Thursday, February 4, 2016

Life on the Farm for a big Southern Family

Clearing New Ground

His lunch packed in a syrup can,
he mounts his John Deere, leaves at dawn.
She churns the cream, bakes a pie,
washes shirts and hangs them on the line.

West behind the pines, sky reddens.
Worry working on her face, she leaves
his supper warming in the oven,
trudges miles to new land he is claiming. 

Stone silence sounds a warning long
before she spys his lunch pail biscuits
spilled on up-turned earth, before she
spots his checkered shirt crushed 
beneath the green.

                        ---Glenda Council Beall

This poem is in my poetry book, Now Might as Well be Then, published in 2009 by Finishing Line Press.

Memories of childhood can produce poems and stories you have not thought of in years. I was a young child when I heard my parents discussing the death of a neighbor who was clearing new ground to plant more crops. 

My brothers and my father cleared most of our farm in the first couple of years we lived there. The boys worked all summer every day. At first they cleared the fields of rocks and loaded them on a wagon. There were several rock piles on the farm where the wagons were unloaded. 

Some acreage had to be cleared of brush and trees. I could hear the dynamite blasts from my safe playground under the big oak tree in the yard. Pulling stumps with a tractor was dangerous work. Mother worried about them. How easy it must have been to overturn those new machines. Even the youngest son drove the tractor and when I was six years old, I inched along, my foot on the clutch, between the rows of cornstalks while the boys and Daddy pulled the dry ears and tossed them into the wagon. 

Children who grew up on a farm in the forties and fifties were not exempt from farm work, even girls, if they were needed. Daddy only asked us to help out once or twice when we were small, but my brothers found ways I could help when I was old enough to keep the front wheels of the tractor going the right way. It was fun for me until one of them complained about something. Then I just put the gear in neutral and climbed down. Boy, those brothers changed their tune as they all began to call me back and promise they would not say another word. At six or seven, I knew I didn't have to help, and was doing the boys a favor. With all four of them on the ground they covered more of the corn field than if one of them had to drive the tractor. They could get done quicker and go home to take a shower. I don't think I have ever been so much in demand. 

My four brothers enjoyed working together. They sang and told stories. They laughed and made fun of each other. That made the hot sweaty days pass faster. My father had a philosophy he taught his sons. He told them they should always work together and depend on each other because "a bundle of sticks are harder to break than one stick alone."

1955 Council Brothers sing at a family reunion
We three sisters, June in front, Gay on right and me in red in 2008

Few families can spend their lives working so closely. Some families just can't get along that well. I didn't know it was unusual for a family to work and play together as we did until I was older and people seemed incredulous when they heard it. "I couldn't work one day with my brother," I heard from a friend.  

Our family not only cleared new ground on the land where we all lived, but also with their unusual business plan and responsibility for each other. The brothers' wives were expected to understand that none of them could ever draw more salary from the business than the others. Damages occurred along the way. One marriage failed because a wife couldn't understand this kind of loyalty to family. Having come from hard times on the farm, my brothers determined to build a better life for themselves and their children. 

Taking risks is easier when you aren't the only one responsible. If the man in my poem had not been alone that day when his tractor overturned, perhaps he could have been saved. My father and his sons worked together. C.L. Council and Sons was the platform on which a number of corporations were built. All seven of us were involved in some way. Life was exciting as we grew and created more opportunities in which we found our niche. 

I think of us as a pioneer family but we were not out west. We lived in southwest Georgia just after World War II. I have not seen much written about real life on a farm in the deep south at that time of our history. The ups and downs of building a successful farm business took a toll on my father. With the physical help of his sons as they grew older and the financial support from his oldest daughter who generously handed over part of her salary each month, the positive attitude from Mother who never let anyone give up on himself, the family business prospered.

I am so proud of my family, my brothers who worked so hard, my sisters who have always been there for each other, and my parents who never let set backs stop them. When someone asked me what was the key to keeping it all together and keep moving up, I say the key is love. Simply and purely, love. We have all had our disagreements and periods of being so mad with each other we can't stand it. But anger passes. Love lasts. Forgiveness heals. 

