Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Homestead Christmas

Written in 2005 for a collection of Christmas Stories in a collection published by our "writer's group" at CHURCH OF THE CROSSROADS (Honolulu, Hawaii.)

A Homestead Christmas

The summer before Joyce left her father’s homestead for the Colorado School of Agriculture at Ft. Collins 100 miles away was difficult enough that she told her children about it years later, although it was in no way an unusually harsh time for her or her seven siblings. All but bullying Noland were younger than she, and a number of them looked up to her almost as they would a second mother. Though over five feet, the girl could outrun all but the swiftest of her schoolmates, and was often chosen to round out a five “man” basketball team. There was general agreement with the proposition that: “that Joyce can run like a bay steer”. Once in a particularly rough game she had been knocked unconscious. No substitute was sent in as a replacement, because there was none to be had. Smelling salts were bought out, the game was delayed briefly until the field-toughened teenager was on her feet again, and she was sent back to finish the match with the High Prairie School team.
For most everyone in their community on the eastern slope of the Colorado Rockies, the dustbowl days were a stark and recent memory. John and Hazel McGuire had lived on a number of farms and homesteads during their marriage; at one point John left the family near relatives in Arkansas and went north to seek wages in the factories of Henry Ford. In some ways setting out for the dry plains of Colorado in the 1930s must have been a desperate gamble.
For those today who think of the summer hiatus from school as a vacation, the lives of Joyce and her siblings would be an appalling eye opener. In the land of “winter wheat”, the crop springs forth following snowmelt in March and April; harvest takes place in the hottest months of summer. During those months labor was constant on the McGuire homestead, beginning before dawn, with chores such as milking and feeding animals. The morning meal was speedily finished, then work in the fields began—days often ended after sunset, 14 to 16 hours later. The blessing of a bed only partially compensated for the knowledge that another day of constant effort would come far too soon.
The days after arrival of the itinerant harvesting crews were especially hectic. McGuire’s obsession with work was intensified by the need to pay the crew for each day’s services. He issued commands to one and all like an implacable god. No one questioned his authority, least of all his wife, who labored hours after everyone else snored, mending, scrubbing, setting the next day’s loaves to rise. Joyce’s primary job was hauling wheat—she got satisfaction driving trucks, as she demonstrated her competence to do any job her brothers or the hired men could do. Perhaps because he knew her labor would soon be lost to him, McGuire drove Joyce as never before that harvest season—no delivery was quick enough; Joyce was repeatedly reprimanded in front of others for “wasting time” in town. Any error made by one of the younger kids was somehow attributed to her failure to look after them. Even her mother’s lapses could redound in the form of a rebuke to the daughter. “Hazel would have had breakfast ready by now if you’d got the cook stove going earlier instead of staying in bed.” The truth was, neither Hazel nor her daughters let such treatment upset them much. Although it was unspoken, they considered the red-faced Irishman a tyrant. His wife worked like one of his animals, but McGuire seldom had a kind word for her. Yet babies continued to arrive as surely as the summer heat and the winter winds.
Joyce worked stoically that summer. An exceptionally intelligent and eager student, her teachers were unanimous in urging that her education continue after high school, and scholarship funds had been found for partial payment of tuition. Inside the teenager burned with anticipation for a new life away from the broken down farmhouse, the constant squabbles of her sisters and brothers, and the drab expanses of flat, stubble littered fields and dusty plains. She longed to meet new people—professors, students, a new church congregation, and the members of the doctor’s family where she would work in exchange for room and board. Joyce had no doubt her life was about to change forever, and for the better in every way.
The last week of August was agonizing. Temperatures reached the nineties daily, and McGuire was frantic to complete the threshing. Finally the day came when the last load of home grown gold was ready to be hauled to Akron. Joyce and her brothers rode in back of the truck on top of the grain, and watched while the truck was unloaded, as their father waited in the business office to collect payment for the summer’s sales.
Observing a hired man drink a cold bottle of soda purchased from a refrigerated cooler outside the office, Noland suggested that Joyce ask their father to buy one for each of them. “Are you scared to ask him?” she responded.
