THIS IS NOT THE IVY LEAGUE
By Mary Clearman Blew
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS Copyright © 2011 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All right reserved.
[I]t was the fear that in order to be what he might become he would have to cease to be what he had been, he would have to turn away from that place to which his flesh and his thoughts and his devotions belonged.—Wendell Berry, The Memory of Old Jack
In the spring of 1944 my mother and father borrowed more money than they had ever seen and purchased the old home ranch on Spring Creek, in central Montana, that had been my great-grandfather's 1882 homestead. My father would be thirty-one in a few weeks, my mother had just turned thirty. I was four years old, my sister a toddler of eighteen months. We had been living on an alkali ranch in the sagebrush, down on the Judith River, and the move meant hay meadows and fresh water and good grazing for the cattle on the slopes of the mountains that overlooked the creek drainage, together with all the family associations with place, which even in 1944 were becoming emblematic. My great-grandfather had been one of the earliest homesteaders in central Montana, and it seemed that every shale hill and coulee, bend of the creek or grove of cottonwood trees, had its name and its position in the landscape of the family narrative.
Nearly seventy years later, I look back on that time and think how heartbreakingly young my mother and father were in 1944, with their two small daughters and their debt and their plans to deepen their roots on land where gnarled posts had been set and barbed wire strung on line fences by my great-grandfather and his sons, and where peonies and hollyhocks planted by my great-grandmother still bloomed every summer around the steps of the log ranch house where my father had been born. My parents dreamed of building up their herd of grade Hereford cows and calves, of constructing a two-bedroom house with modern improvements like electricity and telephone service, of repairing the corrals and barns and fences and clearing the underbrush that would, as my father said, make the ranch a place again.
The life my parents dreamed on the Spring Creek ranch was sheltered from the rest of the world by mountain ranges and distances and the slow pace of news, which came by radio, provided that somebody had bought batteries for the radio and the batteries hadn't run down. Or else the news came by a two- or three-day-old newspaper, delivered by the rural mail carrier, which had reported the Allied bombing of Europe and the liberation of France and the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the discovery of concentration camps, so far away that the ranch families of central Montana could keep their innocence.
Those ranch families had suffered, as did other Americans during World War II, from shortages and rationing. It was hard to get gasoline, hard to get tires, hard to find fresh meat and fresh eggs in the stores. But in 1944 most of those ranchers were putting up their hay with teams of horses and mowing machines and buck rakes and beaver slides, and they were planting gardens, as they always had done, and raising their own chickens and butchering their own meat. Most of them had never known the conveniences of electricity or refrigeration; they still pumped their water by hand and heated it on a wood stove. For bathing, a galvanized tub on the kitchen floor; for necessities, an outhouse. If they were lucky, they had a washing machine with a hand-turned agitator instead of a washboard and that same galvanized tub. Electricity? Not in the country, not until after the war. Telephones? My family hooked up to a party line in 1949. Television? Not until 1956.
Does it sound like a Wendell Berry dream? That self-contained little ranch, undefiled by technology, where everybody worked hard but everybody had enough to eat, where good grass grew in those hay meadows along the river, where cattle grazed all summer long on the slopes of the South Moccasin Mountains? Where entertainment, except for the huzzah and razzle-dazzle of county fair time, was conversation by lamplight around the supper table?
My father wanted no other life. Couldn't imagine anybody in his right mind wanting another life, couldn't understand why some of his uncles had followed the war work to California and settled there, slaving for wages and calling another man boss. At least when a man was his own boss, he could take off a day when he wanted to (not that my father ever did, not with hay to stack between rains and cows to milk and fences to be fixed, no rest all summer long, then no rest in the early Montana winters with teams to be harnessed to sleds and hay hauled to the cattle and horses, then in late winter and early spring the riding to look after the cattle calving on those same open slopes of the South Moccasin Mountains).
I have only the most fleeting memories of that first year on the Spring Creek ranch, but recently I discovered the diary that my mother's older sister, who had been teaching in southwest Washington and come home for a visit, kept during the summer of 1944.
Doris & Jack [my parents] on a ranch deal, my aunt noted on May 13, 1944, and then, on July 10, after her school let out and she returned to Montana for her summer visit, I rode herd on the kids. They were hoping I'd come. First time this summer I've been up river.
It was the first time, in other words, that she had seen the Spring Creek ranch since my parents had purchased it. For my mother and father, that summer must have been frantically busy, between keeping up with the work on the alkali ranch and still getting the haying done on their new meadows. The rain my aunt reported in her diary had delayed the haying—they were still stacking the last of it in August—so she pitched in, helping wherever she could. From her diary entries, it is clear that she and my mother were working almost every day in the hayfields along with the usual cooking and cleaning and clothes washing and the care of two little girls. My mother must have been grateful for her sister's assistance. How tired Doris looked tonight, my aunt noted several times over the summer.
July 13: We put in half a day putting up hay.
July 14: Jack went for a [hay] stacker. Took all day. Doris & I explored & picked berries & rhubarb.
July 15: They worked all morning on the stacker. We got in a good whack at the hay in the afternoon.
July 17: We finished stacking the field & moved the stacker after dinner. What a trip. Willow brush 10 feet high. Crossed Spring
Creek & Little Judith River, [which flowed through the ranch and into the Big Judith River].
The hay stacker was a teetering construction of poles and hand-sawed lumber, probably just taller than the willows, with a set of teeth that worked on a set of pulleys to carry a load of hay up the incline of the stacker and flip it on top of the growing haystack. Moving the stacker, all those ropes and poles and teeth and high creaking lumber behind a straining team of workhorses, across a creek knee-deep on the horses and across a deeper, swifter river, through willows and chokecherries that caught at the frame of the stacker and threatened to tip it over, was a tense operation of hours while the hay in the next meadow waited and ripened and overripened. Everyone's tempers would have been short. The horses probably got the worst of it.
