Favorite Children and Other Family Relationships: a Story, Chapter 3
The year 1939 must have been the happiest in Mother’s life. At age 42 Leta married the star tenor in the church choir she directed during the school year. Although she and Lawrence visited us most Sundays, she didn’t take charge of matters as she had before her marriage, her available time being consumed with managing the lives of her husband’s two married daughters and their families. These new charges seemed happy to be “managed.” The marriage worked, Lawrence remained the star tenor into his seventies and everyone in the family acknowledged off the record that after her marriage Leta’s personality changed for the better. I resented her abandonment of me until I co-opted Uncle Lawrence for Sunday afternoon games.
The preceding summer Dorothy in her mid-30’s married Howard, a 27-year old teacher who recognized her organizational competence, and was delighted to turn over to her the running of his life. She promptly organized him for a master’s degree and further postgraduate work. He became a college professor in industrial arts, a position they were quite happy with. Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Howard had a daughter Karen in 1942. Tragically Karen died in an automobile accident when she was six.
My mother’s other 1939 happy event was the birth of my brother Gary who has earned a story of his own, as told from my point of view in an earlier blog. All I can bring myself to say at this point is that Gary’s arrival following the summer aunts’ abandonment of me made 1939 the worst year of my life.
My father and grandfather enjoyed a good relationship as business partners in the farm. They worked together in the fields with no disagreements over farming operations. Both were good farmers by local standards and worked pretty hard, but neither had the killer instincts I later recognized in successful businessmen. If the rains didn’t come or the spring came late and crops were adversely affected, well, these things happen and there’s always next year when maybe we’ll have more rain or the spring will come earlier.
Grandfather always had time to spend a few weeks in the fall in Wyoming, the Dakotas or Montana with his brothers-in-law shooting antelopes, deer and elk. Father was left in charge of harvesting the crops and looking after the livestock.
Most days I could count on Grandfather reading to me for an hour or two. Listening to the radio and reading two newspapers a day and Time, Life, and National Geographic magazines gave him a decent grasp of current affairs despite only six years of schooling.
I remember him telling our neighbor, Mr. Taylor: “We Babbs have been Democrats since the days of ‘Tommie Jefferson’ (Babb cousins in Virginia helped put him in the White House) but, when they elected Roosevelt and his New York banker friends in 1932, the party left me. I didn’t leave the party.”
He meant it, too, never voting for another Democrat.
Grandfather traveled once or twice a year with Irene and her salesman husband to California, the Pacific Northwest or Mexico. In my mind I have a picture of him waving goodbye from the back seat of Irene’s royal blue 1940 Mercury convertible and never looking back as they headed off early one June morning for the West coast.
Father’s interests in music, baseball, weight lifting and other athletic activities helped him withstand the pressures of crop failures, animal diseases and low prices for the grains and livestock we took to market. I remember one day we were in Maryville when a “townie” bet father he couldn’t lift a car. Father backed up to a Model T Ford, hooked his hands under the front bumper, lifted the front-end six inches off the ground, lowered it, looked his challenger in the eye, and walked away.
One lazy August day when I was about twelve and had been helping with the farming operations for a couple of years, I had my first and only business conversation with my father and grandfather. The corn had been “laid by” and no further cultivation was necessary, the oats and wheat thrashed and in the granaries and the hay crops bailed and in the barns. With the three of us working, I saw we had free time – quite a bit really. Although World War II was winding down, demand for agricultural products remained strong with prices at all time highs. I devised a plan to make more use of our equipment and the extra time on our hands.
Father and Grandfather were looking with satisfaction at the 60-acre field of corn south of the implement yard. You could almost see the corn growing in the 100-degree mid-day heat.
I broke their solitude, gently I thought: “I’ve got an idea I’d like us to thing about.”
Father and Grandfather swung their gaze toward me, but neither said anything waiting for me to continue.
“You know Sam Flood’s not farming that 80 acres just north of one of our cornfields and it’s been in alfalfa for a couple of years.”
“Why don’t we rent it next year, or see if he wants to sell it, and raise corn on it? It’s next to our field and it’d be easy to farm when we’re working our field.”
They looked at each other without changing their expressions, Father deferring to Grandfather, who looked me in the eye and without malice or sarcasm said, “Why’d we want to do that, Frankie? We’ve got enough right now.”
Enough of what? I wasn’t sure, but I wanted him to know I wasn’t expecting him to do the work.
“I didn’t mean you’d have to work it, Grandpa. I was planning to do it myself along with the regular work. I’ve figured it out, and I’ve got the time. It’ll be fun for me. Can we do it, Grandpa? We’ll make some money too; I know it!”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea, son, “ Father quickly interjected in support of his father.
“Well,” I said, “if you and Grandpa don’t want to do it, I’ll share-crop it with Sam. All you and Grandpa will need to do is rent me the equipment. I’ll pay you when we harvest the corn.”
“I just don’t think it’s a good idea, Frankie.” Father replied, closing the conversation.
Both of them looked way from me to the cornfield and silence resumed.
With their words in my ears, I determined not to follow the multi-generation family tradition: I would not be a farmer.
* * * *
Returning to the winter of 1950 and Grandfather’s death….(to be continued)