Betty Duffy

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


The drive to my parents' house includes a country road that pretends to have two lanes, but is really only wide enough for one car. It's a terribly tempting road on which to speed because of all the short hills that, when you accelerate just so, send your guts up to your ears.

So, I was speeding on those blind hills this afternoon, when I crested a hill, guts a-flying, and came face to face with a twenty-foot wide farm implement. You always know it's a possibility on this road. You've seen the white wooden crosses on the edge of the wheat fields.

He pulled into the ditch; I clung to the pavement.

Actually, this is a lie, and I don't know why I'm telling it. I crested the hill and saw the implement about two-hundred meters away, but there was plenty of time to brake and pull to the side. Suppressing my urge to intensify the might-have-beens, I slowed down and passed the tractor with it's neophyte driver, a boy with just the hint of whiskers, and thought about why it is that I love coming back to my parents' so much, because of these death threat roads, and too-young boys driving tractors, the sage colored wheat, and yellow mustard flowers, derelict barns and the rusty bush hog in front of someone's mobile home, burr-headed kids wrestling on a trampoline, and us, pummeling the headwind, onward towards…sanctuary.

It's the thought of both work and rest, or rather, the kind of rest that good work makes possible that draws me here. Most of my work at home is psychologically or emotionally exhausting, but I relish bodily exhaustion lately, some new personal fad that will surely pass.

My boys were to help put up some hay at 25 cents a bale, their little mercenary radar beeping out their prospects before work had even commenced. And the little kids want to be where the money is too, counting bales thrown onto the trailer with hashmarks on a notepad from the air-conditioned cab of the pick-up truck.

With everyone thus occupied for the last few hours of daylight, I was half-tempted to slink away from the crowd, and what? Use my time? Read a book? Write? I could have at least sat in the cab with the kids and flipped through the pages of a magazine, but there was some little whisper in my conscience about complete emotional participation in what was becoming a full-family endeavor. Plus, I felt a strong draw to get my hands on a baling hook, drive it into one of those hay bales, and sling it somewhere, anywhere, spin it over my head and shoot it off to Mars.

I waited for the boys' faces to turn red, their soaking hair to make black spikes on their foreheads. They complained of itchy arms and blisters, though they weren't ready to throw in the towel. Money is that powerful. We'd picked up all the bales in the lower field, and it was time to load it on the elevator when I saw my window of opportunity. Dad stood in the loft waiting to receive and stack the bales, the boys took turns loading the elevator, but they were so done.

The job required fresh hands, which made me pause to consider whether it also required fresh clothes, because I was still in a t-shirt and a denim skirt, and while I like the idea of actually WEARING my clothes out, rather than pandering to them, and removing them at the first glimpse of labor or soil, I could see that the job would entail burn-up-the-deodorant sweating. So I made the necessary wardrobe change, put on the elbow length gloves, grabbed a baling hook and headed up to the loft.

Here, one lingers again on the edge of doom, the rail-less ledge, the rickety chain-link elevator like an antique roller coaster, just inches away and threatening to take off a finger, or swipe out at your shoe-lace and pull you over and down fifteen feet to the dirt floor of the barn (The swirly man above on my masthead comes from this very elevator: use at risk of having your body contorted like a pipe-cleaner, hands-flayed in alarm!).

And here I was, leaning, hooking, swinging, sweating to the chink, chink, and the metal drone of the tractor motor. Can you tell it was everything I had hoped it would be? That the sweet cologne of decaying grass shot through my arms, legs, back, neck, and haunch, a shiver of hope for the future? There, below on the trailer, lolly-gagging on incumbent bales, my boys calculated their stacks of coin and the let sweat drip down their cheeks, hinting someday to be men. There in the cab of the truck, my youngers reckoned the winners of today's labors.

There was another field to bring in after this one. But we had all cemented our rhythm by this time, so it only took an hour. By the time we finished, the sun was nothing but blush and affirmation as my mom and I walked down the gravel lane to get the mail. My daughter chased us, barefooted on a bicycle, and the two-year-old rode on my shoulders.

