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Perfect Sowing

Cultivating the American character

He traveled the three miles to the mill 63 times during the 87th harvest of his life, his old International pulling the wagon my uncle filled with beans or corn. I don’t know why he counted the trips; perhaps it helped pass the time and focus his wavering mind on something other than the pain. He said to my father that he wanted to bring in one last crop. He almost did, clearing the beans but only getting halfway through the corn before he swallowed hard and told my uncle that they had better hire another man. The agony was too much, his back too hunched, his vision too cloudy and constricted. He asked my father to check him into the nursing home. A few days later, he died.

The house he lived in for more than 60 years had been his father-in-law’s—whom he often recalled as a lazy farmer, with an air of gentle reproof. His wife, the last of 14 children, had been born in that house. Her oldest brothers had even gone to school in the neighboring one-room red-brick schoolhouse, which later became an outbuilding to house a tractor and a few implements. The old blackboards are still affixed to the walls, but only longtime local residents know what the building once was.

A few years after my grandmother Betty died, he decided to record for all of his descendants the story of how she had contracted polio. She was pregnant with their fourth child. For five months, he recalled, she lay immobile in the hospital, consigned to an iron lung. The doctors called him in to say goodbye on several occasions, but against all odds she had survived. After he had been alone for a few years, he could not remember that long-ago crisis without emotion.

He told of this so frequently that, frankly, we wished he would move on. It was not that we tired of hearing his stories. It was just that he had so many others to tell, some of them uproariously funny, and we wanted to be regaled, not depressed. Once he got going, he would string memories together in a peculiar staccato style and rural idiom filled with colorful turns of phrase not often heard anymore. It was wildly entertaining.

But he kept coming back to the polio story, probably because he was trying to come to terms with his gratitude. He was overwhelmed by the grace of a God who had allowed his wife and the mother of his small children—including the one with whom she was pregnant—to live. She was gone, but all those children lived close by, even those who had once made their homes far away. Three lived within walking distance, not that anyone often walked out here in the flat, windswept Indiana countryside. So, too, in the area were innumerable cousins, nephews, nieces, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and folks of no blood relation who nevertheless could not resist calling him Grandpa Beer. God had been good.

Betty emerged from the polio with a limp and a crippled left arm that was nearly useless. She was not supposed to drive but she did anyway, often taking us to doctor’s appointments or picking us up from Little League practice. She was admired throughout the neighborhood for her skill in the kitchen, and I well remember her wading through the heavy midday heat to bring lemonade and cookies to the men in the fields. My brother and I wouldn’t be working, usually, but would just be hanging out with the men, riding along in the tractor or lolling about in the wagon, waiting with eager anticipation for someone to come by with the combine and dump in a load of wheat or beans or corn.

The story of Grandma’s polio always led my grandfather to mention Ruby, the Amish girl who helped the family during Betty’s illness and recovery. She had lived in the large Amish community that his farm bordered. Despite his frequent interactions with its members, he always spoke of the Amish as exotic creatures. Considered theologically, historically, or in manner of life, they were not so different from his own Anabaptist denomination, which also shunned television, movies, jewelry, makeup, alcohol, higher education, and worldliness in general. If he had ever thought about that, it didn’t seem to matter. His horizon was local, and what might have looked to scholars or outsiders as mere differences of emphasis or minor divergences to him made the Amish quite odd. Yet he was large-minded enough to allow that most of them seemed to be right with their Maker.

He didn’t often leave Kosciusko and Elkhart counties. Forays outside the state, at least beyond Illinois or Michigan or Ohio, were rare indeed. He visited my parents when they lived briefly in Phoenix in the late 1960s. With them he visited his other son in Alaska in the late 1990s. And in 1944, he had honeymooned for two or three nights with Betty in Chicago. They had stayed at the Palmer House. The trip was truncated because there were cows to milk back home, and dairy farmers hate imposing that duty on others for long.

Yes, his was a local horizon, but he was not incurious. He knew every road and almost every family, respectable or otherwise, in the county, and virtually everyone knew him. Indeed, I am still placed by folks in the area with reference to my status as his grandson. He was one of those individuals by whom others take their bearings, a fixed point in the map of the local mind.

He decided to run for office late in life and served several terms as a county commissioner and councilman. He set a county record, so far as anyone could tell, for amount of blood donated to the Red Cross, giving as often as possible until they finally had to turn him away because of his age. He volunteered at the hospital, and for a couple of decades he drove a school bus, never bothering to let it warm up before picking us up on subzero January mornings. He removed the snow from every neighbor’s driveway without being asked. During the worst blizzards he would patrol the road, plowing what he could and pulling strangers out of drifts. He was generous, stubborn, proud, charming.

He was, in short, an unselfconsciously rooted agrarian citizen-leader and republican aristocrat. He never read Jefferson, I am sure, and it is almost as likely that he never voted for a Democrat, but he nevertheless was an almost impossibly pure example of the democratic Jeffersonian ideal. And there were once hundreds of thousands like him, leavening Middle America and making it into an iconic land of friendly homes and warm hearths. I do not mean the pioneers, who were at best ambiguously heroic, always chasing the sunset and leaving behind them dearth and desert; naturally, we honor them and bathe them in romance. No, I mean the sober, quiet members of the post-pioneer generations, the ones who worked harder to settle America than anyone has before or since, and who have been repaid by our popular culture with mockery and endless recriminations for robbing oh-so-many would-be Sister Carries of the satisfying careers and sex lives they so richly deserved. No matter. They’re just about all gone now, and so is he.

By our unofficial family count, a thousand people showed up for the viewing, held over two days just a few hundred yards away from his biggest field. The line extended for hours outside the door of the funeral home on a characteristically raw and blustery late October day. Ruby and her family were there, along with concentric circles of relations, church members, and friends from the community—the vast majority of them still persisting, quietly, on a land that their own German-speaking grandfathers and great-grandfathers once settled with thousands of large families and small farms.

It was joyful to re-enter this little bit of near medieval gemeinschaft that somehow has survived into the 21st century. But after we buried him, after the traditional big lunch at the church’s fellowship hall, the drive back past his house was filled with evidence of that older world’s rapid decay. Nearly all the fences have been ripped out. Barns sag. Menacing semis rather than plodding tractors roar down the road. Litter lies in the ditches. The once settled, prosperous land has been emptied of big families and is continually losing its most able sons and daughters. It is being transformed into a giant meth lab, an agricultural industrial park, a rural slum, a place for losers. Another chapter in the unsettling of America. I am happy that he won’t be around to read it.  

Jeremy Beer received his doctorate in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin.

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