Robert Lee Patrick and mother, Evelyn [written in my mother’s Palmer Method cursive script on the reverse]

The summer this photo was taken I spent a month on the Johnson’s dairy farm outside of Hermosa, South Dakota.  The decision to put me there for an extended period of time came suddenly and without discussion, the only explanation, “your mother needs some time for herself,” coming from Mary, her lover—a fact that came to me much later than the date of this photo, 1962.  I have a vague memory of feeling abandoned, but it’s fleeting.  I don’t know how we knew the Johnson’s and I don’t ever recall seeing them, hearing from them, or writing to them after my time on their farm. It could be a dream.

I stayed close to Mrs. Johnson for most of my time there, she and I would gather eggs in the morning until I was comfortable doing it myself, feed a brood of turkey hatchlings they were nurturing in their kitchen that the turkey hen had abandoned, bake, cook, clean for and after the men: Mr. Johnson, an adult son, perhaps one or two extra hands, I don’t recall exactly.

I do remember the slightly erotic feeling of having a calf that I had watched being born, sucking on my fingers like a teet, then quickly pulling in my whole forearm into its mouth—a moment of fear—could it eat me? Helping with the milking both morning and night — the farm was mechanized and I did learn to apply the milkers to the udders of the cows without incident or injury.  The smells of cows, cow shit, hay, and the lusciousness of fresh milk (the cream alone enough to make you swoon) may be hard for some of you to imagine, but it is pungent and immediate for me.

We never left the farm; there was a vegetable garden, they slaughtered and cured their own meats — I had my own room in the white clapboard farmhouse with lace curtains and a white chenille bedspread with colorful flowers (roses?) woven into its center covered the bed and which I dutifully made each morning.  the bedroom was on the west side of the farmhouse and the afternoon sun streamed in through the lace’s tat work scattering a pale kaleidoscope of shapes like clouds that guided me to sleep, a nap each afternoon.  All the time, the scent and sounds of farm life was a constant companion—and always, always something to do. From sun-up to sun-down, the Johnson’s were in motion or parts of them were—Mrs. Johnson would sit down to shell peas or darn socks, but always busy.  The men sunburned below their cowboy hats, their forearms sinewy and hairy and darkly veined—but all so gentle, I remember this constant gentleness, no swearing, no rough-housing, just guidance and example.

The only time we did leave the farm, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson (which is what they called each other) took me fishing up to Sylvan Lake in the Black Hills.  They had their motorboat, a skiff with a motor attached. I sat in the prow and Mrs. Johnson in the middle and Mr. aft at the controls of the motor and the rudder. We trolled—a slow meandering around and around and around the deep, deep waters of the lake, fishing line dragging behind us or to the side or from the front.  Mr. Johnson was having the most success and with each catch he’d swing his fish (brown trout) up and out of the cool water and swing it around in a grand arc and plop it directly into the belly of the boat.  At last Mrs. Johnson got a bite, saying out loud “I will show you Mr. Johnson,” she swung her pole with fish line and fish hooked in a grand arc toward the prow of the boat and neatly slapped the fish in my face.  I had the presence of my mind to laugh, because it was funny, and Mr. Johnson hooted and Mrs. Johnson jiggled with mirth.  It was lovely.

My mother doesn’t look well in this photo.  I do not know what caused her to have to have time alone, but I surmise that family pressure to break off her relationship with Mary may’ve been at the root of it.  Several months later that year, Mary found a house a few blocks away from us and moved out.  She still marshalled my time, tutoring me in math and science, encouraging and loving.  A year later, she transferred across the state to Sioux Falls and that era ended. We continued to visit her though, and she remained a part of our life and a member of our family get-togethers for pheasant and deer hunting, state and county fairs, and for no reason at all, just as family does.

 

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© Robert Patrick, and Cultivar, 2008-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, photographs and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Patrick and Cultivar with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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