I may have posted something like this before, but here on Father’s Day, I want to acknowledge the sons and fathers who find, or have found, the smallest moments of mercy and love in the midst of their difficult relationships.
When I was a boy, I was my father’s helper. I helped him with chores on our farm, I slipped his eyeglasses onto his face, I held a Pepsi bottle or a drinking glass so he could spread the pincers of his hook wide enough so he could get a grip on it. When he was finished drinking, I took the bottle or glass from his hooks and set it in the sink. Before his accident, he’d been a tobacco chewer. After, he was never without chewing gum. Often, I was the one to roll two sticks of Wrigley’s into a wad and then put it in his mouth.
I remember one summer evening toward dusk when I went with him to check on our wheat crop. He wanted to know whether it was ripe for the cutting. We stood at the edge of the field, the golden wheat browning in the dying of the light, and he told me to snap off a head and to roll it between my palms until the kernels of grain came free.
The grasshoppers snapped against our pants legs when they jumped. In the distance, mourning doves cooed. Red-winged blackbirds flitted over the wheat. A breeze came up after the hot day, and the bushy foxtail danced in the fencerow. This was the quiet time, the time of almost light, that last grace before the dark.
I rolled the head of wheat between my palms and then delicately picked out a kernel. My father opened his mouth. “Put it on my tongue,” he said. I took the grain between my thumb and forefinger. I felt his tongue as I put the kernel into his mouth. At the time, it may have been as close as I’d ever felt to him. I wiped saliva on my pants leg as he stood there chewing. “It’s ready,” he finally said, and we went back to the truck. “Tomorrow,” he said, “we start cutting wheat. You and me. We’re a team.”
I remember afternoons when clouds gathered over the fields and the air smelled like rain, and my father finally said, “C’mon.”
He drove the tractor into the machine shed. I parked the truck in the farmyard and made sure the windows were up. We met on the front porch of the house, and he told me to fetch us Pepsi-Colas. We sat in folding lawn chairs and drank, watching the rain come across the fields, moving up our lane, until finally it was upon us and we had to scoot our chairs a little farther back on the porch. I remember how the rain dripped from the leaves of the maple tree in our front yard. The wind came up and the air cooled, and we had nothing to do but to sit and watch as the rain kept falling. I remember the ecstasy of it. I remember the release from labor. I remember my father saying, “Just look at it come down.” And that’s what we did; we sat there and watched it rain.
Sometimes in the field, he’d lift his head and look off toward the horizon. “Hear them?” he’d say, and I’d listen to the call of mourning doves. “Rain,” he’d say and then he’d be still, and in his silence, I’d feel his hope, his longing. I’d know his want. Now when I think back on these moments, it seems to me that it was a want born from that moment in the corn field when the snapping rollers of the picker’s shucking box caught first one hand, and then the other, that moment he’d always wish he could change. “Just listen to them calling for rain,” he’d say in a whisper those days when the mourning doves were cooing. “Mercy, just listen.”