Our house overflowed with love. Mother was the fount from which unconditional love poured out and warmed the home in which we lived, no matter if it was the drafty old farm house or the new brick ranch built later. If I close my eyes, I can smell bacon frying and biscuits cooking as I approach the back screen door. 

Sun has set behind the  pines to the west and light reflects from a clear sky. Inside I see my dark haired mother in her worn house dress at the stove with her back to  me. That image alone floods my mind and my body with a feeling so intense I want to linger, suspend time, with eyes closed and never have to open them, never have that moment disappear. 

We gathered as a family on Sundays and all holidays, and some of us dropped in to see Mother and Daddy every day. I lived nearby after I married, so I usually dropped in on my way home from work. If other siblings stopped by, none of us wanted to leave because we enjoyed being together. Mother often stretched her evening meal to include enough for several of her children. 

Is that unusual? In today's movies set in cities or other parts of the country, it seems the parents are often divorced, the children are complaining about their busy-body parents, the parents are upset because the kids never come to see them, the grandchildren make fun of their grandparents, and all of this gives me the feeling we have lost what made our culture so special. 

I hope that what we see on TV and in movies is not the norm today. Are there still families with young children that gather each evening for a meal? Are there multi-generational families that still meet up on Sundays and holidays and have a wonderful time just being together, laughing and telling stories?

What is your family like? Close or not? Do you see them often and do you enjoy those times? If not, why and what could be done to change that? Would you want to change it?
Tell us your thoughts in our comment section.


Abbie Taylor said...

Since my husband, parents, and grandmother are no longer living, there are no more family dinners on Sundays. I have an uncle and aunt who live here in town, but I don't see them except on holidays. Other relatives are scattered across the country. I'd like to see my family more often, and I suppose I could organized a family reunion, but I don't hafve the time or energy.

I'll probably go to California for my uncle's wedding in April, but I don't know if any of my other relatives will be there. I was the only one in my family who attended my brother's wedding in Florida. People are just too busy to bother, I guess.

DJan said...

My parents have been gone for a long time now. When I go home to visit my siblings and their families, we have lots of time of enjoyment together. I am closer to some of them than others, but I am now at the top of the pyramid: the oldest sibling so first in line, I guess. The oldest aunt and sister. But when I was growing up, we ate every dinner together and Mama and Daddy were the center of our universe. :-)

Gay said...

Boy, did this post bring back good memories. We were so blessed, weren't we? And although there are fewer of us left now, aren't we blessed to be close enough to enjoy our times together? We have so much for which to be thankful. thanks for reminding me of those great times and taking me home once again.

Glenda Beall said...

Yes, Gay, we do have so much for which to be thankful. We have wonderful memories of June, Ray, Hal and Rex, Mother and Daddy and our dear Stan and Yvonne and my Barry who were family by marriage but still loved dearly by everyone. Sometimes I wish I had our lives recorded from when we were small and I could play it over and enjoy it all over again.Although my friends think some of my stories about my brothers don't show them in the best light. An example- the story of them taking us frog gigging in the swamp.
Thanks for your comment.

Glenda Beall said...

Abbie, I am so sorry you have lost so many close family members and aren't close to remaining relatives. Many times we have to take the initiative to connect with aunts and uncles. They probably think you are too busy to bother with them. A phone call or just a note in the mail to let them know you remember and think of them means so much and could open the door to a wonderful relationship.
It took me years to realize that.
Thanks for reading and leaving your comment.

Glenda Beall said...

DJan, I was sorry to read of your sister's injuries. I hope she is on her feet and active again very soon.
Your family sounds much like my family - close and enjoying each other.
So glad you still have Norma Jean. I, too, am the oldest female in my family.
Thanks for leaving your comment and thanks for reading my blog.

Abbie Taylor said...

Glenda, I've tried phoning and sending letters to distant relatives, but I've rarely gotten a response. I send out Christmas letters every year, and some of them send cards, gifts, and letters at that time, but that's it. They're too busy for me, but maybe I'll see some of them if I go to California in April.

Glenda Council Beall said...

At least you have tried, Abbie. Hope your trip to California is great!

Anonymous said...

The poem is so beautiful but so sad! Loved your family stories. Just know you were a wonderful family.