Promises to Keep
In the 1960s, Sonny Skidmore did a lot of work for my mother at the controls of his backhoe: digging ponds, water bars, and septic tanks; grading the driveway; even towing our Army surplus Jeep out of a snowbank just below Charlie Bentley’s farm. Sonny’s mother, Jenny, maintained the tradition of the Saturday night sauna (a welcome event for those in town who did not have hot running water, plus a great spot, as it turned out, to meet a future spouse). Meanwhile, Harry, his father, was constantly bothered by the influx of hippies from New York and liked to make trouble just to entertain himself. But Sonny was a quiet, gentle man, despite his oversized hands and hogshead build. His penmanship was refined, almost girlish, yet nobody was better at the controls of a backhoe. You knew this because other men would jump down into a foundation hole while he was still digging, unafraid that they would get smacked in the head with the bucket.
I also knew Sonny as a man who kept his word. If he said that he would drop by to dig a new garden, he might not show up soon, but he always got the job done. This, I think, is part and parcel of growing up in the country, where neighbors count on each other to get by. We buy our hay from Dale Aines, who shows up with 2,000 bales every June without having to be reminded. Last fall, I asked Axel Blomberg if I could buy two cords of wood for our sugarhouse, and a month later, without further discussion, two cords were delivered and stacked, just as promised. This fidelity applies to a host of other activities as well: running sap lines, delivering composted manure, spreading lime, transporting pigs and cattle, welding a feeder, and blowing out irrigation lines for the winter. Two years ago, Nate Darrow offered to come over and show me how to prune apple trees. He finally showed up this March with his farm manager, his wife, and two gas-powered pole saws. Even after two years, his word was good (and he pruned all of our trees to boot).
In summer, I make lots of small promises that I don’t keep. I promise to take Emily fishing for bass at the upper pond. I have the best of intentions to saddle up the horses and take the family for a ride over Egg Mountain. I tell the kids that this is going to be the year we make the family movie. I have let them down with promises to explore the cave in Beartown. We don’t always make it to all the county fairs we want to or take regular walks after dinner, returning home at twilight through a drifting sea of off-and-on lightning bugs to dish up bowls of homemade caramel ice cream. Every summer, as the nights grow colder, these broken promises are catalogued and recounted by our children in an effort to make sure that the future runs closer to plan.
Despite my shortcomings, I do believe that every life has one promise of note, one that cannot be broken without consequence. Mine is to pass on what I learned as a child on a small mountain farm, in the hay barns and pastures, at the noontime table, in the front seat of a farmer’s dusty pickup, and when leading the horses down to the brook for a drink. These were not simply lessons of hard work and personal responsibility. They represent the gift of knowing all that can be done between sunrise and sunset, with two bare hands, a few tools, and a childlike enthusiasm for the world around us.
Last summer, during an afternoon of haying, there was a moment when I felt transported back to the 1960s. Standing in a windrow, I sniffed the hot breath of wild sage and spearmint, the sweet scent of ferns, and the blast of heat from the tractor and watched the leaves at the edge of the field turn milky silver as they twisted on their stems. In an instant, I was back in Charlie Bentley’s hayfield, side-by-side with two farmhands, Herbie and Onie, and Dave Trachte, a local boy. We were haying down by the Green River, and I remembered the orange paintbrushes and tiny buttercups, a flat green snake coiling through a bale, and bumblebees as thick as my thumb, lazy and unsteady in the wind. We had it all back then, a place so intimate that an incense of yeast hung in the parlor, the rivers ran virgin and cold, and the woods were haunted by fiddle tunes from dance halls now sunken down into the weeds. Everything on that mountain farm had a past and a purpose, but even back then, I knew that America was starting to forget.
So I promised myself that I would grow up to build a root cellar, wear boots that have trod through manure, enjoy a sunrise cup of coffee in the barn, and, above all, raise kids who can throw hay, feed pigs, bridle a horse, and put the chickens away at night. I promised that in my family, the America I grew up with would be passed from parent to child, so that our grandchildren will learn how to cast a tight line, hitch up a team, and make a respectable skillet cornbread before the sun washes over the south side of Walnut Mountain. To some, these things may seem trivial, but teaching the next generation how to be useful, how to make the most of what lies between the bookends of a summer day or even a life, is a promise I know I will keep.