written by: Carl Parsons
As the spring of our senior year arrived, Jim, my farmer boyfriend, invited me out to Locust Hill again, this time to see his family’s farm. In fact, he invited me to dinner with his family. He picked me up, as he always did in those days, in his old Ford pickup, which seemed to have travelled a million miles already. The odometer had long since ceased to be reliable. The truck’s paint was a milky green—Jim called it “oxide verde.” It was the kind of truck with a long shift stick set in the floor and running boards from which, for our dates at least, Jim was always careful to clean the mud. Such a romantic guy!
He picked me up in the midafternoon and warned me to wear sturdy shoes so that we could walk around the farm. “Sturdy” was one of Jim’s favorite words. It was March, which can still be quite cold in West Virginia, so I wore dark brown leggings with my “sturdy” shoes under a short tan wool skirt complemented by my chocolate suede jacket.
As we approached the farm, we turned off the paved road onto a long gravel drive that divided in two parts the farm’s front fields. The drive curved in front of the farmhouse and ended at a freestanding aluminum carport (also oxide verde) that stood between the house and a barn. The farmhouse, barn, and vegetable gardens, all of which sat on fairly level ground, divided the arable fields in the front along Ridge Road from those in the back along Lost Creek, as I would later see. The front fields rose up to the house and barn from Ridge Road, while the rear fields fell gently away from them toward some fairly dense woods that then seemed to continue more steeply downhill into the hollow that held the creek. The barn, located to the right of the house, was a faded red with yellowish-white trim; it needed repainting. But given the size of the barn, I concluded that painting it would be a daunting task and perhaps even a dangerous one for Jim to take on by himself.
The house, however, though small, seemed very well-maintained. It was a white wood-frame farmhouse with two stories under a shiny metal roof on which sat two front-facing dormers. Chimneys stood at both sides of the house, smoke on this cold day rising from both of them. Several tall evergreen trees stood close behind the house. A porch stretched across the full length of the house’s front and then wrapped around the side facing the barn. On the other side of the house were raised-bed vegetable plots and what turned out to be a small pump house set over a water well that stood between the house and gardens. When we pulled into the carport, I could also see behind the barn a large pond, probably about one-half acre in size, with cattails growing along its margins and several white ducks floating on its dark brownish-green surface.
Jim and I climbed out of the old Ford and started down a flagstone pathway toward the side porch of the farmhouse where now his mother and sister appeared, flanked by a set of silent but very observant rough collies. Jim’s sister gave them a “stay” signal with her left hand. Behind them, firewood was neatly stacked on a platform against the wall of the house, and a large wrought iron triangle along with its clangor hung beside the porch’s rear corner posts.
Jim’s mom and sister stepped forward to greet us when we neared the porch. His mom was slight in stature with straight light brown hair that hung on her shoulders, all in all a pleasant-looking woman but one whose face, even though lighted right now by a soft warm smile, seemed worn with worry, the same look, I thought, that so often darkened Jim’s face. Slight hollows in her cheeks made her face seem almost gaunt. She wore a dark brown crocheted sweater and a rather long heavy black and white checked skirt. She kissed her son on the cheek, murmured his name as though it were a secret between them, and then turning to me, embraced me warmly and said in an accent more Southern than is typical of our area, “I’m so glad to meet you at last, Cassandra! Jim’s been keeping you to himself for way too long. Welcome to our farm. And here is Jim’s sister, Sandy.” Jim’s mom wrapped her arm about Sandy’s shoulders as she presented her.
“Hi, Cassie!” Sandy said while she gave me a hug as well. “I’m glad to see you too!” Sandy was a gawky thirteen-year-old, slender like her mom and with similar hair, but with a lot more energy and a brighter smile; she seemed quite anxious for us to be friends. She was wearing a gold-colored sweatshirt with a blue “WVU” logo and thick navy-blue wool slacks. “And these two fine critters over here are Lad and Lady,” Sandy added, gesturing toward the collies, who now sat obediently side by side under the triangle, their ears erect, their eyes bright, and their silky tails wagging at hearing their names. They were clearly eager to be noticed, so I went to them, knelt down, and offered them the back of my hand while asking, “Are they gentle, Sandy?”
“Oh yes,” she said eagerly. “They’re very gentle. And as soon as they see that one of us accepts you, they do too. And if all three of us accept you, they even know to protect you too because now you’re one of our pack.” By now, the collies had taken turns licking my hand, sniffing my jacket, circling me, and looking up at me with their soft brown eyes as if to say, “Hey, you’re okay! Now we’re friends forever!”
