August's Farm: A Christmas Story Part 1 of 5
Most people live in cities these days and may not be familiar with the details of the country—the feel of a sky going on forever or the smell of fields after a rain. Or how winter exists far from lights of the metropolis. Perhaps they remember accounts of grandparents or great-grandparents milking cows and harvesting wheat. But a story set in the middle of stubbly expanses and distant clouds will feel a bit strange, almost magical.
So it is fitting that the events of this certain Christmas transpired in a remote place, where the pastures were silver with frost and a forest stood silent as ice. A farmhouse huddled into its three bare shade trees, which feathered darkly against the pale sky. The hedgerow that sheltered the property on the north side leaned southward, from years of buffeting by the winds that swept up the little hill of the farmstead. To the east was a pond, now frozen thick. No cattle were present anymore, so no one need walk down to the edge and break the ice so the creatures could drink. Ragged fences outlined where once the hogs had wallowed and grown fat before being taken off to market at year’s end. Behind the barn, four apple trees had grown wild with untrimmed branches, their fruit riddled with worms and left to rot in the uncut grass.
The front porch of the farmhouse sagged a bit at one end, but a swing still hung at the other, and two wicker chairs, gray with time, shared a round table on the other side of the door. Three crockery flowerpots, empty of all but powdery dirt, seemed rooted to the porch’s steps, and one plastic hanging pot swung crazily in the wind, its once-green foliage turned to straw.
From the looks of the place, no one would know that for many years it had been a tidy, productive little farm, with its cattle and hogs and chickens and fields of corn and soybeans, alfalfa and wheat. Down in the timber, twenty-eight pecan trees still towered over the forest floor, dropping their smooth, dark-blotted nuts every October. But Millie, the farmer’s wife, had been dead ten years, and August, the farmer, no longer felt compelled to trek down to the trees with buckets in hand. He might have sold them; instead he invited members of his church to come pick their fill. He was an old man, unconnected to the land the way he had been for fifty years. He was also alone, with no wife to send him off for pecans so that she could make her pies and cookies.
Millie had been famous for those pies—at the church, the county fair, the bake sales at the American Legion. People told her she could have made out like a bandit by putting a few signs along the highway and selling her goods straight from the kitchen. But Millie was more interested in baking for people she knew and for occasions that meant something to her.
Christmas was her very favorite occasion, and every year she would begin just after Thanksgiving, making the fruitcakes to age in whiskey-soaked cheesecloth for a month, and the pumpkin-pecan breads she put in the freezer until Christmas. As the holiday approached, almost daily she turned out cookies and pies and her special pecan-and-nutmeg coffeecake, always a best seller at the parish Christmas festival.
The decorating would also begin right after Thanksgiving—as Millie gently unpacked garlands and strings of lights, ceramic elves and camels and a nativity scene or two, the Christmas dishes left by her mother, fat candles, bright tablecloths, and special tins for cookies and candies, their lids pictures of snowy meadows or wreaths of holly.
Of course, all of that stopped after Millie died, on February 19, during one of the worst snowstorms they had seen in those parts. The doctors said it wouldn’t have made a difference. The massive stroke took her quickly, and the fastest ambulance ride would not have changed that. August had carried her to the truck and driven as fast as he dared, in the swirl of snow and horizontal winds, over the slick gravel roads.
When he came home later, alone, having left Millie’s body at the hospital to be picked up by Arnson’s mortuary, August looked at his stark white property and the plain interior of his house and thought how fitting it was that she died after the Christmas decorations had been taken down and put away. Death was bleak and colorless, nothing festive about it, and he was glad there were no extra colors or sparkles in his home, now that the one who had enlivened the place was gone.
So when this particular story takes place, it is a decade after the farm had any life to it. No one seeing its present state would know just how rich the years between August and Millie had been. They did not have children—something to do with Millie’s ovaries—so there was no one, really, to visit August in any regular way. Church people did their best, but he made it clear that he preferred the silence and dimness of the farmhouse. All of his memories were there, and he wished to make no memories anywhere else. He would finish his days in his own sad sort of music.
He let the house go without paint and did not shore up the sinking end of the porch. He ate simply and kept a regular if uneventful schedule, now that he was retired. He had periodic business and conversations with the two younger men who rented some of his acres for their own farming. He made a point to attend church about once a month, just because it seemed a good thing to do. There was paying his few bills and going into town once or twice a week, to have lunch at Browning’s Breakfast & Lunch Café, where he and his neighbor farmers had for years gathered for coffee and updates on weather and town gossip and news of auctions or the current price of soybeans. Now that so many of them had lived beyond their farming days, they still congregated just for the hell of it. They could finally afford to linger over second and third cups of coffee. And when the weather turned a menace, it had little to do with them—not like in the old days when weather meant everything and dictated most of what they did. Now they could sit and look out the café windows and just shake their heads, thankful at least for this part of growing old.
Copyright © 2009 Vinita Hampton Wright