by Rick Beck
We got some of the frozen meals Aunt Lula prepared for Dad for lunch. They were surprisingly good, but the fresh Iowa air had me eating like a horse.
"Your people won't worry you've gotten lost in the corn."
"I'm going to call to tell them I'm taking a few days," I said, not asking if he wanted me to stay.
"Is that what you want, son?" he asked.
"Now that I'm home, I'm in no hurry to leave. I think I'll stay a spell," I said, giving him a chance to object.
"For how long?" he asked.
And I didn't have the answer.
"As long as it takes?" I said, thinking of him being alone and in trouble in the last days or final hours of his life.
I wouldn't leave my father to die alone.
"I'd like that, Bobby. I've enjoyed your company. Once you came, ...seeing you and knowing you're going on, it makes my mortality easier to accept. I'd lost touch with that fact."
The next morning I stood on the back porch with my coffee. The empty silent fields were unsettling. They'd never been like this at this time of year while i was a boy.
The day I left the corn was waist high.
At this time of day as a boy, as I got ready for school, I remember standing in the same spot, watching my father or at least hearing the tractor he drove while tending his corn.
I was sorry there were to be no more harvests on the Sorenson land. I'd never given the corn a thought over the years. Now its absence was striking.
The lack of sound was remarkable.
Sorensons had grown corn for as long as they'd been in Iowa. We'd settled this land, cleared it, and grew corn. After all these years, for the first time I felt a connection to it. I'd always been my mother's son, a Bostic.
Deep inside me the Sorenson's love of this land was growing. I'd ignored it for years, but coming home, facing my father, reminded me of my roots.
I wouldn't turn in my suit and microphone to come home to tend the corn. I wouldn't know how. Men like my father were obsolete. Growing corn the way he did wasn't profitable, no matter how rewarding family farming was to the family who farmed it.
Big corporations grew the corn now.
I knew the story. I'd reported on it.
A family farm goes under. The family ends up on the street. They've lost their home, their ability to make a living, their way of life. Now they'd need to fight to stay together.
"A family settles land, farms it for a hundred years, and now they're thrown off by people who grow nothing but rich," I heard myself saying in a story I reported.
It was a sad truth of our time. Money trumped everything.
We sat at the table, after deciding to go to the diner when the mood struck. We'd settle for coffee right now. It's how most of our days started, coffee and contemplation.
"Your grandpa gave me the history of the Sorenson farm before you were born. It tells about people you've never heard about, but we're here because they were here first."
"I was thinking about that when I was on the porch just now. Great minds think a like," I said.
"And not so great minds," he said with a smile. "I just want to make sure you have the history."
"I'll check to be sure. I plan to take all the journals. I'll keep the history and the story about Sven with me. I'll mail the others things before I fly home. They'll be safe in the mail.
"Everything you've told me keeps running around inside my head like it wants to get out. I haven't figured out what to do about it yet. You've given me a lot to think about, Dad. You've lived quite a life."
"I don't know about that. I put one boot in front of the other. Didn't seem that complicated once I got moving."
"No, that wouldn't. It's how you did it that amazes me. From Grandpa's accident to losing Sven and Mama, a lot of men would have become bitter and useless."
"It ceases to be about you when you truly love someone. You give all you can, then, you give a little more. In time it's the love you remember, not your loss. For me anyway."
"Fran and I were best friends. We made lousy lovers. I'd like to think I'll love like you've loved one day."
"It has no time limit. If you meet the right person, you'll know it. Losing your mother so young, Bobby, it's difficult to trust someone completely. The fear of losing them is rooted in the pain of losing your mama. It's a hard pain to overcome. One day you'll throw caution to the wind and allow yourself to love someone completely. That's my hope for you, son."
That hit home. Dad identified something I didn't see.
"You lost both of your loves," I said. "I can't imagine that pain."
"If it was just about me, yes, disabling pain, but it runs deeper than just me, Bobby. Let's take a walk. I'll show you something that explains what kept me here all these years."
He sprang up, went out the door, walking toward the gate and into the field, where I caught up with him.
After a couple of minutes, I saw one lonely dead tree standing in the middle of the field. It wasn't easy to see against the gray soil.
"I never could understand why you grew corn around this damn tree, Daddy," I said, remembering how it stood out.
"It's what's on this tree I wanted to show you. My father showed it to me when I was a boy. It meant nothing then. It was interesting."
"It means something to you now?" I asked.
He ran his hand over the dead tree.
"Come here," he said in a secretive whisper. "I'll show you what it's all about."
I stood beside him, watching him brush the wood tenderly. Then I realized something was carved into the wood.
"Closer," he said, until I was bent over with my eyes inches from his hand.
It took a second for my eyes to adapt to the bright day and the faint carvings time rendered almost invisible.
"The journal tells the history of the Sorensons on this land. This tree stands as witness to that history.
Like an ancient artifact my father would explain it to me as I tried to make out the carvings.
"Why's my name with yours? I can read those two."