“He’s just gonna tell me to use my own money, but I didn’t bring any, Joycie. Go in and ask him. He ain’t gonna say no to you, not in front of those folks.”
Though she was not at all convinced she would be successful, the girl couldn’t resist a chance to show her brothers how to stand up to the “Old Man”. She tucked her shirt tail into her denim jeans, ran her fingers through her wiry auburn hair, and strode up the steps into the cramped room where several men stood. Her father was engaged in a conversation—doubtless about politics or horses—and Joyce knew better than to interrupt. During a pause she said in a low voice, “Daddy, the boys and I sure would like some pop on a hot day like this.”
“Daughter”, the patriarch responded with loud annoyance, “you get back out there and tell your brothers that money doesn’t grow on trees. You know you have to save every penny if you expect to go off to that college next week. Use your head, girl.”
She felt her ears and face redden at the rebuke, and looked up at him with anger, and clear contempt. “So you won’t even spend a nickel to buy soda pop for any of us after we’ve worked so hard all summer and never asked you for anything?’
Joyce knew she would regret those words before they were begun, yet somehow could not stop them. “That’s enough of your back talk, girl,” he growled. “Now you get out of here and get back in that truck or you’ll find yourself walking home. We’ll finish up this little talk later.”
Joyce rode home in silence, refusing to share the details of the confrontation with her brothers, blaming Noland especially for her circumstances. She hopped from the truck and raced into the house and up to the second level bedroom shared with two of her sisters. Soon she heard McGuire’s heavy boots pounding up the stairs. As he came into her room the girl realized he had removed his wide leather belt. She stood slowly and turned away from him, her jaw clenched and head lowered as the inevitable humiliation approached. “Just get it over with, please,” she mumbled. “I’m sorry I lost my temper.”
“I’m sorry you haven’t learned how to respect your elders,” he retorted, but less forcefully now. “Maybe this will help you to be more respectful in the future.” The whipping was not violent, and was soon over. Nevertheless, she was trembling with the effort to hold back any hint of a sob when he left the room. The tears came moments later as she lay on her bed when she felt plump, gentle hands on her hair. Her mother repeated again and again, “There, there, it wasn’t that bad.” It wasn’t that bad, Joycie.” Joyce wanted to thank her mother for coming to comfort her. She knew how sorely she would be missed by Hazel, and felt she should tell her mother that she loved her. But somehow, it was impossible to say the words. Her shame was too great, and she resented her mother’s inability to intervene on her behalf.
“I don’t care if I never come back to this God forsaken family,” she muttered, refusing to acknowledge the unaccustomed, but welcome attention.
Joyce’s first semester at the home of the “Aggies” was far more exciting and challenging than she had dreamed possible. Her employers were demanding—no matter how late she burned midnight oil in her little basement room, Joyce was expected to assist in preparing breakfast at 6:00 a.m. sharp. Classes were stimulating but challenging, especially Chemistry; it was the one that often kept her awake till 1:00 a.m. or later.
As the Thanksgiving holiday passed and the end of her first term of college approached, feelings of exhilaration gave way to gloom, however. Thoughts of her return to the family homestead filled her with dread. She had no doubt she’d be sent every morning to help with the milking, and wondered if she could avoid incurring her father’s wrath again. Yet her fate was sealed; Mrs. Adams had promised to drive Joyce home personally, and to pick her up after the New Year.
With exams completed and an unexpected “bonus” from the Doctor in her wallet, Joyce busied herself with another completely new experience: Christmas shopping. John McGuire’s fundamentalist religious beliefs enjoined celebrating the savior’s birth, even in the home—Christians were not expressly directed to do so in the New Testament. Watching as the Adam’s home was decorated lavishly and filled with gaily wrapped gifts filled Joyce with resolve to bring holiday cheer to her family’s Spartan homestead. The purchases for her siblings, especially the younger ones, were pleasurable in the extreme— picture books, dolls & knick knacks, balls & bats, candies, favors and stocking stuffers of all kinds—the things that Joyce had hardly known about during her childhood, now were in her reach. As she purchased an inexpensive bottle of perfume, lacy handkerchiefs and colorful scarves, Joyce anticipated the delight she would see in Hazel’s eyes on Christmas morning. Spending her hard earned money on her father was delicious revenge, a wordless but eloquent rebuke against his compulsive stinginess. After careful consideration she decided on a small, mother of pearl inlaid pocket knife. Every time he used the gaudy tool, he would be reminded of his daughter’s generosity, and his own lack of it.
