Sunday Open Forum – Mailboxes and Old Barns
Money (what little we ever saw) seemed to have a pretty gentle, inoffensive presence in everyday life on the farm in the fifties. This was not a laissez-faire attiude: it was a chosen perspective that had strength and history. We appreciated what we had and didn’t think much about what we didn’t have, but it wasn’t until many years later that I realized how very little actual money was available.
There was no connection that I recall between the amount of money available and the quality of life in our home. My dad specifically trusted God, but he also had an earthy sense of humor about money that was sometimes expressed as “Money isn’t the first thing in life, but it’s sure ahead of whatever’s in second place.” Good years (good cattle prices and big crops) and bad years flowed together. Farmers only got paid one time a year (two times if they had beef cattle to sell). The other payday was when the wheat, our only cash crop, would be taken to the grain elevator nine miles away.
On a hot day in August Dad was up behind the garage tuning up the 6-foot combine because the wheat crop, a good-looking one, was ripe and ready to be harvested. Canvases are tightened. Belts are checked. Auger operation is tested. Looking good. And then, about 4 pm, perpetually rain-starved eastern Montana gets hit with a violent 20 minute thunderstorm with heavy hail. After the thunderheads dissipate over the horizon toward North Dakota, the combine looks a little embarrassed, all dressed up in John Deere green with nowhere to go. Dad walks out into the fields near the house, gets down on one knee and holds a broken wheat stalk in his hands. Then he gets in the truck and drives down to the far fields. Much later, when he comes back, he pushes the little combine back into its place in the line of machinery because the wheat is gone.
The combine isn’t needed tomorrow.
Now every morning at the breakfast table Dad would read from the Scriptures and we would sing a song from the little blue Danish songbooks. Then he would pray. The Night The Harvest Was Destroyed I wondered how he would pray the next morning. Was he disappointed in God’s failure to act? Or in God’s decision to act? Dad was never rude or demanding toward God (God being the sovereign king of the universe and all), but neither was he dishonest. So, of course, when he prayed that next morning he wasn’t either rude or dishonest–and he never mentioned the crop. Didn’t figure God owed him an explanation. And didn’t figure God had changed. So there really was no need to mention either the hail or the wheat.
One summer day when my parents were not home and I had been left home alone for a bit, I dared open the drawer of my Dad’s desk in the corner of the dining room. I was going to look at my Dad’s checkbook and see how much money we had.
I lifted the checkbook out and laid it flat on the desk. I took hold of the edge of the top flap, carefully lifted it straight up, watching for any loose paper or anything that might be dislodged and accidentally left out of place later, and then pressed it flat down and looked it over. There were no loose pieces of paper, so now it only remained to page through the ledger portion of the checkbook and find the balance.
Ah! I found it. The balance….was $656. I got so scared… because we had a great big house and 1200 acres of land and lots of farm equipment and a hundred head of cattle and a great big barn and two chicken coops and 3 tractors and a great big freezer in the basement…….how was it possible that we had so little money??? Then I remembered that he hadn’t hauled all the wheat into town yet! But still….will that be enough? For the clothes Mom couldn’t sew? For canned fruit? For flour? To buy coal to heat the house? To buy fuel for the field work? To pay to have the seed wheat treated (so it was bright pink before it went in the ground)? To pay the vet to come to vaccinate a hundred head? To buy the salt blocks the cattle needed? To buy oil and grease for the field equipment? To buy DDT for the big hand spray cans we used in all the outbuildings to kill flies and spiders and anything else that needed killing? (We bought it undiluted. By the gallon. Wonderful stuff, DDT.)
After I closed the checkbook, put it away and silently vowed to never, never, never again look at any of my father’s papers, I went outside and sat on the step for a long time and just waited for them to come home.
Now in our little country church, there were one or two elderly couples who “had money” and I had overheard comments about these people–neither unkind nor envious–just comments that made me know they were seen differently because they had lots of money.
Then I heard the word “rich” one day and realized it applied to those people. I couldn’t figure out whether or not it would apply to us because although I didn’t think we were “poor,” neither was I sure who was included in “rich.” Were people like these elderly couples the ONLY rich ones? Or were we perhaps “rich” even though we had only $656? How much money did it take to be rich?
As a child I sometimes asked questions I shouldn’t ask; saw things I shouldn’t see and said things I shouldn’t say, so I didn’t say anything about this for a long time. But finally, in a moment of courage, I did. “Daddy, are we rich?”
He hesitated before he said, “Yes, we are.” Another slight pause and he chuckled as he added, “—and some day, we might even have some money.”
We never did. But we definitely were.