Then Jim gestured toward the barn and said to the dogs, “Okay guys, now that you’ve met Cassie, go back to the barn. Time to watch over Sandy’s broods.” With that, both collies, apparently understanding Jim’s every word, obediently trotted off down the path past the carport and on toward the barn. They soon disappeared through a canvas flap in the base of one of the barn’s double doors.
“They seem like really great dogs, Jim,” I offered, still looking in their direction.
“They really are. In fact, not only are they great companions, but I also don’t think we could run the farm without them, I can tell you that. Well, it’s cold out here; let’s go inside for a minute.” With that, gentleman Jim opened the door for his ladies, and we all entered. As we did, I thought, Now I see why Jim doesn’t try to be popular at school. He has no need for it. Here, at home, his mother and sister treat him with a special respect. He’s their breadwinner.
The side door led directly into the kitchen, which smelled wonderfully of pork chops and brown gravy and faintly of kerosene. The room was very warm. An old-fashioned wood burning stove, vented to the chimney behind it, was busily at work steaming pots and sizzling a skillet. The entire stove radiated heat, warming the room and making it feel wonderfully cozy on this cold day. The dining table nearby was already set; there was no separate dining room. On its white linen tablecloth were place-settings of ivory-colored plates decorated with twining green vines around their edges, upright glasses, and teacups, also with green vines at their rims, and simple pewter flatware placed on plain white cloth napkins. On a sideboard a kerosene lamp burned, giving the whole kitchen a comforting glow, even though there was still some daylight coming through the windows.
Uncertain about what was going to happen next, I spoke up. “It’s really lovely here, Mrs. Russell.”
“Thank you, Cassandra. We love it all—the house, the fields, and the woods.” Then she added rather sadly, “Even though it’s hard at times. But farm life’s never been easy. I guess nothing worthwhile in life ever is.”
After some more small talk, Jim intervened and said to me, “Don’t take off your jacket just yet, Cassie. I want to show you around the farm before dinner. We still have time, don’t we, Mom?”
“Time? Yes, time for a forty-minute tour, I’m guessing, while the potatoes roast. Everything else is about ready. So be quick about it, Jim. I just now put the potatoes in the oven. It’ll be getting dark soon anyway.”
With that, we were out the side door. Sandy, grabbing a quilted nylon jacket from a pegged coat rack beside the door, joined us.
“Might as well start with the barn,” Jim said as we trudged down the same path the collies had taken. As we approached the barn, I could see a fenced yard for the chickens with its back side against the barn. A small ramp let the chickens pass from the yard to their coop inside the barn. Jim opened one of the barn doors, swung it aside, and we entered to the heavy smell of old hay. There were Lad and Lady lying on a heap of fresh straw outside the chicken coop. Behind them was a large crate with their names wood-burned into a plaque fastened above its entrance.
Jim pointed to it and remarked, “Dogs love enclosures, even inside a barn. Must be an ancient reminder of their dens.”
“And comforting too, I’d think,” I added, “especially when they share the crate.”
Lad got up now and followed me about, as a reminder that he was on duty there, I suppose. Looking into the chicken coop, I could see a heating lamp hanging from the ceiling, the glow of it lighting that corner of the barn. Inside the coop a brightly colored rooster strutted about and clucked, annoyed by my curiosity.
“That’s my rooster, Wiz,” Sandy said excitedly, pointing at him. “He won a 4-H blue ribbon for me last fall. Best bird in the county!”
“Yes,” added Jim, “and now he thinks he owns the barn, farm, woods, and all he surveys. The avian king of Locust Hill! But don’t tell our neighbors, the Lowerys; they’ll be jealous.”
I continued looking about the barn as though I had just stepped into another world, for in truth I had. Nearby was a John Deere tractor; the various tools that hitched to it were set in a neat row to one side, awaiting their next call to duty. Beyond these tools, at the far corner of the barn, stood a door marked “Tool Shop” in letters burned into a simple wooden plaque, similar to the one on the collies’ crate. Another door was similarly marked “Mush-Room.” On the same side as the chicken coop but at the far end of the barn was the duck pen. There several of the ducks were entering from outside over a ramp similar to the one used by the chickens. That entire side of the barn was alive with soft peeps, clucks, quacks, and chirps, along with some odd whistling sounds nearby that I did not recognize. The whistles came from a coop between the chickens and the ducks. When I looked over the wooden wall into that area, I saw there strange looking grey and white birds with naked white heads and red wattles scratching at the straw while whistling and chirping to one another.