The return to the ramshackle homestead was triumphal. The little ones crowded around their sister with incessant questions; four year old Audrey’s blue eyes brimmed with tears of joy. Mrs. Adams shared the surprising news she had learned from Joyce during the drive: the quiet country girl had received the highest grade on the final Chemistry exam. “Wait till your father hears about it, Joyce,” Hazel chuckled. “I can’t wait to see the look on his face when you tell him. He went to Denver with Noland. They’ll be back tonight, but after supper.”
“You can tell him, Mama,” Joyce said flatly. “I’m going to bed early.” After eating hurriedly, Joyce retired, and ceremoniously barred one and all from the bedroom while she wrapped and labeled the gifts, hiding all under her bed. Changing to a night dress, she crawled under the covers with a book, secretly relieved at her father’s absence.
The next morning was Christmas Eve, and Joyce waited until she heard John leave for the milking barn before springing from bed. She hauled the gifts downstairs and arranged them on the piano bench in the parlor before entering the kitchen where Hazel was preparing an unusually large breakfast. The youngsters soon began to appear, but their mother forbad anyone to touch the food until the men folk came in from the barn. Joyce likewise made it clear the gifts in the parlor were off limits. When the McGuire entered the house he immediately sat at the head of the table where everyone soon gathered. Turning to Joyce he addressed her deliberately: “Welcome home daughter. You’ve been missed. I hear that you are a good student. Would you ask the Lord’s blessing on our house and this table?”
Joyce was stunned. Never before had she known of a female in the household being allowed the privilege of leading the ritual of mealtime prayer. She glanced toward her mother who smiled faintly and lowered her head. Joyce struggled to acquit herself acceptably, then remained mostly quiet for the remainder of the meal. At its conclusion, John unexpectedly ordered his sons to help clear the table and instructed everyone to meet in the parlor after attending to the cleanup. He feigned surprise at the carefully wrapped gifts, but watched intently as his children opened them, then took turns hugging Joyce with expressions of wonder and gratitude. Hazel seemed to be dumbfounded by her daughter’s generosity, while John clearly acknowledged the meaning behind his daughter’s gift to him. “This is much too fine a pocket knife for me. I’ll just lose it I expect. I want Noland to have it to take with him to his new job in Denver.”
When her father rose from his sturdy rocking chair, Joyce assumed he would leave the house to continue with the chores, but instead he crossed the room and pulled a boxy bundle from behind a chair in the corner. Placing the mysterious, wrapped item in the middle of the room, he said Joyce’s name quietly and beckoned to her. When she joined him he put his hand on her shoulder and said, “Your mother thought you’d be needing this. We’re both very proud of you.” He removed the wrapping and held up an expensive looking, hand crafted leather satchel, suitable for books, papers, and personal items—the kind Joyce had seen the Doctor and her professors carrying. For the first time in her life the girl saw that her father was close to shedding tears. Impulsively she wrapped her arms around his middle and buried her head in his shoulder. Words formed in her head, but for a moment she was terrified that she would be unable to say them, as she had failed to speak from her heart to her mother, a few months ago. But as she felt her father’s arms pulling her to him, and his large hand rubbing her arm gently, the words tumbled out like a confession, and tears welled in her eyes. “Thank you Dad; I love you,” she said quietly. Turning, she moved to her mother’s chair, bent down and took the round face in her two hands, and kissed Hazel’s prematurely gray head. “I love you too Mama—I love you.” Then facing the others and looking brother Noland squarely in the eye, she announced: “I’m so happy to be home. I love you all.”


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