At haying time Ardis Cronk would put her boys to shame. They were big lads but Ardis would climb into her overalls and march along next to the wagon, throwing up 40-pound bales with either hand. Left, right, left, right. No one wanted to stack on her side, she fired them up there so fast.
She kept 200 head of cattle and knew every one by name. Her husband would try to get her to sell some, but she couldn’t part with her cattle. She had a soft spot for them and kept each one until it died.
One day she showed up with a huge bandage on her nose. It was a magnificent nose, too, stretching out and bending down at the end, big enough to catch the wind in a stiff breeze. It seems she was brooming down her front walk and leaned into her work a little too much. The hook she used for hanging up the broom caught her on the inside of her nostril and gave her a nasty pull.
Another time she was hauling out manure from the barn by wheelbarrow and running it up a plank to the top of the pile. She slipped on a wet spot and fell right in up to her neck. Couldn’t get out by herself, she had to yell until her boys came to pull her free. They did, after standing around and laughing just short of making her mad enough to throw them into the manure, too.
Ardis used to cook up a storm, feeding as many as had to be fed during haying time or barn raisings. But she never sat down to eat herself, just grabbed food on the fly as she served it to all the others. Her cookstove was the pride of the county. Black and gleaming, she must have polished it every day.
Her kitchen window faced west and when she washed the dishes the sun was in her eyes. So she found a pair of old sunglasses and wore them with a straw hat at the sink while she scrubbed her pots clean.
When she died, they found four cloth bags full of coins buried deep in her dresser. Each was labeled with the name of one of her boys and contained egg money she had saved for them over the years. Ardis never had a new dress or went to a movie, but she left her boys something after she was gone.
We don’t do as much haying as Ardis did. Our land is hilly and rocky – good for pasture not hayfields. Our neighbour comes up and helps us cut about eight acres and make old-fashioned square bales. Some days, though, I wish Ardis was here to throw them on the wagon.
I wish my dad was here too. After high school, and the Battle of the Bulge, he settled into farming, worked in a gas station, then finally retired as a postal clerk. But he never lost his taste for farming.
After retirement he cut and baled hay off the local dentist’s land in exchange for any dental work he needed. Mom says that when Dad was young all the farmers around wanted him to do their planting because he could run the straightest furrow in the county. It showed up in his haying, too. Every stage can make the next one harder or easier. First is cutting, making sure that you hit each swath square, so there aren’t any curves at the edges of the field. Then raking nice straight rows makes them easy to bale. Dad always liked to rake two rows together, not quite on top of each other, so they looked like an “M” of hay from the end of the windrow. Then came the baler to gather, compress, knot the twine and throw the bales into the hay wagon.
He was careful, conscientious, and kept the equipment well maintained. He knew every field like the back of his hand and would always stop if he saw a doe because that meant there was a fawn bedded in the grass, too. He would carefully walk back and forth until he located the fawn because he ran over one with the mower one time and that was enough for him.
After we bought this farm, Dad helped me figure out what to do with it, how to renovate the pastures, when to disk and when to cultivate, the best places for the split-rail fences. I called him often to get his advice and wished he lived across the road.
Once when Mom and Dad were visiting, we built a pig feeder with my kids, Conor and Charlotte. Three generations making a tall upright chute that spilled grain into two troughs on either side. When we finished, Dad said, “Well, if you get out of pigs, you can always use this as a giant bird feeder.” And that’s just what it looked like.
We would always visit Mom and Dad at the end of May because he and Charlotte had the same birthday. One time we hit it right for haying season and he asked if I wanted to help. Boy, did I. He cut one field with a brand-new John Deere and a haybine that crushed the stems a little to speed up drying. I raked the field he had already cut with an orange Allis-Chalmers we called “Alice,” of course. I don’t think I had many happier times than those days when I was in a sunny field on one tractor looking at him on another one.
He was quiet and kept most things inside but I could tell he was enjoying himself, too. As we sat in the truck having our lunch, we looked out at tractors that didn’t have to be rested and a baler that even threw the bales into the wagon for us. He said, “When I was a kid, I remember when we got our first hay loader. Until then, we always pitched loose hay on the wagons with forks, but that hay loader just pulled it all up and dumped it on the wagon in a nice pile. All we had to do was pitch it off into the barn. At the time we thought, it doesn’t get any better than this.”
Dad’s gone now, but as we sat in the sweet smell of newly mown hay that day, I was thinking, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”