A Christmas Gift
I write these lines in the fifty-fourth year of my life. They begin a tale I might long ago have tried to tell but an intuition stayed my pen. The time, I sensed, was not yet prime for me. I was neither old enough nor young enough to attempt the story. And so I waited. The years passed. Now, this autumn, as the days wither and the stars recede and another Christmas nears, I am old enough at last to tell it truly, and young enough at last to know what it means.
When I was thirteen years of age I was literally farmed out by my parents. Put on a train in Philadelphia, I was sent west, alone, to live with my mother’s father and mother on their farm a few miles south of Howell, in Michigan. It was not an unusual exile then. Those were the 1930’s, the decade of an unexampled American depression, and thousands of parents, unable to support their children, begged foster-homes for them with more prosperous relatives. My father had lost his job, for months had walked the streets in vain seeking another, and his relief payments of ten dollars a week did not suffice to pay rent and raise a growing youngster. Orphaned by economics, I had to go. I was fortunate to have a farm to go to, for farmers, everyone said, were luckier than most. No matter how hard the times, they always had enough to eat.
I went to live with Will and Ella Chubb, my maternal grandparents. Their farm was a half section homesteaded and cleared by Will’s grandfather, a man named Major who came west in a covered wagon from York state in 1836, before Michigan became a state. The land had been kind to Major Chubb, and his son Ephraim, and Ephraim’s son Will, good farmers as their Yorkshire forebears had been before them. There were twenty-acre fields now, and fox-squirrel woods and green pastures for the sheep and a huckleberry marsh and a lake, deep and blue and troubled with pickerel. There was a barn, with haymow above and sheepshed and horse stalls and cowshed underneath, to which was attached a chickenhouse. A large granary stored the harvests and a treasury of machinery--thresher, tractor, corn binder, wheat binder, disc harrow, oat drill, hay drag, hayrake, tedder, mowing machine, plows, ensilage cutter, cornhusker, stoneboat, reaper, cultivator, flat drag, spring-tooth drag, and several wagons. The house itself was white frame, with acetylene lights, a bathroom, a screened porch, a parlor with a pump-organ, and a feather-tick bed in my very own room upstairs. If one had to be, I soon decided, this was a neat place to be an orphan.
I did my best to deserve it. I wore overalls. I walked three miles to and three from the one-room schoolhouse next to the church a Chubb’s Corners, where another boy and I constituted the seventh grade. After school I helped Will, my grandfather. I learned to hitch and unhitch the team, to fork shocks into the ensilage cutter at silo-filling time, to pick Sheepsnose and Baldwin apples in he orchard and assist at the cider-press. I tried milking, but simply couldn’t get the grip of it. The fact was, I was thirteen, all arms and legs and thumbs, and a city boy, and much less a menace to others and udders when I did domestic chores for Ella, my grandmother.
I dried the dishes.
I split kindling and fetched wood for the Majestic cookstove in the kitchen.
I separated. In the woodshed, behind the kitchen, stood a cylinder of steel with two spouts and a wooden handle. You poured pails of milk fresh from the faucet into the open top, placed a milk can under one spout and a cream bucket under the other, bent your back, braced your shoes, laid both hands on the handle, and began to crank. You cranked your arms almost out of the sockets. I had no idea what went on inside the separator, but considerable did, for a growl commenced to emanate from the rig which, as you revolved the handle faster and faster, increased in pitch and volume to a howl, then to a scream. It was a fatiguing yet exciting operation. Milk streamed from one spout, cream from the other, and sound assailed the ears, a deafening, melodramatic music appropriate to any number of swashbuckle scenes.
You could crank and crank and close your eyes and be at sea in a typhoon, masts toppling as you fought the wheel to keep your schooner’s bow into the wind.
You could be a fearless cowboy galloping to the rescue of the heroine, spurred by her shriek as she clung to the edge of a cliff.
My favorite fantasy, though, while cranking and puffing and separating, was that I was spinning the prop of my silver monoplane, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” taking off from Long Island, then clutching the controls as the engine droned us over the dark Atlantic until we landed, the eyes of the world upon us, at Le Bourget.
And always, always, there were eggs. Ella kept two hundred chickens. “Good layers,” she called them--a characteristically rural understatement. Those leghorns of hers were cornucopias, mother-lodes, veritable volcanoes of eggs. Evidently they never left the nest long enough to cackle, scratch, or cluck, for I gathered, washed, and crated hen fruit till I couldn’t face it boiled, fried, or scrambled on my breakfast plate. By a neighbor Ella sent two crates to a grocer in Howell each week. They brought eight to twelve cents a dozen, and her egg money she divided evenly--half for staples she needed and a half to be hoarded for an automobile.
It was a source of shame and bitterness to her that the Chubbs were the only family thereabouts without one. The Cadwells, down the road, trucked her crates to town in a Model A, the Stackables had a Nash, even Joe and Abby Henshaw strutted to a Model T. Odd by end, while drying dishes, I learned that three years previously, when she had her husband almost at the point of investing in a car, a smooth-talking salesman had persuaded him instead to trade in his old tractor for an expensive new Rumely OilPull. That was the beginning of payments and the end of the automobile. Will was pitifully “soft on machinery,” she confided, excluding cars, which in his opinion were only fuss-budget horseless carriages. This tragic flaw in him had kept them machinery-poor throughout their married life, and though she had put her foot down about indoor plumbing, a bathroom with a tub and facilities, they still made do with an acetylene lighting system, the only one in a neighborhood elegant with electricity.
And so she saved half her egg money for a Studebaker. When I asked what was wrong with a Ford, she said nothing, but an advertised feature of the Studebaker was “Free Wheeling.” She believed the latter implied that you could get up speed, turn off the ignition, and coast for miles, thereby using little or no gasoline. The thrift of it appealed to her. But when I argued that you could buy a heck of a lot of gas for the difference in price between a Ford and a Studie, Ella pursed her lips and dismissed the matter. She would not admit to inconsistency. She was a woman.
That was my problem. She was not supposed to be. She was supposed to be a grandmother. I didn’t know Will and Ella well when I arrived at the farm, for I had visited them only twice as a child. It took me till Christmas to comprehend that they were human beings, and to love them deeply as such. “Grandparents,” meanwhile, was an easier category to handle. A boy could crank humanity through his consciousness and easily separate “grandparents” from “people.” Grandparents were old. They were a little unreal, like actors in a play. They might have been young once, have loved and hated and grieved, been weak and stubborn and inconsistent, might have known fear and passion, rage and wonder, might have sung to churning and kissed their own raw earth in ecstasy, but this foolishness they had long ago forgotten.
Yes, I was convinced until Christmas that grandparents were gray and kind and frail and full of legend and soon to die and that was all.