"I carved your name here the day you were born. My great grandfather, Lloyd Sorenson," he explained. "Settled here in 1875. He carved his name on this tree the day his first son, Jack, was born. Jack, my Pa's father, carved Pa's name here after he was born. Pa carved my name after I was born. Like you, we're all first sons. You were my first son. That's why your name is here."
I was speechless. These were all men who worked this land. My name seemed sadly out of place. I saw my connection to the first Sorenson who lived here. I did live here.
"Ralph and Junior?" I asked.
"No. This was between Pa and me. It was between father and his first born son. As far as I know Ralph and Junior aren't aware of what's carved here."
"I didn't live up to to expectations, did I, Dad."
"I was the one who didn't live up to expectations. I had to be forced into it. This is a history. It's also a curse, son."
"You were expected to be a farmer?"
"Right. Didn't matter what I wanted. My life didn't belong to me. It belonged to the Sorenson name. To the farm. When my brothers are gone, this land will go to the agricultural corporation. No one else will want it. This tree, the trees in the meadow, the graves, even the pond are destined to be plowed under.
"A corporation knows nothing about family. They know about corn. They care about corn. What began here over a hundred years ago will disappear soon. In ten years no one will know a Sorenson ever set foot here. History ends here."
"That doesn't upset you?"
"Among the things I can do nothing about. I've watched a hundred farms lost to corporate growers. Had your grandpa not been crippled, this farm would already be gone. It's only because of how events unfold that I'm still here."
"I wouldn't have made a good farmer," I apologized.
"Your mama said, "Our son isn't going to be a farmer. You did what you were expected to do, son. You did what I longed to do."
"And the history of the Sorensons?" I asked.
"I'm where that story ends. It begins again with you. This tree, this land has no meaning beyond the people who were here. Come on this side and I'll tell you another story."
Opposite the Sorenson's names, he touched a spot with some carving. This was different. It was special in a way that was made significant by how he touched it.
I saw a heart. Looking closer, I read, 'SG loves RS' inside it.
"Once I knew Sven was going, I was a mess. I was afraid I'd never see him again. He sensed my apprehension. He brought me here and he carved this heart. I watched him carve his initials, loves, and then he carved my initials.
"Sven traced the heart and our initials with his fingertips and he told me to do the same thing. I was overwhelmed that he could express his feelings so easily."
My father grew silent, and ever so slowly his fingers traced the heart and what was inside. His voice grew shaky.
"Sven told me this, 'No matter what happens, Robert, I'll always be right here,' he said, tapping his finger on my chest over my heart. 'Always.'"
Tears ran on my father's face like the pain was fresh.
Fifty years and his heartbreak had never healed.
"I don't know about you, but all this reminiscence has made me hungry. Let's go eat," he said, walking away.
Over the next ten days, I never felt closer to anyone than I felt to my father. The stories he told, his sense of humor, his ability to make me laugh, kept me enthralled.
On the morning of the eleventh day, I found Robert Sorenson, my father, dead. He'd died in his sleep.
I hadn't heard a sound. We talked late into the night, as had become our custom.
He was fine when I left him in the kitchen to go to bed.
I called Uncle Junior and Uncle Ralph before I went outside.
I found myself walking to the family tree my father showed me. Once there, I cried.
Had i not come home, there would have been no pain. My father would have died without me noticing his passing.
I found out things were far more complicated than I believed them to be as a boy.
Going home was like going home should be. I found the family. I found surprises. What I gained by going home to see my father far outweighed the loss of him.
Nothing had changed but me. Home was still home. I'd lived in half dozen places in Portland. None of them were home.
I blamed my father for my mother's death, adding to his pain. He didn't hold it against me. I was his son after all.
My life had always been about me. I decided my father's death would be about him.
When we talked about his death, he told me, "Since I can't be buried next to Sven, being cremated, putting my ashes in the wind, and maybe we'll find our way back to each other."
I'd do my father one better than that.
After Uncle Ralph and Uncle Junior paid their respects and they agreed to let me take care of my father, I did have him cremated.
I located a colorfully hand painted glass decanter I thought he'd appreciate. My father went inside. I could easily tuck the jar under my arm.
I decided I wouldn't release the ashes in the meadow, his preference.
I always wanted to see Italy. I thought my father would like it. Flying to Rome, I took the short train ride to Anzio.
The train rocked gently. I enjoyed it. It was a slower way to go but the scenery was terrific. I'd rarely taken time to enjoy travel. My job meant I needed to hurry.
It was a nice day, until the train moved close to the coast. I had a hotel room reserved in Anzio. I could stay a few days if necessary.
The window next to my seat dampened as the train moved south. The sun peeked through at times. I was encouraged.
The door to my compartment slid open. I turned from the scenery and nodded my greeting at the older woman who came to take possession of her seat.
We left the station some time before. I was sure I'd have the compartment to myself, but company was good.
I watched as she clumsily arranged her things on the seat opposite me. She sat down facing me, rearranging her things again. She wore the most amazing hat. Her red outfit matched the hat perfectly.
"Nice hat," I said.
"Thank you," she sang. " It's a lovely day."
She either hadn't bothered to look outside or she liked rain.
"Do you come to Italy often?" she sang in what i thought was an English baritone.
