Yet, Hobart’s in this house, hanging in his place, to remind the passing generations that each life is precious, each singular in its faith in others, in its affirmative, silent yawp that beauty comes from death.
I brake at the edge of town, taking in the last redbud on the road. The stop sign seems to speak not to me, though I am still, but to this virus against which we have no vaccine. “Stop, just stop,” I say out loud to Dad and to myself as if the tiny unseen creatures might hear me and obey my senseless command. But I utter only futility to that which I cannot see.
It is this unseen love of each other, I remind myself stopped here before a sign, that is the faith, for it is always unseen, the lamp under the basket no one ever sees shine, the many who do wear masks and who do take care to be far enough apart, who do stay home when feeling even a slight hint of illness, and who do love the lives of other people’s grandparents and of other people’s children, of other people they do not see. I do not know them. I do not see them. I know nothing of their generations and their loved ones. I know only that they are loving me and mine, and I will buy birdseed for them.
I did not see the leaves rot, the body of the grass wilt and crumble, the debris of a red bird decompose for the soil that found a single seed of redbud.
Still, the tree grows. Branches and leaves embrace us. We shall see its blossoms again.
As a boy and teenager, Michael spent summers making hay and plowing corn at the family farm near Blue River. Given hard work and small profits, he vowed not to spend his life as a farmer. After graduating from Washington HS and Wabash College, he finished his PhD in English and American Literature at SUNY—Buffalo. He spent thirty years at Eastern Illinois University teaching English, philosophy and Africana Studies. He retired in 2014 to keep the farm in the family, and, despite an early vow never to farm, he is now doing exactly that—and he loves it.