“Jim, what in the world are these birds, some kind of small turkeys? I know they aren’t chickens.” Sandy chuckled a bit at my ignorance but quickly stifled her mirth when Jim looked at her crossly.
He then stepped over to the pen and put his arm around my waist while looking down at the birds. “Those, honey, are guinea fowl, a type of African bird; they’re relatives of chickens.”
“I’ve never seen anything like them before.” Nor had Jim ever called me “honey” before. The arm work, however, wasn’t new.
He continued, “They also produce eggs and, like the chickens, can make a pretty tasty meal when their time comes, but they are valuable on a farm mostly because they eat so many harmful insects, so keeping a few of them around saves us from having to use insecticides to protect the vegetables. Truthfully, I probably couldn’t grow potatoes here without the guineas gobbling up the potato beetles, one of their favorite foods. And the guineas don’t require much maintenance either. In fact, in the warmer weather they only come into the barn because they know that Sandy has put out some grain and fresh water for them. Otherwise, they prefer to find their own food and cover.”
“Yeah,” Sandy interjected. “But Lad and Lady think the guineas should be in here at night, away from the foxes, coyotes, and feral cats and dogs, which we have plenty of out here in Locust Hill. So the collies try to round them up about sunset along with the chickens and ducks, no matter what time of year it is. And the guineas don’t like that much,” she added. “They always put up a big fuss, one that you can hear clear over to the house, even though the collies are just trying to protect them. The guineas don’t like pens or fences of any kind either, I can tell you that. Still, it’s no problem keeping them, since I have to feed and water the chickens and ducks anyway.” Sandy was just as enthusiastic about farm life as her brother, even sounding like him at times.
Jim next pointed overhead to a hayloft where a few bales were visible and said, “Not much hay left this time of year. Uncle Ed has taken most of it to feed his dairy cows during the winter. He’s our main customer. About time for Sandy and me to go up there and sweep out the loft. We’ll use the sweepings in our compost bins, which we’ll show you over by the vegetable gardens, on the other side of the house.”
Compost bins! Saving even scraps of hay! And he called me “honey.” And he put his arm around me, not that that part was so new, but he did it in front of his little sister! I didn’t miss out on any of this byplay even though I was in a daze induced by the strangeness of everything I was seeing in the barn, strange at least to a city girl like me. Suddenly I felt something moving across my ankles. Probably a snake, I thought as I jumped back—just my luck! But when I looked down, I found four cute grey tabby kittens rubbing against my ankles, mewing so softly that I hadn’t heard them above the guineas’ whistles. “So, you have cats too,” I exclaimed.
“Sure,” said Sandy. “Barn cats. Need them in a barn to keep out the mice and rats and snakes. They’re better at that than the collies. The parents of the kittens are right over there.” She pointed to a bench near the tractor. The mother cat had already leaped down from the bench and was moving in my direction to retrieve her kittens, probably because in my surprise I had sent one of them tumbling and mewing in the hay strewn on the barn floor. The tom, however, continued sitting on the bench in the twilight and just glared at me with his golden eyes. Apparently, it would take more than a few sniffs of my hands for us to become friends.
Mice and rats! Guineas! Cats and kittens! Good grief, I thought, so this is what farm life is like!
My tour guides next took me past some tall pine trees at the back of the house as we moved toward the vegetable gardens. Mounted atop a post was a bird feeder with chickadees, cardinals, titmice, and juncos swooping in, grabbing their tiny treasures, and flitting back to the safety of the nearby pine boughs against which the male cardinals seemed to become intensely red, despite the gradually declining sunlight behind us. Near the bird feeder was a second post with a weather station mounted on it. The rain gauge was empty even though it had rained the day before, so clearly someone tended it regularly. In addition to the pines, there were two smallish deciduous trees about to break into leaf and blossom.
“What kind of trees are these, guys?” I asked my tour guides.
Jim shook his fist at the trees comically. “Those are cherry trees,” he responded. “They cause me more trouble with insects and oil sprays than anything else on the farm. They always seem to have some kind of problem. But if a person persists, the cherries can be awfully good eating.”
