A Break in the Weather
School had been out for two weeks, but it still seemed strange to me that I could eat breakfast with Mom and Dad. During the school year after I helped my father with the chores, I came into the house, ate breakfast by myself, got ready for school and then got on the school bus.
But we wouldn’t be eating breakfast for a little while yet, though, not until Dad finished shaving. Most days when my father came in from the barn, he shaved before breakfast. And at the moment, I could tell that he wasn’t done. The muffled singing from behind the bathroom door gave it away.
“Lie-dee-die-dee-die-dee-doe – lie-dee-diiiiie-dee-doe – lie-dee-die-dee-die-dee-dooooooe…”
“What’s he got to sing about, I wonder,” Mom said, as she flipped over more pancakes so they could bake on the other side.
The “lie-dee-die” song had no particular melody, not that I could ever figure out. Sometimes Dad sang it while he milked, sometimes while he fixed machinery and sometimes while he shaved. The “lie-dee-die” song meant Dad was in a good mood and felt especially pleased with himself.
A few minutes later, my father emerged from the bathroom. He had slicked back his hair with a wet comb. Dad’s hair was gray on the sides and dark on top. Well, mostly dark on top. And not much hair on top.
I could smell Old Spice aftershave too. Dad liked to put on a little Old Spice after he had finished shaving. He said the cows probably didn’t care one way or the other what he smelled like but that he figured the people he lived with would appreciate it.
“What have you got to sing about?” my mother inquired.
Dad went over to the stove and poured a cup of coffee for himself.
“Well, for one thing, the sun is shining and there isn’t a cloud in the sky. And for another thing, the weatherman on the radio says there’s only a slight chance of showers for the next week,” Dad said.
He picked up the plate of pancakes Mom had made and set them in the middle of the table.
“Help yourself, kiddo,” he said to me. “Eat while you’ve got the chance because…”
Dad paused to make sure Mom and I were both listening.
“…because I’m gonna cut hay today.”
‘Eat while you’ve got the chance’ was my father’s way of saying that soon we would be busy with work that might keep us too occupied to eat. It was one of Dad’s little jokes. He never missed a meal. “Can’t work if you don’t eat” was another of his favorite sayings.
“That’s what they said on television too – just a slight chance of showers,” Mom said. She turned away from the stove and took hold of the nearest chair. “So I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to cut a few loads to get started.”
Dad shook his head. “I’m planning to cut the whole field.”
“Which field?” Mom asked. She carefully lowered herself onto the chair where she always sat, on the opposite side of the table from Dad.
“The one behind the barn,” he replied.
“The whole thing?” Mom said, sounding horrified at the very thought.
“Why not? Might as well jump in and get a good start.”
Our farm was one-hundred-and-twenty acres that had been homesteaded by my mother’s family in the late 1800s. Mom and Dad owned another hundred acres on a second farm about a mile north. The field behind the barn was twenty acres. Dad generally didn’t cut twenty acres at a time. Five acres, maybe. Sometimes ten. But not twenty. With only two hay wagons, it took a long time to bale just five acres – a couple of days if the hay was thick.
“The whole thing?” Mom repeated. “Are you sure you should do that?”
“We’ve gotta start or we’ll never finish,” Dad said.
“Are you going to cut this morning?” I asked.
He nodded as he pulled out his chair and sat down. “Not much dew today. I want to get a little of it done before dinner, at least.”
In a way, I was happy that Dad was going to start cutting hay, and in a way, I wasn’t. To me, haying meant summer had arrived, once and for all. Except after the first field was cut, it seemed like that’s all we did for the rest of the summer was bale hay, going from one field to the next to the next, acre by acre by acre.
Now and again, we would get a short break between finishing the last field of first crop and starting the first field of second crop, and another short break between finishing the last field of second crop and starting the first field of third crop. But a few days here and there didn’t seem like much of a break.
“Are you absolutely sure you should cut the whole field?” Mom asked as she speared a pancake with her fork and slid it off the stack and onto her plate.
Dad shrugged. “Well, the weather forecast says we might get a little rain. A quick shower won’t make much difference.” He reached for the little clear glass pitcher that held pancake syrup made from brown sugar, butter, vanilla, a few tablespoons of water and boiled until it was thick and smooth.
“You know I don’t like to see the hay get wet,” Mom replied.
“Can’t always be helped,” Dad said. “If I waited until I was sure we’d have all sunny days, we’d never start haying. And then where would we be?”
Mom sighed. “I still don’t like to see the hay get wet.”
“Who says it’s going to get wet?” Dad replied as he drizzled syrup over his pancakes.
Later that afternoon, my father finished cutting the field west of the house. The one that you could see from the kitchen window. When Mom went into the kitchen to start making supper, she gazed out the window at the neat swaths of cut hay and shook her head.
The next day, the sun was warm and the sky was clear – all but for a few patches of hazy clouds that looked like the gauzy material my sister used to line a collar when she was sewing a dress or a blouse.
