The Man with the Yam

This past Sunday, Preacher Daryl told us that grumbling and complaining is a sin as a friend of mine sunk lower in the pew after posting a Facebook rant about donuts, “Why are there no donuts shops open on Sunday morning?” Which made me think of Garrison Keillor’s story about the man who wrote a check hurriedly as the collection plate was being passed realizing later that he had forgotten to place a decimal in his number and the $100 became $10000. He wondered if he would be struck by lightning if he asked for the check back so he could void it and write another. Which is how most of us feel after grumbling on Facebook. We want our words back, a chance to re-write the check.

How would I ever explain Facebook to my grandparents? Their face book was newspaper clippings on a cork board secured by a push-pin where I once spotted my grandpa holding a gigantic yam. The caption read, “The man with the yam.”

Jesse Suit Tie

The Man with the Yam

I only knew him the last few years of his life, long after his hair had receded like plowed soil blowing hot across the Oklahoma plains. Grandpa Jesse in his youth looked like Henry Fonda in the Grapes of Wrath except with a fishing pole and less angry.  He went to California in the 1950’s to escape the pollen and dust of the Oklahoma Panhandle. He returned from California in the 1960’s when I was a boy.

Jesse Coffee Machine

Grandpa Jesse with his coffee vending machine

That picture of the man with the yam made me think that he was superhuman, all Popeye and spinach, I yam what I yam. Now my wife grows yams and tomatoes and kale and it is hard work making me realize how difficult it must have been to be a farmer, a dairy man with a herd of milk cows on the plains of Oklahoma when hard times were the worst hard times.

Grandpa Jesse married Mildred the year after the stock market crash of 1929, just as drought and perpetual plowing turned winter wheat into desolation and dreams into dust. The dust bowl still impacts how I eat a chicken leg. Grandma Mildred often chastised me for not eating efficiently, taking from my plate a mostly denuded chicken leg and gnawing it down to the gristle as if it were a sin to leave meat on the bone. I think of her still when I eat chicken…and when I begin to grumble about how difficult life is.

Grandma wrote prose like she ate a chicken leg, gnawing the subject down to the marrow,  sharing only the essentials in a letter she penned about her life as if to say modern folks know nothing about multi-tasking. She reduced the birthdays of six children into a single rich sentence.

“When my babies were born, they were delivered by Dr. Smith, who was also a vet and a dentist.”

My grandparents always had an eye on the heavens while living close to the good earth as they plowed it, gardened it, drilled water wells into it, and in the worst times of drought and wind they inhaled it. They made their living on a harsh landscape with the promise of better days. When Grandpa died, I was nine-years old and I remember Grandma Mildred describing his passing to a lady from our church as I walked up the stairs of our home. I was amazed that adults spoke about death and I dreamed of Grandpa for several months after that and once I saw him in the closet by my bed late one night. I was never afraid, but I did wonder if I was nutty or perhaps heaven had a revolving door with hall passes.

One afternoon not long before he died, Grandpa picked me up at school and asked me to help him. I sat beside him in his Ford truck as we drove to Woodland Park where he was working on a house. He said, “Can you stick your arm into that hole in the wall and pull out that wire?” I told him sure. But after trying for several minutes, I gave up. I had failed. He drove me home and as I was getting out of the truck, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a quarter, handed it to me and said, “Thanks.” I walked to the porch and sat down, watching my Grandpa drive away. He never made me feel that I had failed, and the quarter was his way of saying so, gratitude replacing grumbling even in the midst of a failed venture.

Mildred Fishing 2017

Mildred fishing

I’m not aware of any writing that Grandpa passed along, but Grandma wrote about her life for posterity at the behest of her children. Here is part of what she wrote:

My sister Ida and I walked two miles to…school. Mother, in later years, often told me I started out crying and came home crying. The winters were very cold. We also had to help milk cows before we left for school and again at night. As we girls had no older brothers, we worked alongside our Dad doing chores, field work and gardening. Dad always raised hogs and cattle. He would work in the fields until dark and then chores had to be done. I was eighteen years old and going to high school at a state school in Goodwell, Oklahoma when I met my husband to be. My mother’s mother developed cancer in February 1930 and as Mother was her only daughter, she needed to go care for her…I was brought home from school to take Mother’s place caring for Georgie, Essie and Wesley, besides chores, cooking, etc. Grandmother passed away in May. Because of this time out of school, I did not get to graduate from high school. Doctors in those days were not readily available and their knowledge was limited. I suppose they learned a lot of what they knew from reading medical books…

I never heard them complain much, except when I wore my short shorts. Maybe Grandpa complained about hard times to the dairy cows early in the morning while milking them, but Mom and her siblings told me that they never heard their daddy speak ill of another person nor complain to the cows or anyone else. And if he complained or griped about his lot in life, that too must have blown away with the dust. I thought that was remarkable. Maybe she just wasn’t around him enough. Or perhaps there really are people in the world who are like Grandpa…I hope so.

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