White Beads of Corn and The Great Things of Life

SAMUEL WHITE, father of that great New Yorker essayist, E. B. White, once wrote to his son: "When fretted by the small things of life ... look up and out on the great things of life and beholding them say - surely they are all mine."

My father seldom wrote to me, even when we were separated for four years by several oceans. And he was not given to philosophical musings, not even in his most inspired moments, so I doubt that I would ever have received such sage advice through the mail.

But hindsight leaves me in no doubt that my father shared Samuel White's attitude toward life. In the 20 years that I lived under his roof, I never once saw my father fret over the small things of life. I never saw him angry, frustrated, bitter, or tearful. I never heard him shout or plead.

Even though he had donned an infantryman's uniform in two world wars, lost one of his sisters at an early age, and reached his 40s before he could afford to buy his first car, he never failed to look up and out on life. He made the great things of life his own; and most important, he made them mine, and the rest of the family's, too.

It is only now, decades after leaving that parental nest, that I have discovered - gratefully - that the great things of life are often small things that simply have been respected and nurtured; and that I was experiencing the great things long before I recognized them.

During my childhood, my father never "treated" us to anything. He didn't need to. Our experiences fell into two simple categories - duties and joys. And there were plenty of both.

There was no room for debate over duties - no alternative, no escape. The discipline was so firmly established that we scarcely noticed it was there. It was never questioned. Seldom did it have to be enforced. It just existed - like the flowers, and the wind in the blue gums, and the stars that knew their place in the firmament.

School assignments had to be finished before we played games of backyard cricket. We just didn't leave shoes at the back door, or school satchels in the kitchen, or cups in our bedrooms.

Church was one of the things we "did" as a family, even on the sunniest, balmiest day of the year. Truancy wasn't a sin; in our home it wasn't even heard of. The cicadas could blow their party whistles, the bulbuls could sing like angels, soft winds could ruffle the surface of the Umsinduzi River as we crossed it on the way to church, but the tiny family car - bulging with four smartly dressed children - never deviated for a moment.

But just as there was no relaxation of duties, there was no stinting on pleasure. What wasn't a "must" was always an "of course." Father insisted on taking us himself to cricket matches and to the swimming pool, or boating and picnicking on the river.

My father bought only two houses in his life, both chosen, I am convinced, for the way the sunlight played on the garden. There, in 25 square yards of rich brown soil, he cultivated fine-looking dahlias and chrysanthemums for my mother's vases, and what he described as the finest corn in the country. It was certainly the most pampered.

Despite his English ancestry, my father used the colloquial South African word for corn on the cob, "mealies," and he grew his mealies not to win prizes at the Royal Agricultural Show, but for the pleasure of his family.

My mother insists that my father would have planted mealies in the front garden had he been convinced that the sun or the soil were right there. And once, I recall, he did plant a few mealies among the dahlias lining our front fence, hoping that the dahlias would grow thick and beautiful enough to hide his mischief-making.

But his mealies were fine specimens. He knew just when to pick them - when to peel back those soft green casings to reveal the smiling white beads of corn inside. It was a late-summer ritual, a ceremony, a celebration.

It was always held late in the afternoon when the sun slanted low through the cornstalks, and birds filled the twilight with liquid calls. Father would select the mealies for dinner. Mother would have a pot of boiling water ready on the stove, and in would go the bounty, one at a time so as not to splash.

An hour later, the family gathered expectantly around the supper table, on which there was a huge dish of butter, salt, pepper, and slices of thick brown bread. Father scooped the pot off the stove himself, checked the rolling, bubbling mealies for tenderness, and took them out with a spoon and fork.

Then, moistening his fingertips to avoid burning them, he divided the fruit of his many weeks of labor and caring. He let us choose the mealies we most fancied - pale and tender, strong but yielding, or large and mature - and then he gave the signal to begin.

This was the only night of the year on which discipline was relaxed. We could lick buttery fingers, make sucking noises as we enticed the corn off the cob, and put our elbows on the table.

I doubt that Father even noticed. He was too preoccupied with a moment he had looked forward to all summer. This was his treat, his moment of fulfillment, his reward for a job well done.

He teased us ... and munched. He asked us how the mealies tasted ... and munched. He suggested a change of location for the next crop ... and munched. He even made the stale joke about displacing Mother's dahlias with corn.

But what really mattered was that we were together as a family delighting in the special joy of another member of our household. We knew at that moment how well we understood one another, how much we loved one another.

And whether we realized it or not, we were sharing one of the great things in life. And that was more important even than those succulent mealies in their pools of melted butter ... and melting summer sunlight.

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