As Dad came in the house for supper that evening, he was whistling. Just like the “lie-dee-die” song, when Dad was whistling, it meant he was happy and pleased with himself. But also just the like the “lie-dee-die” song, the whistling never had a particular tune that I could recognize.
Dad took off his chore cap and hung it over the newell post. “I think we can start baling tomorrow afternoon,” he said.
“So soon?” Mom asked. She was sitting by the table, waiting for Dad to come in and wash his hands and face so we could eat. The table was set, and supper was in the oven – a hotdish with potatoes and carrots and onions and ground beef.
Dad nodded happily. “Wonderful drying conditions today. Just the right amount of wind and sun. Looks like it’ll be some of the best hay we’ve ever had.”
My mother frowned, causing two creases to form above her nose beside each eyebrow. “Don’t talk like that.”
“You’ll jinx it.”
Dad grinned as he headed for the bathroom to get cleaned up. “You worry too much.”
Later the next morning, my father started raking hay. He took a quick break for dinner, and by mid-afternoon, three-quarters of the field was raked.
“We’ll just let that sit for a half an hour or so, and then we can start baling,” Dad said when he came in the house for a cup of coffee and a cookie. “If we work fast, we’ll be able to get two loads off it this afternoon and then maybe another load after milking, if the dew doesn’t fall too soon.”
My big brother, Ingman, was working at the creamery, but this week he worked the 7-to-3 shift, so he would be home soon. When they finished baling, it would be my job to put bales on the elevator while Dad and Ingman stacked hay in the mow. The only part of unloading hay that I didn’t like was if a snake stuck out of the bale. The snakes were most often black-and-yellow striped garter snakes, but occasionally I saw one that was red-and-black striped.
After going through the baler, the snakes were usually dead, although every once in a while, one would still be alive. Either way, our dog, Needles, would stand on the hay wagon, carefully watching each bale. When he saw a snake, he would yank it out of the hay and shake it and then drop it on the hay wagon.
“Why did you rake so much?” Mom asked as she poured a cup of coffee for herself and one for Dad. “You won’t get it all baled today. Shouldn’t you have left the rest of it until tomorrow?”
“I’ve got the neighbors coming over tomorrow to help. They’ll bring an extra wagon, and this way, we’ll be able to start baling right after dinner. Somebody can rake up the rest of it, and while one wagon’s being unloaded, the other two can be out in the field – ”
“Shhhh!” Mom said, holding up her hand. “What was that?”
Dad blinked a couple of times. “What was what?”
“Sounded like thunder.”
“Now, Ma,” he said, setting down his cup of coffee and going to the kitchen window. “It was probably just one of those sonic booms. Or dynamite at the gravel pit. Or maybe the train had to stop for some reason.”
Dad looked out the window for a few seconds, and when he turned around, he wasn’t smiling anymore.
“It WAS thunder, wasn’t it,” Mom said.
My father nodded.
“I KNEW it,” she said.
“Well,” Dad replied,”if it’s just a quick shower, it’ll be all right. As long as the windrows don’t get soaked, maybe we’ll still be able to bale tomorrow.”
A short while later, it started raining. Dad said he had never seen a thundershower come up that quickly. It didn’t turn out to be a quick thundershower, however, because by late afternoon, it was still raining.
And it rained straight through the night.
And all of the next day.
And the next.
And the next.
And the next.
And the next.
Not a downpour. Not a stormy rain. Not a windy rain. Just a steady, quiet, light rain.
As each day passed, from the kitchen window, I could see the windrows of hay turning from green to brown to the color of the dark varnish on the old wooden rocking chair in the living room.
So could Dad. Every time he came in the house for breakfast, dinner or supper, he would stand by the window for a few minutes and stare out at the hay field.
To her credit, Mom did not say, “I told you so.” My father was disgusted enough already, so I suppose she figured she didn’t have to.
As for the hay, by the time the rain stopped, it wasn’t even fit to use for bedding. Dad said hay never made good bedding, but in a pinch, and if he had hay he would rather not feed, he would use it in the calf pens.
“What are you going to do with all of that hay?” Mom asked one morning after the rain had stopped.
Dad shrugged. “Let it dry out for a few days and then bale it up to get it off the field. After that, well…I don’t know…throw some of it out in the pasture and let the cows stomp it up, I guess. The rest can go in that washout on the other place. It’ll help keep it from getting worse.”
My mother didn’t look especially happy about throwing away hay, but I think she also knew there was nothing else that could be done with it.
“Boy, were they ever wrong when they said we ‘might’ get a few showers,” Mom said.
Dad rubbed his forehead, the way that he did when he had a headache, and reached for his chore cap. “If that’s what they mean by a few showers, the next time they say it’s going to rain, maybe we’d better be like Noah and build an ark.”
Of course it wasn’t the first time that hay got wet.
And it wasn’t the last.
But it was the longest break we had ever gotten from baling hay.