“Especially in the tarts and pies that Mom makes,” Sandy quickly added.
When we reached the vegetable gardens on the far side of the house, I saw a tall pile of black dirt with steam coming from it beside three large wire bins and long rows of wooden boxes with slanted glass tops set on top of the tilled soil, all facing west.
Puzzled at this arrangement, I asked, “What’s going on here, Jim?”
“This steamy stuff is cow manure that Uncle Ed brings over from his dairy farm just across Ridge Road. He partially composts it there and then brings here what he doesn’t use on his own farm. I work it into these compost bins you see here,” Jim pointed to the row of wire bins, “and then use some of it on these vegetable plots; the rest I spread on the fields. Sandy also adds the straw and guano from the bird coops you saw in the barn. We also put our kitchen scraps into the compost bins.”
“Okay, I think I understand the composting part,” I said, “but what about all these rows of boxes sitting on the ground? What are they?”
“Those are cold frames, honey.” There, I thought, he said it again! “I use them to grow lettuce and spinach and other cold weather crops while it’s still too cold for them to grow in the open air during the spring and fall. Can’t afford a regular greenhouse yet.” The he added wistfully, “Someday maybe.”
Walking over to the nearest cold frame, Jim opened it and pointed inside, “Here, Cassie, look at the spinach.” I bent over, peered inside the cold frame, and sure enough, there was an abundance of beautiful deep-green, crinkled spinach leaves despite the fact that the morning had been quite frosty.
“But surely you guys don’t eat all of the lettuce and spinach growing here yourselves,” I said.
“Oh no, not all. In fact, we eat only a small portion of it ourselves. For example, tonight we’ll have a spinach salad for supper along with some mushrooms that we grow in a warm dark room inside the barn. But all the rest we sell.”
“Ah, I’ll bet you grow the mushrooms in the ‘Mush-Room’ I saw,” I said, grasping his arm with both my hands. Since he was being so chummy, I thought I’d encourage him a little more.
“That’s right,” Jim laughed and seemed pleased that I had taken his arm. He put his gloved hand over one of mine. “You like my wood-burned signs?”
“I do,” I said, “I really do,” and smiled a flirty smile at him.
But immediately he went back to business. “Well, most of the vegetable crops we sell to local grocers. You’ve probably bought our Locust Hill produce plenty of times without even knowing it, if you shop at any of the independent grocers in Parkeston. Either way—as a cash crop or as our own harvest—these fields are what put food on our table. And these compost bins help us keep the soil fertile.”
By now I was completely amazed. Even this early in the spring the Russell farm was a busy place. No wonder Jim didn’t get A grades in all his classes. While the rest of us were too often guilty of just ignoring our studies, he, by contrast, simply didn’t have time for all of them.
As we walked back toward the house, Jim turned to Sandy and said, “Why don’t you see if Mom needs some help now with supper. I want to show Cassie the east fields and the woods down by the creek.”
Sandy started to protest but stopped suddenly as though she had just remembered something. Then knowingly she said, “Sure, Jim, but don’t be too long. Remember what Mom said.” Laughing, she waggled her finger at him in a sign of caution. Jim frowned a bit. “Okay,” she added, “I’ll ring the triangle for you two when supper’s ready.”
With that, Sandy hurried toward the house, while Jim and I, holding hands now, walked through the back fields toward the woods using a rutted tractor path that was sprouting now with early spring grasses and violets. At the edge of the fields was a long row of brambles, their canes extending across the breadth of the fields as far as I could see but opened to a foot path that continued where the tractor path ended. Some of the canes were reddish with small sharp thorns protecting them; others appeared grey, dried, even dead. Together they made a nearly impenetrable tangle except for the opening to the footpath.
“These are our blackberry canes,” Jim said when he noticed me staring at them. “Would you believe they are related to roses?” He pointed to them as we walked through the opening and continued down the footpath. “Blackberries fetch us some extra money in the early summer without a whole of work other than picking the berries. But thinning and pruning the canes once a year to keep them productive is not one of my favorite jobs, I have to admit, and it’s about time to do it again. Even with leather gloves and long sleeves, I end up with lots of thorn cuts and scratches.”
“You poor boy!” I said. “You should hire a nurse.”
“Yes, sometimes I wish I had one,” he responded as though actually he meant it.
