Sometimes I pull an errant blade of grass and see it is not grass at all but corn, a kernel sprouting. And though the grass comes from seed, too, it does not touch me like this corn, which I hurry to replant, tucking the soil around the thready roots as a blanket, offering water, an apology. A prayer.
It is the last day of July. This blade of field corn reaches a scant 4 inches above the dank soil; it is growing in a flower box, where a squirrel took it from the feeder and planted it some unknowable time ago. It has exactly no chance of maturing before first frost. And yet I would not be the one to undo it.
When I was a girl, I spent part of most summers on a 200-acre farm in central Illinois, where my grandparents grew corn and cattle and soybeans and filled with love the holes my parents missed.
I remember the soft yellow light above my grandmother’s gas range, her head bent over the cast iron skillet, the fat crackle of breaded pork or cornmeal mush, eggs or butter-soaked toast. I remember how she held me on her lap when I was very small and homesick for my parents, how she spoke softly to me of when she was a little girl and frightened, too.
I remember how, years later, before I left for Honduras and the Peace Corps, we stood in the front yard in our pajamas, arms around each other, and pondered the vast night sky: the stars and the moon, the dark and mysterious boundary between childhood and adulthood that I was about to cross. What we could not know.
I remember the spicy smell of fly repellent that soaked the chamois blanket beneath which the black Angus and cream-colored Charalois walked on the way to pasture after their morning feeding in the corral near the barn. Ascending the rough-hewn ladder to the loft, the sweet fragrance of alfalfa hay, tossing flecks down to the cows. The curved tines of the pitchfork. The dust motes shimmering in shafts of light. Grace.
I remember the sound of Purina dog chow tumbling into stainless steel bowls, adding the day’s food scraps and the well water I never learned to like to make a warm and redolent slurry. Feeding the dogs in the farmyard amidst the roosters: antic little bantams with their high, silly voices; full-sized birds whose magnificent plumage recalled the Welsummer on Kellogg’s Corn Flakes boxes. And the hens trailing chicks, their soft clucks calling them to whatever food they scratched from the earth.
I remember my grandfather in the morning, sipping instant coffee from a blue willow saucer, and at night in front of the stone fireplace, the golden glass eyes of the owl-shaped andirons glowing. Feeding us grandchildren candy corn and wild yarns, chronologically impossible tales of his adventures with Jesse James and Daniel Boone and Abraham Lincoln. And stories of us, too, as cowboys and pioneers and good guys, as brave and strong and heroic as he knew we longed to be.
I slept, then, in an upstairs bedroom, the old rope-and-pulley windows fully open, hearing only the night crickets and the rustle of the breeze in the sharply creased leaves of the field corn as it grew and grew the summer long. I remember the wind in the corn.
My grandfather died in 1997; my grandmother in 2011. I am 58: four decades, hundreds of miles and distant in heart from the girl I was then.
And still I love the corn.
Mostly, I want to do no harm.