Averyell A. Kessler
There was once a beautiful cornfield right in the middle of Jackson Mississippi. It wasn’t a few scant rows in a backyard garden, or a scraggly plant struggling for life as a middle school science project, but a full fifteen acres of carefully planted, obsessively tended, Midwestern knockoff corn. My grandfather WG planted it because he was raised on an Indiana farm within shouting distance of Kentucky and the Ohio River. He could eat his weight in corn, or anything else field grown and harvested five minutes before it was cooked, sliced, or eaten raw. He also knew how to pluck a chicken, plow behind a mule, and build a privy, but that’s another subject.
In the early 1960’s, he acquired a long, narrow tract of land fronting on Old Canton Road and ending at the sandy edges of the Pearl River. Its original owner, Mr. Bud Mathews, called it Forked Pines, fork-ed being a two-syllable word. We called it the farm. It remained vacant for a few years while we walked down to the river to fish, flew kites in its wide fields and picked wild blackberries growing besides a creek bed in the middle of the property. The next summer, WG announced that corn was on his agenda; I smiled and chuckled. I was drowning in teenage ennui and wondered what was he up to now? I was willing to put up with his azaleas and camelias, day lilies too, but corn? Was this inspired by his devotion to Hee Haw or his attempt to embarrass me in front of my friends? When he appeared at our back door carrying an armful of just-picked ears, I understood. Birds Eyes’ stultified corn on the cob was nothing compared to a juicy, sweet ear still warm from the sun and smelling of the field. I was hooked.
In the middle of July, we began a twice weekly visit to the corn field. He’d pick me up late in the afternoon and we zoomed off to inspect his crop. The heat was stifling, but we went anyway. My job was holding a burlap sack while he examined the silks and sliced off ripe ears with a butcher knife. After a time or two, I learned to wear a long sleeve shirt, despite the heat, so the tender flesh behind my elbows wouldn’t be sliced as well. Corn stalks can be sticky and vicious! As I followed him up and down the rows, he taught me how to recognize the difference between a ripe ear and still developing one, as well as how to remove the ears without damaging the plant. This was our time to talk without censorship or interruption, so I learned other things too.
His early life on a farm in rural Indiana was difficult, as his family struggled for survival. On bleak winter days, his clothes were thin and the walk to school was over two miles. He struggled with his lessons, especially reading, because the jumbled words in his McGuffey’s reader made no sense. But he learned how to pick corn, chop wood, and avoid the spurs of an angry old rooster. His life took a different turn when he found work at the Ford Motor Company; but somewhere along the way, he learned to tell stories. As we walked, he talked. As he talked, I listened. He rarely spoke of his early life, but on corn picking days, he did.
Not every story ended happily. He dropped out of school after the fourth grade and educated himself as he moved along in years. He explained how he’d lost everything, not once, but twice, and why he never gave up. He explained his basic rules of life, usually in a succinct comment such as “don’t follow the mob” and “use your facilities.” Also, “don’t let some halfwit fool tell you what to think.” I’ve never forgotten these uncomplicated lessons that sound simplistic but age well.
There’s an intriguing lyric in the song Children Will Listen, a dazzling piece from Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods.* “What do you leave to your child when your dead, only whatever you’ve put in its head.” During my early years, WG decided I’d be the one to hear the stories his life. So, he told them one by one, always when nobody else was listening and there was no ringing telephone. I learned a lot on corn picking days when we walked up and down long, blistering rows, our dirty feet crunch, crunching of over discarded husks and dead leaves. On those days, he filled my head with his version of wisdom and explained the world as he saw it, thorns and all. I learned wordless lessons too, the instant relief of a cool breeze, the feel of a sweat dribbling down my neck and the welcome presence of ice water in a thermos. I learned that if you want just-picked corn for supper, you must work for it.
“My Dad was rough,” WG said one afternoon as we walked back to the car. “He told me never to think things couldn’t be done. He said if I ask you to milk a cow through a picket fence, I expect you to try.”
“But you couldn’t,” I answered. “Nobody can. Why did your father say that?”
“Because he wanted me to figure it out.”
“What’s the answer?” I asked.
“You don’t have to accept things as they are. If it’s time to milk the cow, don’t let the fence stop you. Pick up your bucket and climb over the damn thing! Don’t forget that.”
Don’t worry WG,” I replied. “I’ll remember.” And I have.
*Stephen Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics for Into the Woods, a remarkable artistic achievement.