Friday, October 15, 2010

Harvest Bee

Last spring, I read In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?, a novel by Charles Monroe Sheldon that grew out of a series of sermon-stories he wrote and read to his congregation at Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kansas. The story, written in 1896, follows several members of the First Church of Raymond for one year while they live out Reverend Henry Maxwell’s challenge: “Do not do anything without first asking, ‘What Jesus would do?’” The characters find their lives forever changed by the choices they make.

Nearly one hundred years later, a youth pastor in Holland, Michigan created WWJD bracelets for members of her youth group after they read Sheldon’s novel and decided to take a similar challenge. About the same time a marketing consultant was inspired by the book and helped turn the catchy phrase into a retail phenomenon.

Today, I celebrate the neighbors who helped our family on a mid-October day, 15 years ago. None of them wore WWJD bracelets, but all could answer the question, because they lived it. I wrote an essay about the experience and read it on Iowa Public Radio. It was also published in A Cup of Comfort for the Grieving Heart.


A Second Helping of Funeral Sandwiches

Published in A Cup of Comfort for the Grieving Heart 2010
Published at 2007
Aired on Iowa Public Radio 2005

Mom and I watch from the living room window as a horse-drawn hayrack brings four, five, then six loads of men in from the cornfields for the noon dinner. 

"I wish the day were over," she says and moves to Dad's recliner on the other side of the room.  She says it's too hard to face the neighbors, too painful to talk with friends who will celebrate forty and fifty years of marriage--celebrations she won't experience.

But we need to acknowledge the hundred or so farmers who spent the morning harvesting our corn crop, so I zip my coat and find hats and mittens for my three-year-old and sixteen-month-old sons.  The October sun is bright but deceiving, the wind gentle but cool.  The boys ask--for what seems the hundredth time--when they can have a tractor ride, then race to the Morton Building, sensing that something important is taking place. 

 Dad's tractors have been moved, his tools hung on pegs, the floor has been swept and washed.  The new layout--eight-foot tables, each surrounded by ten folding chairs--is eerily reminiscent of our church fellowship hall, where funeral sandwiches were served only two months earlier.  

But instead of petite triangles of egg and chicken salad, today's sandwiches are hearty--the kind needed to sustain farmers for the rest of the workday.  BBQs.  Sloppy Joes.  Taverns.  Maid Rites.  Loose Meat Sandwiches.  The names differ depending on the Midwestern community, but they're all served with slotted spoons from white ceramic roasters.  It takes two, maybe three, roasters to feed the hundred farmers who have volunteered equipment and time to help their neighbor.      

The line for food stretches past the roasters to more than twenty choices of salads and a dozen desserts that Mom’s friends have prepared.  Eight women stand guard, dishing up sandwiches, removing empty bowls, and serving coffee.  Lots of coffee. 

The place hums with laughter, good-to-see-you handshakes, and slaps to the back--the talk probably as much about corn prices, hail damage, and land values as about my dad.  Even neighbors who have feuded over land and rights-of-way for two generations tip their hats to each other. 

My brother is standing with our new tenant, arms crossed over his chest in typical farmer fashion, even though he isn't one.  I'm sure they’re discussing of how much grain to haul to town and how much to store here at home.  I hope he's about done.  I've been gone for thirteen years and have forgotten many of our neighbors' names.  This thank-you job would be easier if I could simply follow him from table to table.

Unfortunately, it doesn't appear he'll be done "farming" soon.  So the boys and I move toward the men in plaid shirts, hooded sweatshirts, and seed-corn advertising caps.  Many simply nod and raise their Styrofoam cup to me.  They don't remember much about me either. 

But at one table, a farmer says, "We're glad to do it.  Rex would've done the same for me." 

"You know," another says, "I coffeed with your dad that morning.  He looked so good.  I still can't believe he's gone."

A woman I recognize but can't name appears at my side.  "Come have something to eat," she says.  "And how about the boys?  I'll bet they're hungry.  How old are they now? Keeping you plenty busy, I'm sure.  Your mom says you're able to stay home with them now--how nice.  And how nice for her that you're only five hours away." 

I respond as graciously as I can to the neighbor with no name, asking only generic questions of her life and her family. 

My sons have spied the chocolate cake and for a few moments, the food table provides a refuge, sheltering me from a barrage of questions, protecting me from my memories. 

"Do you want red Jello or orange Jello?" I ask my oldest. 

LuAnne, a neighbor with a name I do remember, offers them brownies.  Silently congratulating myself, I greet her by name and whisper, "who was that woman I was just talking to?"

Her warm smile tells me she understands my uneasiness.

LuAnne had seen this neighbor-helping-neighbor generosity all her life, but it is ten years later, when I sit down to watch the videotape, before I realize what the day was really about. 

You see: October 18, 1995 was a good corn-pickin' day in central Nebraska. The ground was dry and the breeze, pleasant. Farmers know how precious a good corn pickin' day is. They know how Mother Nature affects their lives, that they have no control over the amount of rain, wind and sunshine they receive or when it occurs. They know how every hour in the field translates into money in the bank. 

That day, for nearly ten hours, thirteen combines worked their way through our fields, and forty trucks, trailers, and wagons hauled the grain to the elevator. At the end of the day, all six hundred acres were harvested.

The harvest bee was more than a group of farmers spending the day in our fields. Dad's friends unselfishly gave us a piece of their hearts. As they drove away at the end of that long day, the headlights of their combines, tractor-trailers, and semi-trucks were a silent tribute from their fields to ours--and more meaningful than the procession from the church to the cemetery.