At four, I am visiting my Aunt Minnie’s farm for the day. Cobs crackle in the black kitchen stove. The wind whines above the mutter of thunder.
“Hailstones!” calls my cousin Hank from the porch.
Hailstones? I taste the word. Hail . . . stones. What are hail . . . stones?
I join his two brothers in running to the porch. We peer at green-black sky, whipping branches, and falling balls of ice.
Balls of ice–hailstones!
Thunder cracks. My ears hurt. “Wow, that was close,” the oldest cousin says.
Moments later, “Mom! The barn’s on fire!”
The memory blurs to a Black Model-T. We are pulling out of the driveway. Through the car window, I see my father and other men heaving bales from the haymow. Flames crackle into smoke from the other end of the roof.
Here memory ends. In college, I will learn the formal definition of “connotation,” but that is just a formality.
For me, hailstones are forever layered with a feeling of family, fear–and the delicious taste of a new word.
I am in the Model-T again. The back seat is missing, replaced by a baby buggy for my brother Don. We are pulling onto a strange driveway.
“Why are we here?” I ask.
“For strawberries,” my mother answers.
Straw . . . berries. Straw . . . berries. “Straw” I know and “berries” I know, but what are strawberries? When I sample them, they don’t taste like straw. Maybe the “straw”comes from the gold color of the little seeds. Later my mother has her own strawberry bed, a four-tiered square with ascending steps of old barn boards. She covers the young seedlings with straw. Maybe that’s the straw in strawberries!
We eat the berries fresh. There are never enough for pie. Besides, pie is only for special occasions, like family reunions.
One of my mother’s favorite family legends is my reciting all of “Sing a Song of Sixpence” at 18 months for my great-grandfather at a family reunion. He shook his head and said in Dutch, “That is quite a young woman!”
Mother has taught me a rhyme about pies.
“Sing a song of sixpence, pockets full of rye.” What’s rye? Why pockets full? I don’t know. But it satisfies me as it bounces toward the upcoming rhyme.
“Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.” Four and twenty. How fun! A fancy way of saying twenty-four.
“When the pie was opened the birds began to sing.” I picture them. They pop through a slotted crust, the king’s jaw drops in surprise, their yellow beaks part, and they sing–“Now wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king!” I will be an adult before I realize that “Now wasn’t that a dainty dish . . .” is an editorial comment, not the words the birds are singing.
I don’t remember reciting for my great-grandfather, but I remember joy in the patterns of the words.
The Little Golden Books my mother read to me had word patterns too. I had two favorites. The Little Red Caboose was a thin, six-inch-square book with a spine that bubbled out when we opened it. On its pages was the magic of a train that went “clickety clack, clickety clack, around the bend to town and back.” A tunnel, a hill, farm animals, an engine, and coal cars, all were woven together with pictures and words. Eventually I knew what the next page-flip would bring, and when each satisfying rhythm of “clickety clack” was coming to bounce me along the track of words.
A larger Golden Book had a metallic gold-and-black spine that stayed flat when we opened it. In my memory its title is The Dog and His Boy. The dog and boy hiked meadow paths and caught fish together. The dog returned to his own cottage in the woods at sunset–a cottage filled with a golden glow against the night, a cottage where he hung his clothes and went to sleep in his doggy bed, a cottage with “a place for everything and everything in its place.” Those ending words were my favorites. A place for everything and everything in its place. My mother’s unfulfilled wish for order in a home where I was followed by five siblings in seven years? Her attempt to instill a love of order in me so that at least her eldest would put things away? Perhaps. But the two similar phrases pleased me with their complementary taste and meaning. They were phrases of place and peace. A place for everything and everything in its place.
I sit in my place on the splintering dorpel of the barn doorway, a candy melting on my tongue. I have been allowed, I think for the first time, to do evening chores with my father in the barn. He has called the Holsteins from the pasture with a drawn-out “Kah-boss, Kah-boss.” They have filed in and taken their assigned stations.
They patiently endure the suck and clank of the milk machines as they munch from the manger with their head ends, and pee and poop into the gutter with other. My father speeds the chores with some hand-milking, leaning his head against the hollow between their bellies and hind legs, spraying milk rhythmically into the metal bucket. He occasionally sends a jet toward the cats who pounce on the stream midair. He lets me taste, but I don’t like it–too rich and warm. I like milk better after mother has used the cream separator and cooled it. He lets me try hand milking. I pinch, producing only droplets. We send the cows back to pasture, Dad scoops the gutters (yuck!), and together we sprinkle fresh straw on the cement.
The chores now done, I sit on the doorway dorpel and he leans against the unpainted frame. He reaches into his shirt pocket for a roll of blue-green candy, loosens one with his thumbnail, and offers it to me. Then he pops one into his own mouth, and we look out at the glow of the evening sky in silence. The candy has no hole; it just curves gently toward the center. I don’t know its name or flavor, but it tastes sweet.
So does the silence. At my center I feel hunger and fulfillment, both at once.
Twenty-five years later C.S. Lewis will teach me his word for what I’m feeling. “Sehnsucht” (joyous longing) he will call it. Fifty years later I will recognize this moment again when Father Thomas Keating tells me, “The first language of God is silence.”
But for now, God is in his heaven and all is right with the world. The silence is enough. The silence is all.