Mary Martha died at thirty-two, three years after
her husband was killed in a tractor roll-over accident,
leaving two children, a girl fourteen and a boy ten,
with the only close-by family able to take them in being
her sister Kate in town and her older brother Orin,
a Czech bachelor farmer over in Holt County with
five sections, less the Reilly place, about 3,100 acres
of row crop, haying, and grazing land, all well fenced,
a barn, equipment shed, cattle feed lot, two grain bins,
and four other rickety buildings in the farm yard west of
the splintery two-bedroom house that Orin stacked hay bales
around in winter to keep the wind from blowing through.
Aunt Kate adopted the boy but not the girl who talked back
and was already a handful as everyone in town knew.
Her Uncle Orin took her in although the Circle women
at Our Lady of Seven Dolors Catholic Church told him
she would never be a farm girl and would certain cause
more trouble than she was worth, probably sooner than later.
Orin was a farmer, that was all there was to him.
Day after long day on the tractor pulling the planter in spring,
mower, rake and baler for two cuttings of hay July and August,
combining in November, gambling the snow would hold off.
Plus his hundred head Hereford-Angus cow-calf operation.
Some nights he slept beside the tractor underneath an oily tarp,
dozing off-and-on until daylight enough to start working again.
That was all of him. Neat barn, cluttered house. Farm magazines.
Cigarettes. Radio, no television. No books, no movies, no music.
After planting, after haying, after combining, he drank heavy
a week straight, peppermint schnapps and Hamm’s beer chasers,
sitting at the table in the farm house where he never spent time
any other time because there was no call to waste good time.
She taught herself to play the out-of-tune piano in the kitchen.
Summers, she took him coffee and sandwiches in the field,
thick slices of bologna on rye with mustard and dill pickle.
School year, she packed him a lunch before the bus came.
The Seven Dolors women gossiped there was something more
than blood and charity behind Orin taking her to raise, and when
she went to Lincoln with her Aunt Kate they said “There it is.”
But she was back in four days and there was no truth to any of it.
Father Matthew visited Circle and talked about false witness and
made them all say twelve Hail Mary’s and twenty Our Father’s.
At sixteen, Orin bought her a school car so he didn’t have to
drive to town to pick her up after volleyball and track practice.
She wrecked one and he bought another, an old Ford Galaxy.
She got in a girl fight and was expelled for a week. She told Orin
she wasn’t going back to that “goddam Catholic prison school!”
and he said “Yes, you are.” She went back and didn’t fight again
but got expelled her senior year for telling Sister Ann Marie that
she could kiss her ass, same as Olin had told her often enough.
Two weeks after graduation she packed her bags and left the farm,
driving the Ford, with $200 Olin gave her to get started in Omaha.
Jobs at Burger King and Pizza Hut paid her way to tech school
and bought her a computer. Douglas County Recorder hired her as
file clerk and she worked up to supervisor. Married a good man.
They had two daughters, neither of them named Mary or Martha.
Orin died of heatstroke, or maybe heart attack, in the record dry
summer of ’76, hauling hay to cattle on pasture one hot afternoon.
He left the farm to the boy, her younger brother, 3,100 acres,
farmstead, buildings, one good tractor, one junk tractor, cattle,
grain, 16 pieces of farm machinery, all of it, lock, stock and barrel.
He put in irrigation, poured concrete, bought equipment, bought cattle.
Lost it all in the ’80s. Moved to town and worked at the lumber yard.
She helped him buy the two-bedroom house, a block south of Main,
he covers with plastic winters to keep the wind from blowing through.
The out-of-tune piano is pushed against a wall in the back bedroom.
She played two songs when she visited with her daughters last fall:
“Auld Lang Syne” and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” E-I-E-I-O!
She laughed until she cried.
More poms, stories, and essays about life in the North Country are published in my books, all available in Kindle and paperback editions at Jerry Johnson Author Page at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition at Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.
Real life on the prairies.