Somehow she knew I wasn't Italian.
"No, I've never been," I confessed in my American version of English, turning back to the window.
"Are you traveling alone?" she asked in a song.
"No, I'm traveling with my father. He's never been to Italy either," I said, hopefully avoiding the next question.
"How wonderful," she sang for everyone to hear. "What a beautiful vase. Did you pick up in Rome?"
"No, Iowa," I said, seeing confusion on her face.
"Is your father far?"
"No," I said, patting the vase. "I like to keep him close."
She eyed my father's resting place curiously.
The train began to slow for Anzio. Once I stood, tucking the jar under my arm, I slid the door open, I turned to bid her farewell.
"My father says to tell you it was nice meeting you," I said, smiling an irreverent smile and patting the jar as I left.
I was sure she was the kind of woman who would tell the story of the odd American she met on the train.
I gave the cabby a nice gratuity when we arrived at the hotel.
"Graci ," he said with a friendly smile.
I hesitated half in and half out of his cab.
"Not so much," he said with a wonderful accent.
"Anzio? I go to Anzio at nine in the morning. The American portion of the cemetery. Will you take me."
"Yes! Can do. Will take."
"What time will you pick me up?"
"Yes. Nine I pick up to Anzio. I take."
"Graci," I said, and felt better about going to the cemetery and not being left while I conducted my business.
My taxi was waiting the next morning and the rain had stopped, but it looked like it could rain any time. He drove me to a gate with a guard shack beside a pole with an American flag hanging lip in the still air.
"Let me off here. I want to walk up. I'll be a few minutes," I said as the driver nodded and smiled.
I brought a canvas bag with a shoulder strap where I put my father. Carrying a jar might be a dead giveaway.
The driveway was smooth and perfectly paved. As I approached, a uniformed soldier stepped out of his post to greet me.
"Sven Olie Gustoff please. I'll need directions. I haven't been here before."
He stood at attention, clicked his heels, executed an about face, and went back into the enclosure. He checked a chart and turned to look at a map of the graves. He pulled a notebook size sheet of paper from a stack under the map. He circled Sven's grave, returning to me.
"Sir, if you'll follow this drive, take your first left turn, walk to the end of the paved surface. Turn right, staying on the pavement. You'll find Sgt. Gustoff at the fifth stone. Here's a map showing you where he is."
"Thank you," I said, glancing down at the paper to see if it agreed with his words and it did.
By that time he was standing back at attention as if I'd disappeared. I couldn't help but feel honored to be allowed to enter there.
I felt a bit guilty about what I planned to do.
Before I turned I looked back but he was gone. I walked through the rows of gravestones. There was white marble on green grass with concrete paths to transport people so they didn't step on the graves. It was all quite impressive.
I removed the jar from the canvas bag. I read the name on the gravestone where I stopped.
"Sven Olie Gustoff. Well, Daddy, I'm here. You and Sven are back together again. It's as close as I could come to making your dream come true. I love you, Dad."
I unscrewed the top of the jar.
"I didn't know you, Uncle Sven, but you must have been one hell of a man. I think you remember my father."
Turning until I felt the slight breeze on the back of my neck, I spilled the ashes out gently around the edges and then spilling the rest in the middle of Sven's grave.
"You two enjoy your eternity together. God's speed."
The clouds had begun to boil overhead and I was sure it was going to rain on their reunion. I tucked the jar back into the canvas bag and hurried, hoping to make it back to the cab before the storm began.
By the time I'd reached the first turn going back, it was dark. Not dark as night, but darker than I liked. I kept moving, until I turned back toward the entrance.
The wind began to blow. It was going to be a gale. The temperature was dropping. I felt like something was sucking the oxygen out of the air.
Dirt and debris began rising to be sucked into what looked like a vortex; a miniature tornado. I moved faster, not looking back. I wanted the safety of the cab.
Who knew Italy had weather like this?
Why on today of all days?
The guard stood outside his enclosure, hands on hips, looking into the sky. I turned in time to see a swirling cyclone shooting upward, above where I'd just been.
It was moving higher and faster, creating a rumbling sound. The low hanging clouds opened. The cyclone was sucked through in an instant.
The clouds closed. The wind died. The day brightened.
"What the hell! …I've never seen anything like it," he said with astonishment. "Did you see that? What was it?"
"Oh, that," I said, as I passed the bewildered soldier. "That was just my father saying hello to an old friend."
By the time I reached the cab golden rays of sun streamed down. The clouds thinned to reveal a royal blue sky with pink and red hues. Its beauty defied description.
I'm taking the train to Verona, once I see Rome. I want to be in the place where Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet lived. Just maybe it will bring me some luck.
I wanted to keep thoughts of love on my mind.
I'm taking a leave of absence. I'm returning home with a film crew.
For the second time in my life, a story has fallen into my lap. The plane crash didn't require much imagination to report. The story of the Sorenson's, as seen through my father's eyes, took a little longer for me to develop.
It's a fascinating story my journalistic side can't let go. .
I think I'll call it The Farm Hand.
A Rick Beck Story
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]