If there is a prion I’d attempt to implant on the readers of these writings, it would be awareness. Let us not get so wrapped in whom our president has offended, whether Aaron Rodgers’ knee will be good to go against the Vikings, or - God forbid - the next tweet or FB post, to fail to absorb the splendor of a random Tuesday afternoon.
One year ago, I was plucking Black-Eyed Susans from the ditches to adorn our barn, and mouthing my vows to the paths in Korth Park. Seventy-two hours after the I dos and ‘til death do us parts, Dad was in the hospital. The end is inevitable, and when it was nigh, I made a conscious effort to absorb every emotion and nuance. I came away with an elevated appreciation for Certified Nursing Assistants and the angels of Rainbow Hospice. As I sat vigil by my dad’s bedside, wetting his lips with single malt and roiling over his eulogy, the CNAs and nurses cared as if he were their own father, though they’d never known him close to his best.
Fond memories shouldn’t require a wedding or a funeral.
Last Thursday, I met the Wollins for donuts, coffee, and commentary on sports, politics, and world-news. We also palpated a baker’s dozen cows for pregnancy. Routine, it would seem - as I watched the robot attach the claw to a Holstein - until you recall the scene twenty-five years ago. Kyle was in high school, Erich at UW River Falls, and Ed driven to the unthinkable brink of a job-in-town on the morning he bolted from bed to see the family farm leveled, for the second time in ten years, by a 111mph derecho.
I try hard to never miss a moment of contrast.
The next stop was three miles south, and fifty years back in time, on County Road Q. Ellen Messmer milks her dozen cows into Surge buckets, and carries them back to the bulk tank. Her door yard is a drive-through dairy museum. Under the gravity-fed fuel tank is an open face lubricant shed, where hang a half-dozen grease guns and oil cans with bent snouts and brazed handles. Log chains, tire chains, turnbuckles, and clevises hang from the angle braces. A small anvil, to hammer old railroad spikes into gate hooks, stands atop a re-purposed truck axle, welded onto an empty tire-rim in front of the corn crib.
The circle drive arcs gradually enough for a tractor and hay rack between the dormant lilac bush and the farm house. The gravel is packed tight and rutted to puddle the rain and cradle the newly fallen fruit of the black walnut tree that stands near the clothesline pole. All pungent and green, they pop and roll beneath my tires. And with that smell and sound, I find myself in a moment back in Decatur, Illinois, 1972.
Mrs. Haynes lived kitty-corner from us on Nickey Avenue. She had pet parrots that flew around her kitchen while she made oil paintings of barns, schools, and churches, and baked cinnamon bread. An upright piano sat silently next to the wall by the stairs. Porcelain tea pots with plastic daisies sat atop a doily, When the Saints go Marching In rested dog-eared and brown on the music rack. Her driveway was cobbled like an abandoned factory, her lawn like a chisel-plowed field seeded with crab grass. At the top of her yard, half in the ditch, stood a walnut tree. I shoveled her snow and mowed her lawn from the day I was tall enough to reach the handle on the self-propelled Toro, for seven dollars and a fresh loaf of her cinnamon bread. (Only now do I question the public health implications of the parrots flying around the kitchen.)
This time of year the walnut tree would rain down two tons of their God-awful green fruit. Not only did they make mowing even more of a challenge, but my grandpa loved those damned walnuts. I’d collect them by the milk-crate, box, and 5-gallon bucket. Grandpa would go fishing while Dad and I were at work and school. He’d call after supper, “If you were going to be in the neighborhood, don’t forget your filet knife, and did little Bill happen to pick any walnuts?” Dad and Grandpa would clean crappie, and Grandma would make me a quart-and-a-half milk shake I’d suck through a red-striped cardboard straw.
Grandpa would spread the nuts in the ruts of the cinder drive and run over them three or four times with his green Plymouth station wagon, in order to get the flesh off and crack the shells. He sat for hours with a red plastic cup of near-beer on ice and a gnarly-jawed cracker. Straining over his horn-rimmed glasses, he teased the meat from the shells with pickers that looked like engraved dental instruments. The intact meats, bivalved like a butterfly, would get covered in caramel and chocolate in time for Christmas. The fractures and fragments were dropped in Mason jars for cookies and banana bread.
I have precious few memories of my grandpa; the last was the gravel flying as my dad tore out of the parking lot at the baseball field in his 1968 Chevy when Grandpa had his heart attack. I was nine-years old.
To this day I can’t stand the taste, texture, or smell of walnuts. It defies me why anyone would defile a perfectly good cake, cookie, or brownie with nuts of any sort. What I do recall is Grandma’s milkshakes, and how proud I was when we dropped the tailgate and Grandpa would shake his head and woo at my haul.