July 22: Sat[urday]. The rope [on the hay stacker] snapped some tools into the air. Cut Jack's chin. Doris & I took him to the Dr. Had stitches.
I can just remember that day. One of those ranch thunderbolts with no warning. One minute all going well, the next minute the sudden snap of rope, the flash of metal, and my father's bleeding face. My mother and aunt probably packed the gash as best they could, loaded him into the old pickup, left the little girls with their grandmother, and headed for town as fast as they dared on wartime tires, with my father fuming because he wasn't driving, because he wasn't getting his haying done, probably swearing he was okay, no need for such a fuss, no need for stitches and a doctor's bill.
He had been lucky, of course. Lucky not to have been blinded. Or killed. And then what would have become of his wife and his mother and his little girls.
July 23: Sun[day]. Doris went for Jack. We [probably my aunt and my grandmother] hayed in the P.M. Got a nice stack started but cleared such a small patch of ground.
July 25: Doris hayed today. She wanted Jack to lay off & get Ma to come & care for the kids but Jack wouldn't lay off.
Of course not. He wouldn't lay off, he still had hay down, and already it was late July.
My aunt waits for nearly a week after the accident before she risks thinking about what might have been. Risks putting it in a few cautious words.
July 28: Jack's chin is healing fine. Tomorrow he hopes to get the bandage off. So glad it was no worse. It could have been really bad. August 6: Sunday. Took another swing at the hay. Have about one day's work left I hope.
August 7: I'm taking care of the kids today while the rest go to town. Have only 3 weeks left [before her school starts again] & are they full. I don't feel like I've had any vacation.
August 12: We went to finish haying.
After the haying, my aunt went back to southwest Washington to teach school, but my mother continued her cycle of work, cooking three meals a day on a wood stove and washing every sheet and shirt and pair of blue jeans with water she had hand pumped and heated on that stove (washing them on a washboard until electricity came to the ranch after the war and she got a Maytag with an agitator and a wringer), and sprinkling and ironing all those clothes with irons heated on the wood stove, and feeding and watering her chickens and gathering and candling the eggs to be sold in town, and helping with the milking and separating the cream and making butter out of what wasn't sold in town, and weeding and watering her vegetable garden (more water to be hand pumped and carried), and all this in addition to working in the hayfields or the harvest fields. No wonder she was too tired to play with her little girls, or read to them, or do more than snap at them to behave themselves. My sister and I looked forward as much as she did to my aunt's summer visits.
My teacher grandmother, my mother's mother, had begun teaching me to read the summer I was three. From one of the rural schools she taught in, she brought home an outdated pre-primer about two spotted dogs named Nip and Tuck and showed me the letters and coached me in sounding out the words.
Easy enough, even if the process seemed mechanical and boring.
Above a sentence or two of print on every page of the book about Nip and Tuck was an illustration of a world far beyond my sagebrush hills. What was I to think of neighborhoods where families lived in trim houses with spreading green lawns, and where spotted dogs danced in the spray of water from a hose as a father washed a car? A garden hose? Washing a car? What a concept!
I had never seen anyone wash a car, or do more than kick loose the gumbo mud that caked around the fenders of a pickup truck. Water, in my experience, spurted out of a pump with a handle. Or it ran in a muddy stream down an irrigation ditch that my dad would divert with a shovel to flow through rows of corn and peas and potatoes. Or it sparkled in the current of the river and dripped down the muzzles of the team of workhorses when they paused to drink. The odor of river water drew the cattle down from the hills and dyed their dark red darker where it eddied around their legs.
Water, precious and hard-come-by. And yet there were Nip and Tuck, cavorting down a paved sidewalk with the boy and girl who lived in the house with the picket fence in the shade of trees. What further surprises might the world hold?
Still, reading seemed pointless and lame, nothing like the luxurious out-of-body state of being read aloud to. But there I was, one afternoon, five or six years old and bored out of my mind, with nobody to play with but a toddler sister who needed a nap. I had a book and nobody had time to read it to me.
No, I can't read to you now. Maybe after milking. Maybe after supper. After the dishes are done. Not now. Go play.
The sun was shining. It was summertime, more work for everyone on a ranch. I wandered off across the yard with my book under my arm, barefoot, scabby kneed, and grumpy, the only person for miles with nothing to do. Around the house was trampled-down dry shortgrass, separated from the hay meadows by a dirt road and a grove of chokecherries. The book was a fourth-grade geography textbook, with a yellow cover, probably lifted from some school of my grandmother's. Its title was Our Little Neighbors around the World at Work and Play, which I'm certain of, because I still possess the book.
Well, what the. Give it a blankety-blank try.
What happened was a flash of unblinding.
In that new and unexpected light, I realized that I did not need to hear the sound of every separate letter, I did not need to mouth every word, in fact I did not need to pause on a word I did not understand. No, by golly, I could flow, absorbing whole lines, paragraphs, and pages as the lines and paragraphs and pages absorbed me. I think I realized something profound had happened, but I didn't stop to ponder, because I was reading.
On and on I read, about children in China and Mexico and the Philippines, while the hard Montana sunlight blazed down on the pages and made the letters dance. On and on and on. Glasses for my nearsightedness would be the next expense my parents somehow would have to scrape together the money to meet.
That evening, when my rancher grandmother said she had time now to read my book to me, I said, "Never mind, I already read it."
A silence of adults, eyes meeting over my head.
Excerpted from THIS IS NOT THE IVY LEAGUE by Mary Clearman Blew Copyright © 2011 by Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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