The iniquities of the father are visited on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate g-d, our minister said. In the buckboard Aunt Em explained what iniquity meant, and I felt so proud to learn such an impressive word, for I was still small, Little Dottie they called me. I believed everything the minister said, but this particular warning meant little to me, for my uncle had taken me by the shoulders after I arrived and said quite plainly that although we were family I wasn’t his child, but only his niece. His child, he said, was with the Lord now. It wasn’t the lessons from those Sunday sermons that stuck with me anyway, it was the warmth that filled me when I thought of g–d’s love, and the infinite mercy of the lamb of g–d.
We had lambs on the farm. They grazed in the tall grass, and in the springtime they bounced like cotton balls among the bluebells and purple coneflowers I’d gather for Aunt Em. And I’d bounce with them. I was knee high to a grasshopper, as Aunt Em said, so no one could see me in the tall grass. When we got tired, and the sunflower sun beat hard down upon us, the lambs and I rested beneath the twisted old apple tree in the middle of the alfalfa field, the only shade tree in that part of the farm. I cuddled the lambs and nursed them from a bottle. When Aunt Em made me stop, saying, quite correctly, that it would put them off their feeding, I put my finger in their mouths and felt my love flowing through me like milk.
One day Uncle was setting fence posts as I cuddled the lambs. He wiped the sweat from his brow and said with a voice that he failed to make soft that I should get back to work. Aside from working in my ABC primer, my work consisted of tending our kitchen vegetable garden, fetching water, and helping Auntie however I could. I obliged my uncle because he was right, and he hadn’t asked for my mouth to feed. There was much work to do, for the field hands—we had had three for years, right after the war, when prices were high—had lit out for better pay. “Greener pastures,” Auntie explained with a sad patient sigh. Her words confused me because our pasture looked so lovely and green, a sea of tall grasses that waved at me in a personal way. I had felt betrayed because the men were my friends, but Auntie explained that you couldn’t blame them, we were behind in their wages and had been often, and they’d stayed with us as long as they could. Judge not, Little Dot, lest ye be judged. I knew she was right, and repented of my pride.
A year or two later, Auntie and Uncle sat in the glow of the oil lamp and in low worried voices spoke cold words like foreclosure and bankrupt. Uncle tightened his fist around the fruit jar that held his apple jack, and Aunt Em touched his hand as if to say not too much, dear Henry, though she never would chastise him out loud.
It had long been her custom to call him Dear Henry, but she had done so mostly in earlier years, and in lighter moods. When Uncle matched her light mood he’d sing how shall I fix it, dear Liza? Little Dot in those years would act out the song with a real wooden bucket, and we’d laugh as if our home was the world and a wonderful place. These days Aunt only brought Dear Henry out as a tool.
Uncle Henry had fought in the war, and Aunt Em told me he’d been a doughboy. On the porch on summer nights she’d tell me about the church social where he first spoke to her. He was the handsomest thing, she said, a tall Kansas boy just back from the war, and in uniform, too. He turned all the girls’ heads. His hair was golden like corn, and his eyes were alight with goodness and truth. She said that he was a good Christian boy, a hard worker, and played “The Tennessee Waltz” on his grandfather’s cornet. I clung to that image as the years passed. Uncle refused to talk about the war though I begged him to do so, so Auntie talked to me when we put up fruit. It’s a hard thing to fight against evil, Dottie. It sneaks into men’s hearts, it sneaks into their homes like the winter wind through the chinks in the timbers. Life is a battle of good against evil, and fighting evil is the Christian thing to do. There is simply no choice. Sometimes on Sundays she’d play “Onward Christian Soldiers” on the broken–down piano in our parlor, and she’d sing as loud and clear as she did in church, when I was so proud to sit next to her.
“War’s fine for them’s never fought `em,” Uncle Henry said in a hard bitter voice the one time he ever did speak on the subject.
When I was still Little Dot, I couldn’t stop thinking about how Uncle had been a doughboy. And from the time I was tall enough to reach the kitchen counter when I was about four, until I was seven, my little girl’s imagination told me that Uncle Henry must have been a baker in the war. I imagined him baking pies and bread for the brave Christian soldiers that fought The Hun as I helped roll out the dough for the apple pie we made from that one apple tree in the alfalfa field, or the Granny Smith trees in the back orchard.
There was more talk of bad prices from overproduction, and when I was ten we sold the piano and Auntie’s walnut washstand. Again fearful words were uttered at night: Foreclosure. Bankruptcy.
