The winter my grandfather died, I was
five years old. I remember how dreamlike it had seemed and how I had
stubbornly refused to cry — it was the first time death had touched me.
Days after the funeral, as my
grandmother prepared to auction off Grandpa’s farm equipment, my dad
came to me and gently asked if I’d like one last ride on Grandpa’s
tractor. I had loved that tractor. An International Harvester, towering
and shiny red, its massive wheels made me feel small. But once enclosed
inside the cab, sitting securely on Grandpa’s knee, I could see the
whole world — acre after acre of shimmering summer green corn and rich
I told Dad, “No.” So
he took the tractor for a spin without me, and I never rode in it again.
But there would be other tractors —
like Dad’s rusty old antique Allis Chalmers with its precariously
extended front wheels that lifted up from the red clay earth when I turned
too sharply. How I loved the sound when Dad fired it up and went sailing
down the hillside. Sometimes I would ride on Dad’s knee; sometimes I
would drive, squealing when Dad jumped down onto the plow and left me on
my own for the first time.
That tractor opened up the orange soil
of the Blue Ridge, the earth that oozed between my bare toes whenever I
did the tedious chores of weeding around feathery carrot shoots or
gathered pea pods and green beans in aluminum pots for summer canning.
And I watched my mother, like my
grandmother before her, set that imposing black canning kettle over the
stove, the same one I use now in my own kitchen, where it boiled like a
witch’s cauldron, and the Mason jars filled with garden riches clattered
against the pressure of the heat. We feasted all winter from the wealth of
the open soil. And what we didn’t grow, we gathered along the brambled
hillsides in our pasture. Sweet blackberries and luscious wild raspberries
stained my small fingers as I plucked them. I dropped two in the bucket
and two in my mouth as I shimmied under fences to steal berries from the
When I went away to college, my mother
sent Mason jars filled with onion-flavored green beans from the garden,
sealed cups of frozen sugary strawberries, and little jars of blackberry
and peach jam so sweet they made my tongue tickle. No one else had these
treasures. And my suburban acquaintances clamored for a taste of the earth
they did not know. It took six years of living alongside city interstates
and lying awake at night listening to the rumble of tractor trailers
instead of the repetitive hum of bullfrogs and crickets for me to
appreciate their hunger.
And I thought of Grandpa.
I thought of how he carefully plowed
the soil each spring after the last of the snow had dissipated, and I
thought of Grandma’s solid arms rolling out dough into the wee hours and
gathering eggs to take into town at the first hint of daylight on cool
I thought of how they split wide the
earth to send my mother and my uncle to college, how even after Grandpa
was gone, my grandmother dug into her savings to help put one
granddaughter through college, another through vet school. And I thought
how insane it was to push and push their descendants from the soil as if
it were a menace and not the bearer of life.
And I thought of Grandma, more than
two decades after she had sold off Grandpa’s tractor, combine, plow, and
corn planter, how she clings to the land and the farm, even as her spine
crumbles, her eyesight fails, and her solid arms grow weak, how she
promises to die on that land before she’ll move to town. She is 86, and
she is ruthless and eternal, like the soil that has nurtured her. And try
as she would, she could not shake the soil from my parents’ hands,
anymore than she has been able to shake it from my own.
It clings like cockleburs — as does
the memory of that day I refused one last ride on Grandpa’s tractor.
Somehow it hadn’t seemed right then — to plod through the soil without
him. But now I have left the city far behind and returned to the rural
landscape of my childhood. And I am trying, acre by acre, to win that
moment back and reclaim the land that bled and nurtured my grandparents,
raised and educated my parents, and kept its chunky soil forever crusted
beneath my fingernails.
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