What Father did that long-ago July afternoon at the mill taught us something that we'll never forget
P. B. HUGHESJuly11954
Catherine and the Winter Wheet
What Father did that long-ago July afternoon at the mill taught us something that we'll never forget
P. B. HUGHES
THIS IS THE winter wheat that is being hauled along the concession roads in late July or early August in southern Ontario, the winter wheat, the fall wheat—have it how you will. It is sown in September, about the time of the equinox, when the wind blows northwesterly, or used to, across Star-of-the-Sea, and the heavy rain has not come. It stands through the winter, withering under the snow like common grass, blazing emerald in spring, and by early June it is breast high, fading in color and heading up, as the farmers say, looking to their binders against July when the field will be yellow gold and heavy with grain.
This is the Corn of the Old Testament, rich stuff revered by men through history, substance “honored above all other things on earth,” as I read in a cookbook a while ago, written by an Irishwoman. Yet it is not for bread the winter wheat is milled, but for cake and pastry Hours principally, and macaroni, and no doubt other things. The reason I do not know. My mother used to say the dough had not the elasticity of that made with flour from the hard spring-sown wheat
of the west, and I suppose a technical explanation could be found easily enough, for everything about everything is known, except a few things, like what happens in those last days of September when the wheat has been seeded in the fallowed soil and the tiny green blades spring up from each kernel’s heart to the light.
Wheat is not generally a principal means of livelihood in Ontario. With us, long ago, it was a crop of one year in the rotation of a field. From grass to wheat was our way, from wheat to spring grain seeded down with grasses for hay and past ure, in which the field would lie for several years. I do not think we seeded alfalfa then but we had most of the other clovers, and brome and orchard, I guess, and timothy of course was our mainstay. That which was fed to cattle was the stuff of our existence. I doubt if it has changed. The spring grain was oats for the most part, or oats and barley mixed, and it too was for feed. Thus the wheat had a particular importance; the miller bought it for money. It was our sole cash crop, and the brief season when we hauled wheat to the mill was
always associated with new clothes and toys and coins in our pockets when my sisters and I were children.
One year before the war we carried our wheat, as we always did, to the mill at Streetsville on the Credit. I was in my first teens. Before t he war, t he 1914 war, long ago now. 1 rode on the sacks, sitting beside my sister Catherine who was sixteen then, or nearly, while my father drove t he team and Emily, the oldest of us, seventeen, sat beside him and spelled him with the reins. That way the trip took hours, though you’d cover it in a1 few minutes today in a car. But the sun was bright and t he day fresh and beautiful after all the rain and humid heat of the summer, and I talked away to Catherine and thought of the delight to come, of lying under the trees at the miller’s while we waited our turn to unload and my father chatted with the men and smoked his pipe, and the greatest delight of all, when the wagon was empty and my father would give us money and tell us to get about our shopping. Catherine paid no attention to what I said. Dark and stormy
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Catherine and the Winter Wheat
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she sat on the jolting wagon, for all the glory of this most glorious day.
She had the letter shoved into her blouse, the letter she’d written the night before when everyone was in bed, a secret portentous letter, probably misspelled, but still one of those papers which shape the history of the world. Oh, I heard the lamp being lit and saw the shadowy figure in its night shift scratching away, and I knew all about her and Tom Skaife, and what would be in the letter, so I went to sleep again. Skaife’s was only a mile out of Streetsville. For certain I’d be dispatched to deliver it personally and privately to Tom before we all set out home again, and Tom would be along one night to get her, and the two of them off to be married at Hamilton, where Tom worked at the iron works except in the harvest season.
That’s the way it was, and the reason Catherine’s singing was muted that summer and she so fiery and quick to take the corn broom to a boy that got in her way about the place. There wasn’t anything against Tom. It was just a matter of their both being so young, and the two years of waiting demanded of them so intolerably too much. Catherine and I were close to one another, and I think I could tell what she was thinking. That is how I knew what was in the letter. I never saw it.
So Catherine brooded on the top of the rumbling wagonload, and I grieved beside her that I was to lose her, but I was a lad brought up on the land and aware already that all life was ordered in awful cycles of growth and generation and decay, and go she must, soon or late. And today there would be the long ride in the sun, which was fartravel to me, the stream of grain as the sacks were emptied, and money rattling in my pocket, and I could not keep on with grieving and regretting when I contemplated these things.
Passing Feeney’s I saw that he had run out his strikes for the fall plowing, and I remember wondering how such a feckless farmer could plow so straight a furrow. OldFeeney’s long buried now, and Ipper, who was born around 1919, has become d’Ypres Feeney, sports a QC after his name, and sits in a grand office overlooking the Place d’Armes
in Montreal. But that’s another story remote from this day when Catherine carried her letter and snapped at me when I spoke to her.
