The Kitchen Table

The kitchen table supported cups of hot coffee and slices of Swedish rye bread. It provided the stage, on which the tales of the 6-year-old grandson pranced about at play. They were tales brimming with his view of grandpa's work of the farm. His grandpa sat, listening to what his routine looked like through much younger eyes. In between tales of the day, the grandson sampled the strong coffee, cooled and diluted with canned half-and-half. If it was too hot, he poured in onto the saucer as his grandpa did. As he talked, grandpa would finish up another piece of homemade apple pie and then pack and light his pipe. The aroma of Prince Albert fought for dominion over those of the food that reluctantly surrendered the field. Grandma would begin to put covers over the bowls of food and white clothes over that which could sit out. The white clothes kept the every present, pesky flies that were part of rural farm life off the bread and butter.

There was no hurry now. The evening chores were done. The garden was weeded. The beans were snapped. The sun was about to hide among the rows of corn. Time for stories to be told, oral histories to be planted. Some not to be harvested for decades later, details eroded by the passage of time.

Outside, the sun was setting, it's work also done for the day. The corn leaves quieted and stored their tales till morning when the breeze would carry them down the row. The evening breeze left, traveling west, in pursuit of the sun. A Santa Fe train sounded its horn as it approached the unguarded crossing at the road. It was bound southwest. Perhaps it too was chasing the sun and wind. It carried urban folks bored by the endless fields and the clacking of the wheels on the tracks. Black porters in white coats were serving dinner. A salesman looked out the railcar window at the small farmhouse, an island in a sea of corn. He wished to be elsewhere. His mind briefly probed what the sessile life of a farmer must be. The train and time passed on.

The gravel road was infrequently traveled. The train caused no backup of traffic. It was this road that provoked the train whistle, any time, day or night. The grandson knew the road. It led to Galesburg or to Lake Bracken. Beyond that, it could be the end of the universe. He could sit on the back porch and watch the infrequent car go by and see the white plume wash the air behind the car. Gravel pinged against the underside of the car. The dust washed against the corn field shores.

His grandparents' car sat in an old shed. The shed doors were long off their rollers so the gape was eternal. Sparrows haunted the upper reaches of the shed, making indifferent art of white and maroon ''splots'' on the green Chevy. Nearby, the old windmill spun but no longer worked the piston pump well that stood on the edge of the lawn. The windmill was a source of entertainment for the boy. The parts moving first round and round and nearer to earth they moved up and down. The wind blew, the parts moved, but no gainful work was accomplished. It was a machine ahead of its time.

Near the fence, the unpainted but functional outhouse quietly waited to perform its task. A few feet beyond, the hogs were always present in the mud or dust, as weather dictated. The boy, under the watchful eyes of his grandmother fed garden rejects to the pigs. Little was wasted on the farm.

The rejects came from the large garden further to the east. It gave birth to tomatoes, potatoes, sweet corn, green beans, cucumbers, onions, watermelons and a variety of flowers. While grandpa toiled in the corn, soybean, and hay fields, grandma and grandson weeded, hoed and gratefully accept what the garden offered in return.

At nightfall, it was time for bed. Work came early, with the sunrise. The grandson slept on the living room couch. At night, the trains seemed closer; the horn more mournful at night. The destination more remote. The horn would cry out against the darkness. The locomotive's light would lash from side to side, the sweeping light penetrated the room as if the train was looking for the boy. He would rise up and peak over the top of couch, ducking down to avoid the sweep of the light. The train was both an attraction and something to be feared. He didn't know why. He only knew.

If the weather were bad, he'd be in the house with grandma. They'd play canasta or carefully dust the several hundred pairs of salt shakers displayed along two walls of the small living room. It appeared to be her one luxury- her salt and pepper collection. Most were gifts from friends, bought at tacky gift shops along now-forgotten two-lane roads. They came from Florida, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota- wherever family, friends, and neighbors traveled for vacation. Infinite themes were represented, constrained only by the number two. Fat man and thin woman; mouse and cheese; dog and fire hydrant; a black puppy and a white kitten; boots and umbrella, matching ears of corn, marked with an ''S'' and a ''P.''

The grandson would tell the tales of the day to whichever grandparent who hadn't shared it with him. His grandpa would come in from the morning's work and wash his hands, forearms and face, using lava soap. The wash water came from the hand pump located at the end of the sink in the kitchen. After a few short strokes of the handle, cold, fresh water would rush into the white enamel wash basin.

There were meat and potato meals, mashed, not baked. The meat was well done, and the vegetables still had memories of the morning sun, burning off the night's dew. His grandpa's hands seemed too big, fingers too thick to handle the small china coffee cups and silverware. These were hands evolved over years of manual farming, thrashing, picking corn by hand. In later years, these hands fought with early farm equipment, unclogging cornpickers, fighting the twine or wires on hay bailers. Not many generations back, the hands would have been washing Swedish soil from themselves. The land was different, the toil was the same.

His grandpa's stories were few. He was soft-spoken and had little to say. Years of working alone in the fields and along noisy farm equipment had taken its toll. Even on those days when neither of the adults spoke much, the kitchen table told silent tales. Mason jar of sweet pickles, relishes, and watermelon rinds recalled the sun, wind, and rains of the previous summer. They stood in silent testament of the faith of his grandparents that next year would come. And it had. Now as last year's garden was enjoyed at the kitchen table, this year's garden is busy. Soil had been tilled, seeds planted, rows weeded. Insects were sprayed, rows were thinned and hoed. Plants grew, providing fresh reward for the kitchen table on the summer day and preserved summer sunlight for the winter.

His grandpa was to have been a minister. He was named Wesley, educated, and taught how to play the violin. But grandpa chose a different path from that envisioned by his father. He farmed till he could farm no more. Grandma followed him a few years later. Their graves are not far from the land they farmed.

The sun rises. The dew evaporates. The breeze carries whispers of memories down the rows of corn. A train travels west, following the sun. The kitchen table sits barren and silent.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online October 13, 1999

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