The tread of my father’s 1950 International tractor gripped into that sandy loam found only along the New River. I idled the engine as I avoided overhanging branches from a fencerow that signaled neglect but created a luxurious strip of life. I never moved along this road without feeling the unseen eyes. As I wove the tractor through the limbs, a branch from a chokecherry too light to scratch the red paint brushed my face. Cherries loaded the branch. Even in this lush year, I hadn’t expected to find cherries this early in June. I braked the tractor to taste them; the sourness put me back in June days long past. The day advanced, and I drove toward the field above Fosters Falls to rake the hay before it rained.
Once, haymaking belonged to families. Now, I do it alone, or at least alone with my ghosts. These fields mirror my memories. This field fronting the river is long past the time to be rotated into a fresh crop. Yet when I moved it, expecting to find mostly thistle and pokeberry, underneath the over story I saw the gold of lespedeza, a ground-hugging forage, years out of fashion. My grandfather planted this lespedeza in the late forties, and the seed must have lain dormant waiting the thin crop and the lush season. In the last few years, I lacked the necessary hope to turn the soil and put in a fresh crop. The last corn I harvested, I did with a rebuilt chopper that could and did fly apart just when I needed it the most. And my help: my father, then in his late seventies, drove the truck behind the chopper, a brutal job for a man much younger. To pack the silage our neighbor, Mr. Shockley, drove the tractor. He may have been eighty that season, I don’t know, years run together. When we finished, I saw that had to be our last corn crop.
I spent a day with Mr. Shockley last fall. Shared memories stretched back over the years. We watched deer and squirrels, but he wouldn’t shoot. In the long shadows of evening, nine old gobblers picked their way through ancient poplars dormant in winter gray. He offered the shot to me. I had my father’s Winchester. I’m not a good man: the closest thing to a religion I knew as a child was the bolt gun, but the time felt wrong. There would be death enough soon. I had already felt it, that this was to be my last day with Mr. Shockley. Neither he nor my father lived to see another summer.
The rain pours again today. I never finished raking yesterday before a thunderstorm ended my day. This morning I went back to pick cherries. I can’t feel bad about the rain. I have seen the land cry in drought in too many seasons ever to mourn a single cutting of hay. Rain beats the slate roof, as I pit cherries and remember all of those Junes with the house full of people. I could call someone to help eat this pie, but I don’t want anyone to figure out how much effort I put into such a little pie, and I need to be alone with my memories.
Photo: Getty Images