'Well, Ev," my father said one day in early summer of our second year on the farm - he almost never called her Evelyn think you can stir up enough food to feed all the threshing hands? They'll be coming in a week."My mother looked surprised for a moment. "Well, yes," she replied. "What kinds of things should I fix?" "Meat and potatoes. Stuff that'll stick to your ribs, and lots of iced tea." The words became her motto. Gentle, contemplative, and city-bred, for her the farm was no paradise, but her desire to please and keep her home in order was like a taproot probing deep into hidden streams. To combat the pressures of seasons, machinery, and accumulating dust, she prayed daily and worked: canning and preserving vegetables and fruits throughout the summer, and cleaning her house assiduously all year long. She commenced preparing for the meal days in advance. For my mother the amount of food a guest ate in her house measured her success as a hostess. Folks eating moderately at her table risked offending her as a refusal to dine might offend a tribal leader. The threshers arrived in late June. The threshing machine, with its small steel-spoked wheels, lumbered ponderously up the driveway behind 'Am Elbert's Casetractor. It barely fit through the opening of the big barn and stood like a colossus between the two hay mows. A long belt in a skinny figure-eight stretched from a pulley on the machine through the entryway to a pulley on the tractor. Threshing was a community event. 'Am Elbert, the owner of the equipment, was a Dunker, a member of the old order of the Church of the Brethren Church. Dunkers believed in hard work and some abstinence from materialism. They drove black cars and dressed simply - the men in denim-bibbed overalls and black, wide-brimmed hats; the women in plain blue or gray dresses with black bonnets and shoes. 'Am appeared to be the only man in the community who could afford large machines. He custom-farmed, plowing, baling hay, and threshing for other farmers, many of whom were still in transition from horses to tractors. So shortly after 7 o'clock that morning, 'Am started the Case tractor and engaged the pulley and belt leading to the threshing machine. "Let 'er rip!" my father yelled from the top of the first load of wheat and began untying the sheaves. The machine worked mysteriously. Sheaves of grain that had been cut in the field by a binder, collected into shocks, then hauled to the barn on trucks, were untied and tossed into one end of the machine as fast as the men could work. A hum flowed steadily from the threshing machine. Thin wisps of dust sifted through the cracks in its galvanized metal sides and from around gear housings, permeating the air from the threshing floor to the eaves of the barn roof. The cleaned wheat spilled from a small openi ng in the side of the machine into waiting burlap sacks. Straw and chaff shot out the end of the long boom at the rear. 'Am, nicknamed from Sam because his father had a harelip and couldn't pronounce the first letter of his son's name, worked along with the other men, but more resolutely, steadily, and quietly. A shy, easygoing man, he didn't practice the banter enjoyed by the other farmers. He smiled often, although sometimes, if you watched him closely when he was going real hard, the expression seemed to lock into place and become sinister. While threshing, 'Am hovered around his machinery like an anxious mother, listening to it, making adjustments. He worked with cat-like movements, reaching gingerly through belts and pulleys, unclogging vents and chutes, moving levers, or checking the grain sacks. Periodically, he'd apply a stick of pine rosin to the underside of the moving belt to keep it from slipping. 'Am worked with the sure-footed ease of a man used to being around machinery, but over the years his machines had taken their toll. Neighbors told the story that one day while baling hay, 'Am stopped to correct a malfunction near the big flywheel at the side of his New Holland baler. The wheel snapped his middle finger between it and the belt, nipping the end of his finger off near the first knuckle. 'Am shook the blood off the stub, examined the damage for a moment, then wrapped his hand in his blue bandana handkerchief and continued his work. By the age of 35 he carried only one or two undamaged fingers on each hand. "We all sacrif ice a little to machinery," my father observed in a prophetic voice as he watched 'Am baling hay in the field below the house. "It seems the bigger, fancier, and more powerful the machines, the more we give up." I hung around the threshing machine watching 'Am for most of the morning. The granary lay on the left side of the entryway to the barn, just a few steps from the machine. With the steady flow, the grain bins began to fill quickly, and just before noon I crawled to the top of a full one and curled down into the warm grain. In the main barn machinery roared. The joint in the long belt slapped rhythmically against the pulleys on the threshing machine and the tractor. The tractor engine labored and eased in the rhythm of the grain flow as the feeders tossed in the unbound sheaves and reached for new ones. Voices bounced along on top of the roar, sometimes rising high above it in shouts, then subsiding back into it. Then everything went quiet. When I awakened, the machinery had been shut down. The barn roof popped in the midday heat. A cow resting in a stable beneath coughed. Another groaned as she belched up more cud to be chewed. Pigeons flapped and cooed in the eaves. Outside, crickets chirred in the grass, and the Case tractor stood in the shade of a pecan tree, emitting metallic clicks and pings from its cooling engine. The house, too, was quiet as the men ate lunch. They seemed out of place in the small kitchen. My mother hovered around the table, offering extra helpings as each man cleaned his plate. She'd been nervous at the thought of feeding 15 men, but as the meal progressed she lost her fear and simply worked. She was a dancer in the midst of her long-awaited performance, an actor captivated by her role. She piled each plate with corn bread, beans, and mashed potatoes. Thick ham steaks hung over the edges of plates. She placed a bowl of biscuits in the center of the table and a platter of fried chicken at each end. A pitcher of newly-churned buttermilk with yellow flecks of butter in it sat on the counter near a four-gallon crock of iced tea. For dessert she served apple and cherry pies sliced into quarters and buried under scoops of ice cream. The men spoke quietly, perhaps a little stunned by the volume of food. They thanked my mother as she served extra helpings of meat, bread, and potatoes, or poured more iced tea, but they didn't banter as they had in the field or in the barn. They ate steadily, almost hurriedly. At the table, 'Am Elbert removed his wide-brimmed hat. His hair lay straight and tight against his head where his hat had sweated it into place. Below the hat line the ends of his hair curled upward in a monk's fringe around the sides and back of his head. He kept the cuffs and collar of his blue, long-sleeved shirt tightly buttoned and ate the way he worked, quietly, methodically, like a priest carrying out a sacred rite. "Thank you, Ma'am," he said politely, rising from the table and laying down the fork after a last bite. He was the first to leave and he made his move quickly, passing from the kitchen through the living room where he swept up his hat and pressed it on his head in a single move as he lunged out the front door. "You're welcome, Sam," my mother said as 'Am fled down the porch steps. She stood transfixed in the kitchen doorway for a moment; then, waving a fly away from her face, or banishing the smell of grease and sweat, she turned back to the men, busily eating.
It burst from the glare of the noon sun and bore down on us, a dark form, its engine wide open, its broad cleated tires gouging harsh marks into the pavement. "What the ... ," my father exclaimed, raising his hand to shade his eyes against the light as the loud form came into view - a new combine, red with its white reel and sickle teeth jutting out in front like a gaping mouth. High in the glassed-in cab, 'Am Elbert gripped the steering wheel and smiled as he guided the new machine past us, waving distractedly, heading west up 779, the machine steady and heavy on the road. "Well, times are changing," my father observed. He pulled the mail from the silver box by the road as the combine disappeared over the hill, then climbed into the pickup. "We'd better go; your mother'll be waiting lunch on us," he said. We could see her in the distance, a small figure in the yard at the back of the house, one hand on her hip, the other shading her eyes, watching us like a pioneer woman studying movement far across the prairie.