The Last Wheat Harvest

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San Francisco Chronicle, CA
Sunday, July 2, 1995
Page 8/Z1

The Last Wheat Harvest

A woman's encounter with an old man in her apple orchard shows
another side to the hard, bitter grandmother she had known

by Susan Dormanen

At one time I lived in a long- neglected orchard. Some of the apple trees were planted more than 90 years back and still bore small fruit for the deer, the black bear and now me. Alone and somewhat in the dark, I was working to restore it. Tearing off miles of creeping vine that swaddled the trunks, digging in brittle cow patties I collected from the fields, attempting some timid pruning. ''It won't pay,'' said the old-timers around Pine County, Minnesota.

I hadn't been there long but it was the kind of country my folks came from. Stony, cantankerous.

The township's oldest inhabitant came on horseback one evening to say he remembered stealing apples there as a young boy. I leaned on my hoe and listened to him tell how it used to be.

In that same orchard he'd crossed paths with the last timber wolf in Pine County, he a young marksman balancing the rifle against his frostbitten cheek in a winter dusk. Already it had been many seasons since he traded a wolf skin for his year's tobacco and as he held the silver beauty in the sight he knew he never would again. For a long time he had watched her, until she turned between the snow drifts and was gone.

''They're bringing them back now, from Canada,'' I said. ''I've heard them at the full moon.'' He nodded. ''It's something you don't forget.''

The talk ran down then and Wester waited as if he had something important to ask. But it was only about my family. He'd heard I was related to the Ollilas that used to be around Gackle, North Dakota. ''My grandmother's name is Ollila,'' I said. ''She worked out there.''

In 1930 every able-bodied Finn in northern Minnesota was hurrying to join the Dakota threshing crews. The well-to-do bought fields. With six brothers, Wester invested in a full section of some of the country's finest wheat land. That first year's crop made them all feel like rich men. ''Make hay while the sun shines,'' they told each other, spurring themselves to greater labor, taking on more land. The sun never shone brighter.

But no rain came the following spring and they waited uneasily all that summer, mending harness and building road and watching the empty sky. Two more years, parched and gritty, they persevered in disbelief, spitting reflectively into shifting dunes of dust and foddering thin horses on tumbleweed plucked from roadside barbed wire. Winters they sat 'round the wood stove in an unkempt kitchen.

Wester loved a woman then, a Finnish hired girl he'd danced with twice, my Grandma Hilja, in fact. He was light on his feet, but his thoughts were slow, his tongue heavy. Before he found the words to tell her, she was married to a quicker hand. He hitched up and went back to Minnesota with his brothers then, walking on the uphills to save their worn out horses.

The one letter Wester wrote in his life, upon the death of Hilja's husband 50 years later, brought tears to my own eyes. But Grandma had read it to me straight through, without one catch in her voice. He didn't ask for her hand, her love or her pity; he asked for a photograph. She asked to have one newly taken, determined that he should see her in all her present age and glory.

It was small enough to carry with him, and on that day he visited me and learned my family name, he drew it from his breast pocket to show me. Gazing on the product of my own Kodak, I saw again my frail gray granny, and, in Virgil's words, ''she revealed herself to be a goddess.''

One more snapshot he handed me. Through timeworn creases I made out a girl in a middy blouse sitting formally before a cook shack, squinting in the harsh sun. The flat prairie stretched out around her, fields of white straw rippling like her thin hair in the wind. She was somewhat like me, I thought. And yet, it is impossible to conceive what another's heart may hold. What had she made of his long love?

My grandmother was not a soft woman. At age 17 she came alone to the new world, clutching three years of hired-girl's wages in a chain-link purse all the seasick way, without two words of English. When folks told her they talked American over there, she hadn't understood this might keep them from understanding Finnish.

She arrived in Minnesota during a flu epidemic. There was plenty of work for anyone who could walk. She walked from farm to farm across the empty fields, milking cows that ran half mad with the pain of their distended udders. The barnyard animals made no sound at all, the dogs didn't bark as she approached.