The descent down the footpath from the fields into the hollow was a bit steep in places, but the path tacked back and forth through the trees, making the walk longer but easier. Even as a city girl, I had learned that you don’t walk straight up and down West Virginia hills. The woods were thick with deciduous trees, the buds of which had only started to swell. A few cedars and pines also stood along the hillside, casting long solid shadows down toward the creek.
“What kinds of trees do you have here in the woods, Jim?”
“Mostly maples, honey locusts, hickories, and black walnuts—all of them signs that the soil here is fertile, I’m happy to say. The locusts are good for making fence posts, although nearly everyone uses metal posts these days. And the walnuts, well, we gather those in the fall and sell them. Of course, the squirrels compete with us for the walnuts and hickory nuts, so you won’t see many nuts left on the ground here by this time of the year. There are also some redbuds, dogwoods, and sassafras. Those are the smaller trees you see here and there along the edge of the woods. The redbuds and dogwoods will be blooming soon. You’ll want to come back to the farm to see them; they’re really spectacular in the spring, while autumn is the showy time for the sassafras with its orange leaves.” In fact, I could see that some of the redbuds were already starting to show promising tinges of reddish-purple color.
The path ended at the hill’s base, where the creek flowed into a rather wide circular brown pool, about ten feet in diameter, before bubbling over a cascade of stones to our right. Beside the pool was a rough-hewn log bench with fresh wood chips strewn around it. The cuts on the log bench also looked fresh. Budding trees leaned over the pool and bench from all directions. Violets and tiny, blue-blossomed speedwell covered the bank beyond the wood chips. In the summer, I thought as I looked around, this spot must be completely shaded. Right now, only the trees high up on the opposite bank were still directly in the sunlight.
“Does this creek have a name, Jim?” I asked.
“Yes, it’s called Lost Creek because, as it flows through the Lowery farm to the north of us, that is the farm upstream, not Williams farm down the other way,” he said while pointing first in one direction and then the other, “it disappears for about a hundred yards or so where it flows through a cave. I think there must be a deep pool in the cave also, probably deeper than this one here, because the water comes out very cold, even in the summer. Too bad all this water is at the bottom of the hill, makes it impractical to use it for irrigation. So, Dad had two other wells drilled on the farm in addition to the one we use for the house. Fortunately, the water table sits high here, so the wells don’t have to be very deep. People in Locust Hill like to joke that you can dig a well here with a stick.”
Then we sat on the bench, silent at first, with both of us just staring across the brown pool, which still had traces of ice at its margins in spots missed by the sun. It was colder and darker by the creek, and the frost of our breaths now mingled in front of us before drifting over the pool and disappearing. Jim turned toward me and spoke, rather wistfully, “Dad and I used to come down here on hot days when we had been working these back fields. It was always so cool and shady. I love this spot, even on a cold spring day like this one.”
“Well, I can see why, Jim,” I replied with my voice hushed now, just like his, as though we were in church. “It’s so quiet and peaceful here. Seems like you’re protected from all the harm in the world just sitting here,” I added. “And the sound of the water, it’s wonderful! In fact, I think your whole farm is wonderful, Jim. I’ve never seen such a place! But it has to be too much work for you to do by yourself, even if you weren’t in school.”
“That’s true, it is a lot of work” he said quietly. “But I’ve hired a local fellow, Javier Ramirez, to help me. I think I told you about him. He’s the son of the family that runs El Caballito.”
“Yes, I remember.”
“He also works there as a busboy and waiter for his family’s cantina. He’s out of school now and was looking for some extra work. He’s going to be a big help, I think, once he learns what to do.”
“But can you afford his help? I mean financially, can you afford it?”
“I think so. Mathematically I can, as long as we have good harvests. For certain I can’t afford to be without his help anymore. Plus, Javier has agreed that part of his pay will be a percentage of the farm’s profits. So, in a bad year, neither one of us will make as much, and in good ones we’ll both make more. He already helped me build those cold frames you saw. We knocked those out in just two days in the little tool shop over there in the barn. Without him, it would have taken me several weeks to do them and even them some schoolwork wouldn’t have gotten done. So, you’re right; I do need help here, I have to admit it.”
Then I added, “Also you’re both so young to be running a farm as a business.”
“Maybe, but you grow up in a hurry if you have to, Cassie.” Jim spoke these words firmly, forcefully.