In some fields later than ours the binder was in the oats, reel flashing in the sun, and the farmer waved to us It is curious how the oats catch up with the wheat, so that mostly we used to thresh both on the same day. The one has been in the field only since spring, the other through the winter as well. With the combine nowadays you harvest each when it is ripe on the stalk, and so the wheat leads by a couple of weeks. But with the binder you could leave the wheat in stook until you were ready with the oats.
This summer, this trip to the Credit, this harvest, are special in my memory. There was Catherine and Tom Skaife. Then there was the wetness of the July and the heat. The two factors got strangely mixed up during the course of the day, which is a trick Nature is playing all the time while she is weaving away at the destinies of men. My father, unaware of this letter writing, was unusually preoccupied, worrying about the condition of the wheat he carried, for grain is sensitive to the weather in which it has matured and been harvested. We knew that a good deal of wheat had been turned away at the mill in the last week for toughness, which is a matter of moisture content and difficult to deal with, though they do have drying equipment now at the mills which takes care of a lot of doubtful stuff. You daren’t bin it tough. Heating and spoilage is an everpresent risk. At that time you hauled it home again, and you might dry it out with untold labor by spreading it out on the floor in the threshold of the barn, and keep it or sell it degraded for feed. Then, too, your barn was stuffed with hay and with straw from the threshing so you hadn’t any floor to spread it on.
My father pondered the matter as he drove, and Emily, sensitive to the moods of others, was quiet. Catherine was wrapped in her own thoughts. Only I was possessed of the high spirits proper to the occasion.
THERE wasn’t much waiting around at the mill. Some years all the farmers seemed to arrive together and you might be four or five hours in line, and other times the season was strung out so you could get a load in when you brought it. We all went into the miller’s office together. Old Mr. Jonathan remembered all our names,
enquired for my mother, and complained of his rheumatism, the hard times, the cost of labor, the sad wheat he’d been brought and how much he’d had to refuse. It was the same each year, but this year it was the toughness ¡jf the wheat he grumbled about most.
“Well, William,” he said at last, “dump her off. No need to sample Laughlin’s wheat, anyway.”
The girls and I looked at each other with relief. 1 felt like jumping up and down, for there is no doubt the worry about selling the wheat had been urgent in the last hour. My father, and his father, the old Laughlin who bought Star-of-the-Sea from the O’Rourke’s, who built it in ’69, were staunch men, and men of substance, but the substance was seldom cash.
My father stood there quite still, and the rest of us, starting for the door of the office, halted when he did not turn to go.
“No, -Jonathan,” he said, after a little pause, “I guess we’d better sample this. It’s not been a good summer.”
The miller got up, a little surprised. “H’m. All right. Thought it mightn’t have been so bad your way.”
THEY went out together, and we followed without speaking to each other, and my father and the miller opened a lot of the sacks, and talked as they pushed their hands into the wheat. Then they carried a couple of sample tins into the office and remained there for what seemed hours to us. At last my father came out and when we saw his face our hearts sank. He didn’t say anything but climbed back onto the wagon, and we got up beside him and around behind him, and he worked the wagon around and we started back toward the road.
At the road, he swung the team down toward the town and halted under the trees in front of the post office. Then he pulled a dollar out of his pocket and told Emily to get something for her mother and some ice cream for us while the horses were rested and watered.
But we didn’t move at once. The blow had been heavy. I thought: Catherine is going to give me that letter now to take to Tom while Father is seeing to the horses. Then suddenly there were tears in Emily’s eyes and she turned on my father, hurt and passionate.
“Oh, why couldn’t you have unloaded the wheat when he told you to? Why haven’t you got the money for it? What did you say it had to be tested for?”
My father looked at her and at us. Three pairs of eyes were upon him, wide-open, puzzled, accusing, in that moment or two before he spoke. Actually he said very little by way of answer.
Only, “Children, you’d better remember this all your lives.”
I think we must have stared at him a long time before we turned away, ashamed, realizing the enormity of what had been in our minds, of what Emily had expressed. We got down slowly off the wheat, leaving Father, and went into the shop and ate icecream cones, not talking and not looking at each other.
Suddenly Catherine pulled out the letter and tore it across and across again, and again, until it was only small wads of paper too thick to tear. She pushed the bits into her pocket and ran out without a word, her face wet with tears, to where my father was tending the horses.
Emily and I went and got some bit of something for Mother, and eventually we all got back on the wagon and went home with the sun setting in front of us, and that is all there was to that day —but I have remembered. ★
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