Change. Honest, I was trying. I had planned to be better prepared. I wasn’t. It was tempting to drive through McDonald’s. Instead, I rushed into a gas station. I rounded the corner, toward the refrigerator cases. A group of seasoned men blocked the aisle. They were gathered for morning coffee.
Most women would call it a coffee club, but the men would be insulted. They’d argue they were not gossiping. How dare anyone suggest they’d waste precious daylight! They were there just to get coffee. Sometimes, they happened to bump into each other; that’s all. And when they did, they only talked about important stuff. Afterwards, they’d be on their way to their jobs in the woods, on the roads, in the fields, or on the production lines.
On this morning, there was quite a gathering. The men had bumped into each other, all at the same time. Surely, this was an urgent matter. So, I didn’t interrupt. And I didn’t stay to eavesdrop. Instead, I backed up and went down another aisle. I wasn’t angry. In fact, I smiled. Our world is changing faster than ever before. Whether it’s right or wrong, comfort is often found in what hasn’t changed. From behind a glass door, I grabbed a couple of cheese sticks and two bottles of tea. I knew just where to find them. They were in the same spot as the last time.
Near the checkout counter, I spied a bag of corn chips. Truly, old habits die hard. I caved and they became my P.O.S. According to marketers, P.O.S means point of sale purchase. For me, it meant something else entirely. In addition to all that plastic, I held mostly corn syrup, modified corn, corn oil, and salt. I shook my head. I hadn’t done better than McDonald’s, after all. At least my choices there would’ve been wrapped in paper. Alas, my best options required more forethought and preparation; at home. I failed again. And it would cost more than a few bucks. In the end, my body, our soil, our water, and our grandchildren would also pay a price.
Meanwhile, I pulled a twenty out of my back pocket. The young man working as the cashier, took it from me. As I made my purchase, the middle-aged manager greeted me. Usually, he asks how the kids are doing. Today, he asked about my plans. As the cashier gave me my change, I announced that I was going to, “Pick up chicks”. The manager was in the process of asking where, when the younger cashier snickered. Instantly, I blushed.
A single word can have many different meanings. Often, it depends on context. It also depends on how it is spoken and who’s listening. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it changes. Healthy language doesn’t remain the same. If it stagnates, it dies.
I chuckled. Then I clarified myself, “I mean, I’m on my way to get baby chickens”. The manager, the cashier, and the old man in the line behind me roared with laughter. As I exited the store, I quickly waved goodbye to them and my fleeting embarrassment. The chicks, oops– I mean baby chickens, were waiting for me.
Along the way, I’d pick up… (ahem) my friend, Nancy. Just outside of town, I exited North off the black-top highway and onto Nancy’s gravel drive. I quickly stopped on an incline. Her drive crosses an international railroad. It runs parallel with the highway for miles. Then it crosses back over into Canada. However, at Nancy’s crossing, there are no bells or flashing lights. I looked both ways; it was clear. As I drove over the tracks, chunks of block-like gravel popped beneath my tires. And her farm stretched out its arms to welcome me.
The farm’s dairy had been built in 1939, by a Duluth businessman. A few locals say it may have been a tax write-off for him. They also say he hired alcoholics as his farm-hands. Rumor has it, he paid them $1 a day. While the cows freshened, the alcoholics dried out. For the era, it had been a state-of-the-art operation. Its layout was well planned and highly efficient. All the barns, sheds, silos, and grain bins are attached. The small milk-house was made of brick. It adorns the front, offsetting all the corrugated steel.
Atop each of the twin barns, there are four cupolas. Each has an antique weather vane. Opposite the arrow end on one of them is a galvanized bull. At one time, all the other vanes had galvanized cows. They were slaughtered. Nancy said her boys used them for target practice. Regardless, it’s still perfect to me. And while I surrender to covetousness, Nancy wrestles with the rest of the story.
Nancy and her husband had purchased the turn-key business when they were in their late twenties. Overnight, they became dairy farmers. Together, they raised five children and worked from sunup to sundown; year ‘round. She’d also worked a full-time job at a factory in the next town. Meanwhile, her husband and sons shouldered the bulk of the dairy work. She shakes her head in discouragement. It was hard work, especially for her young sons. In 1982, they took advantage of the state buy-out program. Milk money stopped flowing. Then both the cows and dairy operation dried up.
Nancy was relieved that her family was no longer in the dairy business. Everyone, including the kids were burned out. Fifteen years later, her husband passed away from cancer. Since then, the buildings have housed her daughter’s horses. Once or twice, they housed her son-in-law’s ventures in rabbits or sheep. For the most part, however, they stand only as an empty reminder of how times have changed.
When I asked Nancy if she missed the fresh milk, she scoffed and said, “The flavor, maybe”. These days, she’s content to buy her milk at a gas station. It’s cheaper than the grocery store. Besides, it never requires feeding. And she doesn’t have to clean manure out of stanchions, gutters, and pens.
East of Nancy’s dairy-barns is an old, two-story home. It’s painted in avocado green. To the west is Nancy’s more modern double-wide. She no longer lives in the two-story house, where she raised her family. As I parked near her garage, Nancy opened her screen door. She stuck her head out and gestured. I understood. She’d be right out; after she combed her hair.
It didn’t take long. Nancy’s short hair is thinning, much to her dismay. Still, she hurried out the door grinning. Her black purse, embellished with a silver buckle, was balanced in the crook of her right arm. She turned and struggled to close the door securely behind her. Undeterred by its resistance, she used both hands. The door ultimately yielded.
Cautiously, Nancy navigated down the porch stairs and then marched toward me. She opened the passenger door. “Hey, Girly!”, she said. Nancy slid into the seat and greeted me with a hug. She does my heart-of-Dixie good. Nancy’s from Texas and has been reckoning with life here, since 1967.
1967 was the year I was born. It was springtime, but parts of Mobile, Alabama were already burning up. Even folks who weren’t pregnant were uncomfortable. Tensions were high. Whole communities were frustrated. Rioting was common. It was a time of intense change. And like child-birth, it hurt. While our nation welcomed the long-awaited delivery, it was costly. Even children paid for it with their lives.
I arrived in Minnesota, thirty-five years later. I came via the Midwest and during the floods of 2002. My home is still south of Alaska, but only thirty minutes from the Northwest Angle (the most northern point of the continental U.S). Locals call me, “a transplant”. And like sweet potatoes, okra, and peppers, I’ve struggled here. It’s zoned for stoic frigidness.
My southern roots run deep. But not deep enough to protect from biting and insensitive micro-climates. Honest, I’m trying to adapt. And much of my life has already changed. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to “bless some hearts”. Why? I worry about a few folks. Heaven forbid, their lives changed and they had to live elsewhere. What if they had to survive down South? One or two wouldn’t escape the ‘gators, snakes, and red ants. Three or four would be eaten alive with a liberal dose of “Sugar” this and “Sugar” that. Hint: it’d be cane sugar, not beet sugar. The rest would die a different death. They’d be slowly smothered by all the extra helpin’s of southern comfort: faith, fried food, milk gravy, sweet tea, hugs, and long stories…
“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” – Mother Theresa
Have you skipped your rock today?