It always surprises me that benedictions result from the simplest choices: to choose self, or to share oneself? To exit the theater, or to stay in? I could have spent the evening thumbing through the glossy pages of the latest Country Living. My mom would have kept an eye on the kids.

Inside, the boys had showered and were scooping up bowls of ice-cream. I ran the little ones through the bath and got them popsicles so they would sit on the porch while we said the Rosary. My husband called to report that he was coming home early from Jacksonville, and then we lay still in the dark to defy the heat.


Misha Leigh. said...

woman, the only other voice I know like yours in this post is Berry's. this is so beautiful. as always.

and I feel convicted.

Lizzie said...

Oh Betty, you've brought me to tears over my morning coffee. Just beautiful.

This touched me on so many levels - tinges of sadness as my parents prepare to leave my childhood home in the country because of my dad's failing health; memories of a slightly surreal summer spent in Spain working on a farm - loving the physical exhaustion it brought and revelling in all the metaphors for life that working the land brings; challenging me to always give of myself - so often, my choice is 'thumbing through the glossy pages of the latest Country Living'. ('I DESERVE it, I'm a single mum, I work full time' etc. etc. etc.)
Yet that choice to share myself always bears fruit that will last...

Hope said...

I thought of Wendell Berry, too as I read this post. Beautiful.

Owen said...

I'm willing to be my back yard (I don't have a farm to bet) that there was no on-board movie watching thingy on that tractor, just a kid in the early stages of learning how to be a man.

Another beautiful post Betty.

If I could email you directly I'd send you a link to my daughter's writing. I don't want to presume and plunk it here but I have a feeling you'd enjoy it.

Erin said...

Ohh how I miss the country life too! I'm more than ready lately to move back to the country. (We're working on it.) There's just something so gratifying about hard labor. As much as I loath it, I cherish it and even crave it at times. It makes the body happy and healthy to sweat sometimes.

Kimberlie said...

What struck me the most about the post was your desire to do something physical and how satisfying it seemed. Lately I have felt more of a desire to work my body harder. To move. To feel the strength in my legs and my arms. To sweat (and with 90+ degrees here in Okla these days that's not hard) and feel exhausted.

I felt I was right there with you up in that barn loft. You always paint beautiful, clear, word pictures.

BettyDuffy said...

Benediction is a very Berry-an word. I chose it on purpose--though I'd wager the resemblance stops there.

My husband said, "that's a pretty detailed story about baling hay. I used to bale hay all the time and I don't remember it being so romantic." If I had to do it all summer long, I wouldn't find it romantic either.

Owen, go ahead and plunk the link on here--or if you'd rather, you'll find my contact info at the bottom right on the blog.

Eric said...

Maybe it is the hoosier in me, but this is one of your best pieces yet. Moving in an indescribable way.

Anonymous said...

The lurking-in-the-shadows sister-in-law finally emerges. I talked to Pop Sunday night and he told me about bailing hay and how the boys helped (with a chuckle). I told him I was so glad you were there and the boys were willing to help (although you are spot on in regards to the power of money).

I remember those days, too. Muscles screaming for relief and yet some inner power emerges and at the edge of exhaustion you **must** motor on. And man does that pain and knowledge of accomplishment feel good (after a few Aleve and a cold shower). It feels raw. Primitive. Badass. And the world around you just looks gorgeous when you are done. Similar view from a few hours ago; however, you OWN part of that beauty now.

I worry about bailing hay in the 90+ heat. But there is something about working that hard, and being that uncomfortable, that bonds those who work together. It's a memory I hope the kids will keep close to their hearts and will one day share with their own children. Perhaps while bailing hay with you and your DH on your own Little House on the Prairie.

Owen said...

Hi Betty,
I guess you know now that I have never scrolled to the very bottom of your page where yes, your email address is clearly visible.