Another silence ensued. I could tell Jim had something serious on his mind, something more to say that he was hesitant to tell me. Then, slowly, he took my hands, pressed his around them and said, “Cassie, I have something I want you to think about . . . I think we should get married.”
“Married!” I sputtered. I needed my hands back now. “But, Jim, we’re still in high school. We’re both just barely nineteen! My parents would never allow me. My mother would completely disown me!”
“I know, I understand all that. And, besides, I don’t mean right away. I mean when we’re ready, in a few years, after college maybe. I just want you to think about it now. And, most of all, I want you to realize how much I love you. I know this kind of life—farm life—is probably not what you’ve planned, and I know you date other boys, but I think we’d be great together. And deciding now to marry would allow us to plan our lives better, make better choices. After all, successes don’t happen just by chance; they have to be planned. And what success could be more important than our marriage?” He had obviously put a lot of thought and emotion into this speech, and when he had finished it, he kissed me, pulled me close to him and kissed me, warmer and longer than he ever had before. And I wanted him to.
But then I put my hands on his chest and said, “Okay, Jim, I’ll think about it. I really will.” I didn’t know what else to say just then, his proposal being such a surprise.
“You should also know that I won’t be able to go off to the university right away. I’ll need to spend the first two years of college here in town at the local campus. That way I can still look after the farm while Javier is learning what to do, and I’ll have longer to save for college. Besides, I need to save for Sandy’s education as well.”
As always, what Jim said made good, practical sense. Obviously, he had been thinking about this moment for some time, but if I said yes to him, I thought, it would be hard for us to be separated for perhaps four years of college. Very hard.
Then we heard Sandy ringing the dinner triangle. I took off my glove and used my thumb to quickly wipe my lipstick from Jim’s mouth, as we both laughed. Then we started back up the hill toward the house, again hand-in-hand. As we went, I thought, compared to Jim’s life, my own has been totally frivolous and misdirected.
When we reached the top of the hill and passed back through the break in the blackberry canes, Sandy, who was still methodically ringing the triangle, caught sight of us and waved with the clangor in her right hand. “Hurry up, you guys! Supper’s almost ready,” she called and then retreated into the warmth of the kitchen, leaving the clangor dancing on its twine.
The meal was wonderful—the pork chops in rich peppery gravy and the roasted potatoes speckled with rosemary. “Grown right here,” Sandy was quick to say. And more, the sautéed mushrooms and the spinach salad, just as Jim predicted. Then came a blackberry pie, and by now even I could announce where its berries came from. Only the pork chops did not originate on the Russell farm but came from a slaughtered hog raised by the Nestlerodes, neighbors on the other side of the Williams’s farm. All of the Locust Hill farm families seemed to regard each other as neighbors, even ones like the Lowerys and Cunninghams and Russells, who were ancient rivals, whereas in the city we mostly restricted the term neighbor to those living right next door to us. Somebody living nearly a mile away was not only a stranger but might as well be from another planet.
Throughout the meal I kept wondering how much Jim had told his mother and Sandy about us. Had he told them that he was going to propose to me? Is that what Sandy’s teasing gesture meant? I couldn’t tell for sure, but I guessed that he had. When we had re-entered the house, his mom had only joked about Jim’s “showing off” the farm as the cause of our being “a bit late to the table” and the roasted potatoes being extra crispy. But I guessed she knew the real reason.
After supper I offered to help with the cleanup and washing of the dishes, but Jim’s mom insisted that such was by no means a guest’s work and that Jim was going to help her because Sandy wanted to show me her 4-H awards.
So off we went, Sandy and I, out of the kitchen, through the small living room, and up a narrow flight of stairs closed off from the living room by a door at the bottom.
“Sandy, why do you have a door at the bottom of your stairwell?” I asked as she climbed up the stairs ahead of me.
“Well, the house used to be very drafty, and we only had kerosene heaters for some of the rooms. The door cut down on drafts; lots of the farmhouses in Locust Hill have them, but I guess we could take this one down now that the house has gas heat and it’s better insulated. Just haven’t done it; crops come first. Those old kerosene heaters really smelled and made you dizzy and droopy if you didn’t keep a window cracked open. But then that only let more cold air inside, which went straight down the stairs into the living room and kitchen. So finally, when we had an especially good harvest, Dad and Jim built a utility room at the rear of the house and put a natural gas furnace back there with ducts to all the rooms. Cost a whole lot to do it in this old farmhouse, but it was the second-best improvement we ever made.”
