“Oh, Miss Cotton, grand to see y’.”
“Well, Eva, so good to be here, and may I present my nephew, Jimmy. He likes to tag along.”
We were ushered into the dining area of the huge country kitchen where a sweating pitcher of lemonade awaited on a checkerboard table cloth. A cup full of spoons sat precisely in the confluence of red and white squares, the cup a fixture for the morning’s “coffee time” and, if the workload permitted, one in the afternoon. With a sigh, Eva heaved herself down to the table after pouring us the home-squeezed juice sweetened by sugar and a dash of maple syrup.
She was not a heavy woman, in fact, rather spare. But her manner told us she was dealing with weighty matters. Her complexion, flushed and dewy with exertion or concern, matched the checkerboard.
“I do need a visit . . . and I know you’ens will keep this to ourselves here.” She managed a smile in my direction. My Aunt Bea cocked her head, her gesture of concern and concentration. Eva smoothed the table top, clearing it of any ripples. “We’ve just had a family . . . well, not a rift. . . . Guess y’ might call it a ‘little tiff,’ or such like.”
“Oh, unsettling, those.”
“Yes’m. We finally got enough money from the insurance company to pay the kids a little wages after their old house burned down. An’ Bill, that’s our new son-in-law, asked Orlo if the check was for Linda too. Linda’s our daughter here on the farm,” Eva told me.
“So, Bill tells Orlo, ‘She’s been working as hard as I am.’ Well, truth of it, the kids have been working ‘specially hard, y’ know, cleaning up the mess over there and sortin’ through what they might salvage, plus all the haying and startin’ now on the grain. Linda milks in the morning and I try to help at night. That’s how we do in the summer when there’s so much to do.
“Well, Orlo came in all fussed up about it and said, ‘Guess Bill thinks Linda needs on the payroll now.’
“Orlo din’t know quite how to answer Bill. An’ later that next morning, Bill met me in the garden and said that he and Linda were a new ‘unit’ now and that since she got married, she can’t be what he called ‘your dutiful daughter any longer. When Linda and I married,’ Bill tells me, ‘it meant she became . . . separate . . . and needs to be paid by the farm for the work she does on the farm.’
“Well, I din’t know what to say neither. He said it nicely, kindly, but Orlo, like he does, got all huffy ‘bout the matter to me. He said, ‘I know there’s nothing writ down but we’re fair and honest people. Have been since we first settled this valley. Shysters didn’t last back then.’”
“An’ I told Orlo, ‘Times are a-changin’, Dad. Now I’m sorry we din’t pay them more like I wanted. It’s not easy, them just married and living in a tent.’”
“‘We’re gonna help them rebuild,’ says Orlo, meaning the money’s comin’ out of our pocket which is only right. An’ fair. We can’t expect those kids to pay much as they’re both just startin’ out an’ all.” Eva hoisted the pitcher and refreshed our glasses.
“I dunno. Family matters get complicated. Bill’s a nice enough boy and is educated about how things should be done these days.” Eva looked my way. “He just graduated from Penn State in the ag department. Orlo says books and lectures only go so far, that Bill would be better advised to shed some of those notions and accept things that are proven. What do you think, Miss Cotton? You’ens been through some of this, I ‘spect, coming from a big family an’ all.”
“Yes, one can have some misunderstandings, especially when there’s land and the farm involved and passing it down. The Cottons tried to be fair but realistic.”
“We only paid Bill $250 for nearly two months of work, hard work, way long hours. I din’t feel quite right about it but with the crops not in yet and Orlo death on going to the bank, it just din’t work very well right now. I told Orlo we prob’ly oughter pay Linda a little somethin’.
“An’ he just clammed up like he can and then y’ know nothing will get done unless everyone sees things his way. I dunno.”
“Perhaps, Eva, there’s someone you could talk to at the bank or with the county agent about wages and what arrangements some of the other families have made around here.”
“We might,” Eva nodded. “I might. I’m just afraid Bill and Linda might take a notion to move down with his people and settle there. There’s no place for them on the farm down there but they could get town jobs at State College, and he knows a lot of folks in the extension service. Problem is, we’ll need more help here some day as it’s gettin’ harder for Dad to roll out in the morning.
“An’ Orlo says, ‘Kids today gotta accept that farming’s their life and not their nine-to-five job. Y’ give up high wages and vacations to live on the place your forbears built for y’ and make it your own and for your kids some day.’”
“An’ I tell him, ‘We’re not getting any younger and what am I to do if you go first?’”
She stood and closed the kitchen window now being spattered by the afternoon shower. “Linda said the check was less than minimum wages today in 1955 and Orlo says right back, ‘Well, you’ll have a house soon enough, better’n the old house, plus there’s meals here and we pay the co-op for the lights an’ such. Gas to go to town, if y’ like.’
“I’m just afraid Bill will decide he’s just the . . . h-hired man around here and there’s no future,” Eva said over the quiver in her voice. “Bein’ a hiredee is not what I want for my daughter. My own father lived such a way and it’s no good for a man, not someone of Bill’s ambitions.” She leaned on the table and didn’t hide her anguish.
“Orlo’s aging and he won't go to the doctor. We both live in the past like it was today––I know we do.” Eva sat down and studied the checkerboard covering the worn and creaking table, then poured herself a lemonade to the rim.
“One thing, we gotta change the cows out, quit milking day and night and buy sucklers at the yard and let them graft when the cows freshen . . . I say. Orlo says, ‘Not until I cannot do it anymore. Those Guernseys are my father’s legacy and not to be abused with bein’ bunted around by a bunch of sickly Holstein calves and crossbred mongrels.’ So there we are and here we are,” she laughed. “Two hundred years of history and a hundred years behind the times.”
We left once the shower had passed on. As we drove down the lane and passed their mailbox, Aunt Bea noted the lettering: “Orlo Fisk and Eva”.
“That tells you a lot,” she said.