Mr. Crumm became an interest of mine, for he was a genuine farmer. At the eleven o’clock service, he often wore a medium blue, well-tailored wool suit with a matching vest and pocket watch linked by a golden chain. My mother always fell tongue-tied whenever they met in the aisle of the sanctuary or the vestibule during the organist’s Recessional.
“I can’t picture him as a farmer. Can you? He belongs to the Rotary!” she’d whisper. Any farmer holding membership in the local Rotary Club was stationed much higher than most farmers, in her mind and experience. My father would tease her.
“Oh, you’d fall for any fella in a blue suit. Bein’ Rotary is even better.” My father possessed neither the membership nor such a suit. He’d be met with her scowling rebuke. He seldom shared her notions but he did tell me once: “You’d do well, bud, to copy Squire Crumm. He's landed gentry but didn't fritter it away like some."
On that Saturday, Aunt Bea announced we had a full afternoon of visitation rounds for the church. And when I learned the Crumms were on the list, I hoped our stop there would consume most of our tour. “Glad I am that you could make it today,” she told me as we left. “The Crumms are always a treat.”
When we pulled down the lane, we crossed the stone bridge and we were . . . treated . . . to a scene from Currier & Ives. A rock wall, rail fence, Colonial home rendered in Summer Butter and trimmed in Arctic White; it fit my expectations. “This home . . . goes back to the early 1800s,” said Aunt Bea. “Tops our Out Home by nearly seventy years.”
As we parked in front of the house, Mr. Crumm climbed off his tractor and greeted us with a little finger-pointing wave. His carriage was a bit stooped but his step covered ground.
“There you are, Beatrice, driving your faithful steed. We always look forward to the black Plymouth pulling up the drive.”
I was re-introduced and Mr. Crumm shook my hand in both of his. “Ah, yes,” he said, “a Cotton to the core. Say hello to your folks––you'll be a credit. Well, let’s go in. Barbara June has set out her coffee cake, and I’ve been thinking about it all afternoon.” He ushered us toward the porch and asked, “And how go things at church?”
“Well, John, all programs are showing promise. Reverend Crawford is much improved. My, you have lots of enterprising projects around and about.”
“Yes, always something. The storm brought down some debris we must redd up.”
Mrs. Crumm––Barbara June––met us with a silver tray and the afternoon’s goodies, usually a feature of Aunt Bea’s visitations, kind of like the English taking time for tea. “Let’s visit on the porch, such a pleasant day, breeze and all. J. R. took our storm windows down.”
Aunt Bea led off: “I understand you’ve heard from John Junior. He’s been out west,” she said to me. “He’s doing well, I hope?”
“Much the better,” said Mr. Crumm.
“At least his letters sound positive,” said Barbara June.
“I need him now that spring’s sprung, but we’re hopeful the exposure out there will give him some focus. He says he’s working pretty hard, learning the ropes on a ranch. They’re through calving. Might be too tame for him around here,” he laughed weakly.
Earlier, Aunt Bea had cued me in on the Crumm’s only son. He’d served in Korea as a conscientious objector and came home . . . “strange. He’s seen a lot of things, unpleasant and horrid things. I hope you never have to go to war.”
I’d met John Junior a few times. He cut our buckwheat crop Out Home and made a miserable mess of it. Though I was barely ten years old, even I could tell he was running the combine too fast. The reel became a blur throwing stalks of buckwheat into the air where they fell pell-mell, missing the conveyor belt. It was the only time I’d ever heard my family criticize a neighbor. “That boy’s got a screw loose,” said my uncle. “Always did, even before Korea.”
I helped myself to another slice of coffee cake at Mrs. Crumm’s insistence while she relayed her well-rehearsed explanation of her son.
“John could never accept the loss of our Catherine. Catherine,” she told me, “was an army nurse . . . in the world war.”
“Battle of the Bulge,” added Mr. Crumm. “Her ambulance ran off the road during some shelling and rolled over.”
“Something happened then with John. He was but ten years old. So devoted to his sister. A beautiful thing––we were so pleased with the both of them and their love for each other. She was always ‘Cat’ to him.”
“You’ve paid such a price,” said my aunt, and before an awkward silence followed, she rose and directed my attention to a large plaque on the wall, surrounded by photographs of the courthouse, the state’s governor, and local potentates. “John, can no one talk you into running again? You were such a good county commissioner. One of our best.”
“Beatrice, twelve years is enough. When John comes back home to us, I need to have things in place so he can take over here and hold things together. No time for local government. Why don’t you run? We need good men and women in our governments.”
“Oh, J. R., don’t wish such on Miss Cotton. All those meetings and the long-winded phone calls all times of the night.”
We said our good-byes and drove off, leaving the polished walnut, the white wickered porch furniture, the hooked rugs, the cobbler benches and shaker rockers, the wing chairs and camel-backed sofa behind until our next visit. Which I hoped would be soon. But, it was a big congregation and many folks to visit. The widows and widowers, the infirm, the young families, the spinsters, the kids off to college, the new members and the old guard. Nothing quite as interesting as a patriarchal gentleman farmer who I thought, as did my father, might be a worthy model for my future.
As we hit the county road, Aunt Bea let me shift the Plymouth’s gears, through the 1-2-and 3 from the floor-mounted lever. We were both thoughtful. She looked my way.
“The Crumms are community pillars for all of us. They hold up their end despite their personal tragedies.”
“Would you ever run for county commissioner?” I asked. “It would make us proud.”
There followed a long pause. “Some day, there will be women in public office. And, some day, maybe you’ll be our family’s county commissioner.”