“Oh, and what was the first?”
“Bathrooms with running water!” Sandy exclaimed. “They’re wonderful! Sure beats carrying water from a cistern and trotting outside on cold nights to an outhouse.” And indeed, at the top of the stairs, partitioned off from the hallway as though it had been an afterthought, was a tiny bathroom.
The upstairs was actually more of a finished attic than a true second floor. The ceilings were low and slanted rather steeply toward the back of the house, a feature not at all apparent to me when we approached the house from Ridge Road. I guessed that these bedrooms must be hot in the summer. In addition to the tiny bathroom, the second floor accommodated only Jim and Sandy’s bedrooms, separated by the stairwell, a small landing, and the bathroom. Sandy’s room was brightly decorated with yellow curtains at the dormer window and a bright orange bedspread that almost glowed inside the white walls. There was no room for a closet, but she had an armoire, a small chest-of-drawers, a tiny worktable on which some schoolbooks rested, and a nightstand in addition to her twin bed. The far wall was virtually covered with 4-H prize ribbons. Sandy’s pride in them was brimming over as she explained each one to me. “Jim got this one for biggest pumpkin two years ago. I got this one for my sewing and this one is for my blackberry jam and over here is the ribbon that Wiz won. The ribbon’s nearly as big as he is!”
“You sew in addition to keeping the chickens and ducks—and Whiz?” I asked.
“And the guineas too, don’t forget them.”
“Oh yes, the guineas. I just couldn’t think of their name.”
“Yes, I sew a lot of things,” she continued. By now Sandy was virtually bouncing up and down with excitement. “Here let me show you. I made this blouse.” She opened the armoire and pulled out a simple but neat long sleeved white cotton blouse. While I was admiring its even stitching, she pointed to the yellow curtains, saying, “And I made those. And most of all, I made this!” Then she flopped backwards onto the orange bedspread with her arms extended wide.
“Well, you certainly are a talented seamstress.” I gave her a hug when she rose from the bed. “And you deserve to be proud of these ribbons,” I said with sincerity, although I noticed that quite a few of them were actually Jim’s. Sandy, however, didn’t seem to distinguish between her own accomplishments and those of her big brother, taking equal pride in both.
Then she said in a tone more serious than I expected from a thirteen-year-old, “Did you like the supper? I think Mom is a great cook, don’t you?” I’ll bet she is in on the proposal conspiracy! I thought to myself.
“Why yes, I really do. I loved the supper, and I think you’re absolutely right about your mom’s cooking. I can easily imagine that she could win a blue ribbon for her cooking.”
“Oh, she did when she was a girl. She lived on a farm too, over in Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. They have 4-H there, too, same as here in West Virginia. She met my dad when he was delivering some dairy cows from Uncle Ed’s farm to her family . . . but that was a long time ago.”
This last thought clearly saddened her, no doubt causing her to recall her father’s sudden death just two years earlier, so I hurried to change the subject. “Do you like school, Sandy? Are you planning on college?”
“I love school,” she said with renewed enthusiasm. “Jim and I both plan to go to college. And if we do, we’ll be the first ones in our family to go. The first ones ever!”
“Good,” I said. “I hope you do. Now, before we go back downstairs, do you think it would be all right if I sneaked a quick look at Jim’s room?”
“Sure. He won’t mind, especially if we don’t tell him,” she giggled. “It’s right over here.”
She led me across the landing to Jim’s room where the door was already opened. Inside was none of the mess my parent often complained about finding in my room. The walls of the room were painted a pale blue and the ceiling white. The baseboard and single window frame were also white. On the natural wood floor was a simple dark blue rug beside Jim’s bed. The bed itself was neatly made and covered with a blue spread that was a close but inexact match to the rug’s color and texture. Like Sandy, Jim had an armoire and chest-of-drawers but no closet. Across the room by the dormer window was his small desk. On it was his trigonometry textbook along with some notebook paper, various pens and pencils, and of course his slide rule, the slide extended as though the instrument had been put down in the middle of a problem. The room was truly a reflection of Jim himself—practical, understated, and completely functional. Then I looked back toward the bed. I had missed something! Above the bed was a simple wooden crucifix. It had never occurred to me! He’d never said anything, and I had never thought to ask.
“Sandy,” I said while still staring at the crucifix, “where do you go to church?”
“Why, we go to St. Benedict’s in town, on Market Street. Jim was a crucifer there for five years.”