She carried the cans of milk into silent kitchens and boiled it with hard bread and set the food before white-faced fathers who would never eat again and mothers who had buried all their children within that week. I've seen those country graveyards, the family plots holding six or seven small gray stones carved with dates a day or two apart.

During the Dakota drought years Hilja married in haste, unwisely, my grandfather, who died half a century later in an insane asylum. She wasted no time crying when he was taken away to the state hospital, five years after my mother was born, but soon found a widower who would take her on as cook if she could unburden herself of a worthless daughter. It's hard to imagine the timid embroiderer I know today setting out to find a barren couple willing to take in a girl child. ''How could you?'' I muttered to her once. And so matter of fact she gave me the answer: ''Times were hard.''

The 5-year-old girl was thought very hard for her lack of tears those first days, crouched behind a strange cookstove, the only warmth in the world. Each morning for a month, still believing surely, today, her mother must return. She would never lose sight of the battered rear bumper on the Model T her mother drove away in. But she would never cry about it either, because her mother, in that car beside the man, had not cried, had not looked back.

The Finns call it sisu, that will to survive, a wild thing's drive to go on at all cost, with or without the broken paw held in the steel trap.

My mother was put to bed on a prickly horsehair sofa and she would lie there as long as she could bear it, before padding to the kitchen to humbly ask the big dogs that stretched behind the cookstove, Saanko tulla keskelle? -- May I come sleep between you two?

Only once in her life had she admitted her pain, and then only by a nod of her head to the pastor's strawberry-blond wife who sat in front of her at church. This good wife, feeling the child's hard, dry eyes upon her, had somehow understood and whispered, ''Did your mother have red hair?'' It was a tenderness the little girl would long remember.

Decades later my mother drove alone to a small northern town, to a state asylum, to the funeral of a father she had never seen alive. She didn't tell any of us where she went. I imagine her silently coming home that evening, silently putting her usual too economical, ill-cooked supper on the table, to the usual carping of all her hungry, selfish teenagers. I often wonder which night that was, and hope it wasn't one I fought with her about doing the dishes.

She wrote me a letter once, this mother who has loved me so staunchly all my life, regretting not having shown me more affection. She tried to explain that she had seldom seen it, never learned how. That stubborn 5-year-old is still locked lonely in my mother's chest, still holding back her 50 years of tears.

Late sun slanted through orchard as we finished our stories. The thin light glinted on Wester's white eyebrows as he refused the wrinkled winter apple that I offered him ''for old-time's sake.'' Then he stooped to taste the soil and examined what I'd done. ''You're going at it backwards,'' he said at last. ''Better to graft the old varieties onto fresh stock, if you want to keep some. Those spent roots won't prosper, no matter how you push 'em.''

He stuck a broken branch upright in the ground. ''That's your young rootstock,'' he said. ''You dig it in deep.'' Then he took out his knife and sharpened it on a pocket stone and made a crosscut in the bark. Next he chose a green twig and trimmed a shallow slice with the bud that makes the next year's growth. I studied his crosshatched hands, trying to memorize the movements of his knife. ''Make your cuts clean,'' he said, binding it into the T-shaped slit with his white handkerchief, leaving the bud exposed. He gazed at his work with clear, pale eyes and nodded once.

When I asked if I could return his visit he spit on the ground and said it was a bad road out to his place. Wester still lived alone in the log cabin he built nearly a lifetime ago, on his return from the last wheat harvest. He said he didn't expect to be there much longer. We both cleaned our palms on matching blue bandannas before shaking hands good-by.

True to his word Wester died not long afterwards, fell with his hoe in his hand as he was pushing to get the potatoes in. Those hard- headed Finns up north were always working too hard to even notice they were suffering. So they just went on living, season to season, on the thought ''this too must pass.'' At times I wonder if it's somewhere in me too, that damn sisu, that makes you go on when you're beat. ''Gone is gone,'' is how those brothers consoled one another for the dreams left behind in Gackle, North Dakota.


Susan Dormanen lives in Santa Cruz and recently visited 
Gackle, North Dakota, for the first time.

San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, July 2, 1995
Page 8/Z1