- Historic Sites
A Summer’s Wait
A young poet’s memories of the old rural America in whose fields he worked for two sunny months while awaiting the call to service in the First World War
June/July 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 4
This change was certainly among the most significant events of my life. For the next two months I remember as perhaps the happiest I have spent anywhere. They were spent in retreat, Hope being far from railroads and visited by none except farmers on business for the day. They were spent in happy labor, happy for me both because I like farming and because at that particular time I needed exercise, sunshine, and separation from books. And they were spent in a scene which delighted me beyond all expression. I had spent my first six years on that farm. I had remembered little, but I had been told much since, about the place and about all the neighborhood. My imagination and affections had been stored fuller than I knew of attachments and reverences and loyalties, and even images and sensations. It was there that I had worn the long curly hair of which my mother was so proud, which I must confess I never despised, but which most of my elders were glad to see shorn. It was there that I had barely escaped the horns of an old, ill-tempered cow; and it was there that I saw those horns sawed off, bleeding for my sake. It was there that I played in the deep front yard with Frank, and was caught by him most ludicrously conversing with a lamb. It was there that I heard my first talking-machine; I heard it at Ezra Harrison’s store. It was there that Frank and I learned to swear and were caught at it by Inez, who threatened us with exposure before mother; I remember how we followed mother for days after with lamblike humility to make a rebuke or a switching impossible; I believe now that Inez never told, but I know that we were so fearful that we went with mother to milk the first night, and held the lantern better for her than we had ever held it before. It was at Hope that I had known Aunt Molly, and Fred Thomas’s store, with its caramels wrapped in tasteless paper. It was there that I had known Otie, Lorraine, and Reid. It was there that I had begun to wear pants. It was there that I went the first unwilling day to school, and was carried into the schoolhouse from behind a tree, screaming and kicking the teacher’s shins. It was from there that Frank and I drove Dick the journey to Potomac, and, returning, found Paul at mother’s side in bed. It was there that Dad was so good to his little young ’uns; can I forget how he would bring us candy—how sometimes, having forgotten the candy, he would turn back his horse in very sight of the house, and make good his promise? I shall never forget the ecstasy which kept me awake for hours one Saturday night until I should hear him gallop into the barnlot, bringing corduroy pants for Frank and me from Ogden. It was there that numberless precious memories were stored away. It was there, last of all, that the great “surprise” was held, when hundreds of neighbors and relatives drove in buggies for miles to see us off to Urbana in 1900.… Not that I had anything to do with it, I was only one of the Doctor’s boys. It was the Doctor, and the Doctor’s wife, whom the farmers left their work to come and tell goodbye. I remember the procession of buggies that came over the hill from Hope. I remember the barnyard full of teams, and the lawn full of people. I remember the tubs full of lemonade, the tables covered with cake and meat, the wagons piled high with watermelons from Kilbury’s patch. Happy boys, if we can ever earn such love, or serve so many so well!
The scene was not only familiar and venerable. It was very beautiful. The groves on that farm are the most perfect I have ever seen; they stand, august, and very dark and trim, overlooking all the land away to the west; indeed, they are a landmark for travellers from any direction. The farm slopes back from the road towards the north. The fields are fenced with high rows of hedge, and are always beautiful. I remember everything about the crops I helped to raise that summer: the grass and weeds which almost smothered the northwest “forty,” and made it difficult to plow, the clean tall corn on the north forty, which is the highest part of the farm; the ditch that ran through the northeast forty; the oats that Dad came out himself to cut, and which were the first I had shocked (I wonder if they will be the last?); the hot, dry days for the shocking; the sudden shower that drove us into the grove to sit and whittle and talk of rural nothings; the alfalfa I tended so proudly, dragging and harrowing and rolling the ground again and again, to please Dad; the beans I helped to sow; the west forty, where I did my first plowing, during the cold, damp days of early June, when mother (I learned afterwards) cried to think of me sitting on an old iron plow in the cold; the groves, through which I often walked for sheer ecstasy of contentment, and in which the two red calves were born, and to which the big boar fled after we had made him into a stag; the orchard, where I would go after supper to sit and watch the sun go down on the peacefulest landscape known to man, and watch the horses, just out of the harness, roll and graze and stroll together; the barnyard where I liked to stand at dusk, the chores done, and talk with the men of the place; the little patch of alfalfa east of the house, the ground for which I broke and the bed for which I prepared, to please Dad; the house itself, old, white, square, where all of us boys were born, and where I slept these summer nights—upstairs, in the south room, with windows opened wide on three sides, and the most abysmal darkness and stillness reigning outside, pierced from time to time, it might be, by the ugly bark of Shep, the dwarfish collie.