The Taste of Earth


by Deborah Huso, Contributing Writer

Deborah Huso

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 dark soybeans.

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 neighboring farms.

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 mornings.

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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