“A crucifer?” I asked. “What’s that?”
“That’s the boy who carries the cross into the church at the start of Mass and out again at the end. He also assists the priest during holy communion. It’s quite an honor. How about you, Cassie? Where do you go?”
I hesitated a moment before answering. “My mom and I go to a Baptist church near our house. Dad never goes with us, though, and I miss a lot of Sundays myself.”
As Jim was driving me back home that night, I said to him, “I didn’t know you’re Catholic, Jim. Why don’t you go to the Catholic high school in town? I hear it’s a good school.”
“Can’t afford it,” he said simply. “Besides, I like our public school just fine. Also, no bus service to the Catholic High from way out here, so I would have to drive and that would cost even more money and would leave Mom without the truck to use during the day.”
“But I thought you were the practical boy who hates abstractions. Isn’t Catholicism pretty abstract?”
“I suppose in a lot of ways it is. All religions are, if you focus on just the theology. But when you stand inside a Catholic church, you’re surrounded by the visible symbols of faith, much more so than in other kinds of churches. And those symbols aren’t abstract. The cross I carried as a crucifer wasn’t abstract. It was a real thing, and everyone who saw it knew what it meant.”
“Yes, Sandy mentioned you’re being a crucifer.” Then I persisted, “Okay, but isn’t all that just idol worship really, bowing to altars and so forth?”
“Cassie, did you ever write down something important that you wanted to remember?” His voice had gotten quite serious but also very calm.
“I guess so, but so what?”
“And did you put the note in a place where you were bound to see it, to remind you of what you needed to do?”
“Yes, but what’s that got to do with anything we’re talking about? I don’t see where you are going with this, Jim.”
“This is the same thing,” he said patiently. “Those symbols in St. Benedict’s are important reminders about various aspect of our faith—the windows, the incense, the altar bell, the cross, the candles, the Stations of the Cross.” I was silent after that and somewhat perplexed. Always practical answers from Jim, even about religion!
Then after a long pause, he asked me, “Is my family’s being Catholic a problem for you, Cassie?”
“Might be,” I answered truthfully. “Oh, not for me so much and not for my dad either, but probably for my mom. She swallows her Baptist piety pills every so often, usually at the wrong times, and then she can be quite hard to deal with. But that’s my problem, not yours.”
“No, honey, if it’s your problem, then it’s mine too. But what about you? Are you sure Catholicism is not a problem for you?”
“No, no, it’s not. It’s just another thing about you I’m not familiar with—like farming.”
“Anything I can do to help? I can’t stop being Catholic.”
“No, and I don’t expect you to change. Don’t want you to, in fact.”
Since curiosity about this evening was getting the better of me, I also asked him if he had discussed his proposal with his mom.
“Sure did, I wouldn’t do something so important without telling her first.” Then he apologized for not mentioning that while we were down by the creek.
“When you told your mom, Jim, what did she say, if you don’t mind telling me?”
“She said, ‘Cassandra must be a wonderful girl if you’re so sure about her. Please ask her to supper so Sandy and I can get to know her too.’” He paused again and then said, “I just wish Dad could have been there to meet you. I think you two would have gotten along great.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” I said softly and thought to myself, especially if your dad was anything like you.
Then after another silence Jim continued, “I think we need to discuss our plans with your parents next.” I froze. I didn’t respond to him at all. “Don’t you think so?” he persisted. “That is, if your answer is yes.”
I still didn’t reply directly, but said, “I have to warn you, Jim, if we do, there’ll be resistance, especially from my mom. I’m sure of it.”
“That’s okay,” he said, unfazed. “Better to work these things out now rather than deal with them later. But you obviously know your parents better than I do, so we’ll go by what you say.”
When we arrived at my home, we sat in the truck for a few minutes, as we usually did, to kiss goodnight. I started to open the truck door after we had kissed, but I stopped and looked at him again.
“Jim, did you put that bench down by the creek for me? It looked new.”
“Yes,” he said quietly. “Built it last week.”
“And the fresh wood chips around it?”
“Came from the bench logs.”
I leaned over and kissed him again. “Jim, I don’t need any more time. My answer is yes.” I now realized that he was quite a romantic guy after all.
- Locust Hill: Chapter XII - May 7, 2023
- Locust Hill: Chapter XI-II - April 6, 2023
- Locust Hill: Chapter XI-I - March 5, 2023