Uncle borrowed from kin though it killed him to do so, and sold all our stock and the rest of our good furniture except my mother’s bureau, because Aunt Em crossed her arms and said, over my dead body. Uncle glared at her and she clutched her heart. I worried because I knew what a heart attack was, because Auntie Em had told me that Mr. Burnham, who grew wheat, corn, rye, and seven kinds of apples, including two that he’d cultivated himself, had died of a heart attack. Years later I learned that he shot himself rather than see his farm go. Uncle took every cent and bought a Fordson tractor and a combine like the big outfits with absentee owners that were taking over good land all over the county, outfits that plowed the tall grass under and cut down the fruit trees and farmed only corn, or only wheat, and nothing else. They loaded the last of our sheep onto a rancher’s truck, and when uncle saw me crying he said, as he often had before, that we couldn’t survive on the prices today. But he said it hard this time, with such a flinty stare at the horizon that I felt ashamed of myself for crying, and afraid of him.
He cleared the land in no time, it seemed, and plowed the alfalfa under to make more room for corn, and cut down the shady apple tree because he said it was in the way. Anyway the lambs were gone.
His first corn harvest was good, and he made good money—cabbage, he now called it. After the harvest he cleared the Granny Smith orchard. The second harvest was good and the next ones were too, all the harvests were good for years, and uncle never let a field go fallow. It’s like printing money, he said, as green as the corn. You wouldn’t stop printing money, now, would you? I received a new dress three times a year. There was nowhere to wear them excepting church, however, for most of our neighbors had sold out to the large outfits who could afford the machinery they could not afford. But I treasured a necklace which Uncle bought in Kansas City, a genuine silver necklace with a perfect ruby pendent cut into a heart. I looked at myself from every angle and in every pose. At first Auntie sighed, and then she railed in a shrill, desperate voice about vanity. But I didn’t care.
The corn stalks stood tall in perfect green rows, and I walked among them to be cool in the shade and to think about life when the change came upon me. I danced among the rows at times, and sometimes I cried for no reason at all. The corn stalks were my friends, which was lucky, for I had no friends besides one girl who lived a long bike ride away, and one boy, an old friend, who was going through the change himself, and looked at me in a hungry way that disturbed me.
Uncle paid off his kin completely after the third year’s harvest, including a bonus of interest which they tried to refuse. He bought more land from the people who owned the farm next to ours, the Pearson’s, who had been in the county for four generations. They were stubborn, Uncle said, because they refused to change with the times, and that’s why they went bust. Uncle bought a scrimshaw pipe in Kansas City and puffed on it with a satisfied look as he worked accounts late at night. Auntie prayed for humility, but did so softly so that Uncle would not think she was praying for him. Nor did she object when he drank store–bought rye, but prayed that he find moderation and thrift.
There were more massive harvests and plenty of money, and Uncle would say “we’re in the long green” the way he would tell folks we were “in the corn,” or the way another farmer might say “we’re in the rye.” He hired men, and they slept in a bunkhouse and did not eat with us. He added two large rooms to the house.
The rain stopped falling when I was fifteen. We got by alright though the corn was stunted for there was half a harvest, at least, and Uncle had set cash aside. I spent nights walking the corn rows looking at the moon, but I was not praying for rain, as Auntie supposed, I was simply wishing to be somewhere else. To be anywhere else. I didn’t know why.
When I was sixteen there was no rain again, and the wind stripped away the topsoil which had nothing to cling to, with the grasses plowed under and the trees all uprooted. We covered our mouths when we walked out of doors if so much as a breeze blew. The wind blew for days, and clouds of dust rose and blocked out the sun.
All the people gathered at the county seat and stared up at the sky. A farmer’s wife with a red pie–shaped face pressed her lips together and squinted at the sky. The dust was dark and covered the land. It’s a plague of locusts, she said. It’s end times, a man said through clenched teeth.
Strangers came to all the farmhouses in the next days and weeks. Bankers came and sharpies representing the big landholders came. Some were sent off at the point of a gun, but mostly folks listened—numbly, without hearing. A preacher came spouting Bible verses. Repent before it’s too late, he said.
We thought we could survive till next year, for Uncle still had money in the bank, and he could borrow more at a good rate using the land he’d picked up cheap as collateral. He even thought he might pick up more land cheap from our neighbors. He never should have said it out loud, for Aunt fixed him a glare as long and hard as any I’d ever seen her give out. To my surprise, Uncle jutted out his lower lip and stared back at her. Then he raised the store–bought rye to his lips—to get her goat, I supposed.
The winter was harsh, and a hard, dead silence ruled the house. The spring thaw came and Uncle worked the parched land. Auntie and I prayed for rain, but we knew it was hopeless even if it did rain, for all the good soil had blown away, and what remained was powdery and dead, having been worked every season without rest.
We made plans to move. Uncle still had some money and hoped to buy a farm in California or a ranch in Montana where his people came from. Dorothy, said Em, holding my hand, you’ll always have a home with us. You know that, sweetheart. Yes, said Uncle. But there was a holding back in his voice, and I knew we were done.
…to be continued…