If you heard Wendell Berry’s lecture “It All Turns on Affection,” or read the essay, you’ll know that in it he describes a time when his grandfather sold a tobacco crop but after payment of commission and expenses ended up “without a dime” to show for a year’s labor. Mr. Berry’s father was six years old then. That event inspired him (and many like him who had the same or similar experience) to fight against the Duke tobacco monopoly (which here in Virginia, and likely elsewhere, was referred to as “the Trust”).
Teresa Evangeline has drawn my attention to a powerful poem by Wendell Berry, told from his father’s perspective, about that episode. It appears in a collection of poems edited by Garrison Keillor. Here it is, followed by some thoughts. (As an aside, but an important one, I highly recommend Teresa’s blog, which I have been reading for a long time. She has a gift with words, an appreciation for wonderful poetry and art, and an uncommonly fine sense of beauty. Her blog is HERE.)
by Wendell Berry
The first time I remember waking up
in the night was in the winter time
when I was about six. Papa had sent
the tobacco crop to Louisville
to be sold, and we sat by the fire
that night, talking and wondering
what it would bring. It was a bad time.
A year of a man’s work might be worth
nothing. And papa got up at two o’clock.
And I woke up and heard him leaving.
He saddled his horse and rode over
to the railroad, four miles, and took
the train to Louisville, and came back
in the dark that night, without a dime.
Many of us probably have stories like this in our past, even if they are being erased by time. The sting of things those people knew to be so unjust that surely they would never be forgotten, are nevertheless forgotten. The forgetting of those stories impoverishes us all.
There are two stories that stick out in my mind as I think about this.
When cleaning out the old farmhouse on our farm I found a letter my grandmother wrote during the Great Depression. She wrote it in response to a lawyer’s demand letter, threatening to sue my grandfather and her if they didn’t pay their past due fertilizer bill. My grandmother’s letter asked for more time and said that they’d been unable to sell any tobacco for the past two years. No one was buying. My grandmother was a proud and dignified woman. In those days, unlike now, being in debt was a shameful thing. I am sure it hurt her to write that letter. My grandfather worked extra jobs, finding anyway he could to raise the money to pay his debts and save our farm. It is because of his efforts and sacrifice that I’m living here now.
The second story is of a neighbor and cousin. His wife was having difficulty in childbirth, so he had to take her to the doctor (something that was done rarely and reluctantly in those days). Thanks to the doctor’s care the baby was safely delivered. The doctor’s bill was $20. At the end of the year, when my neighbor had sold his tobacco crop, after paying all the expenses and liens, he had $20 left. So he went to the doctor and told him that he had come to pay him what he owed. But he also told him that all he had left from his crop was $20 and that he needed to buy a new mule to replace the one they had owned, which had died. He told the doctor, “I can pay you or I can buy a mule. If I don’t buy a mule, I can’t raise a crop this year.” The doctor, without hestitation, responded, “Buy your mule. Pay me when you can.”
My neighbor and my grandmother are dead now. So is my maternal grandfather, who had to quit school after the third grade, after his elderly father went blind, to become head of household and save the family farm during the Depression. He never had a childhood in any normal sense, but the family kept their farm.
A few years ago I visited the Biltmore estate in Asheville. It is a vulgar mansion, with over a hundred thousand square feet and hundreds of rooms. The other tourists there swooned over the place. It disgusted me. I wouldn’t trade one of the good people here who suffered through those days for every robber baron who ever lived.
May we not forget the stories that matter.