stories from home
Her Most Perfect Day Ever
Her most perfect day ever had started as just
another day in March, 1947. They were farming eighty acres and living
in a drafty house near Rodman, and had another two hundred acres
over closer to West Bend. It was their first year of marriage, their
first year farming. The young farm wife was making pancakes for
breakfast that morning, as she had done often. They ate, then, did
the farmer and his wife; he was a veteran of the recent war, a farm
boy gone off to soldiering, and now he was home and he was going
to farm. They put butter and syrup on those pancakes that morning
- butter the color of the sun melting into the morning's sweetness.
If she wanted cold water, she had to pump it
at the sink in a gray corner of the kitchen, had to work the long
handle of the noisy pump by hand until water splashed into the pan
in the sink, or into a pitcher; hot water she took from a big pot
kept on the wood-burning cook stove. She prepared a pan of warm
water for dishes, a little soap in it. Then she washed the breakfast
dishes, as she had done often.
She was just finishing up dishes when the farmer
came back into the house from chores. Ma, he said to her, you want
to go with me to look at that oat seeder? They had seen a seeder
advertised in the Farm Bureau's paper, a used oat seeder for sale
over west of Emmetsburg. This was their first season at seeding
and planting and when the soil warmed enough they would need an
Old Tom Maury's farm was five miles west of
Emmetsburg. Emmetsburg was fifteen miles west of Rodman. The young
farmer and his wife climbed into their 1940 Ford sedan. In those
days you could buy an auto painted just about any color you wanted
- that was the joke - as long as it was black. It was a black 1940
Ford. They were going to Tom Maury's over west of Emmetsburg and
they were going to buy an oat seeder.
Old Tom Maury had farmed all his life. He lived
in a big white house set square to the road. He was big and jovial
and his eyes tended to well up when he laughed. He was near retirement
age now and maybe that was why he'd put his oat seeder up for sale.
The black Ford pulled into the farm yard and Tom Maury came out
to greet the young couple who got out of the car.
The young farmer asked the old farmer if he
was the fellow with the oat seeder for sale.
Can we see it? the young farmer asked.
And together the three of them, the old farmer,
the young one, and the young wife, angled over to the machine shed
where the seeder was kept. It was old. It had been well-used. Yet
there still was a little paint left on it.
An oat seeder of this kind is set into the tailgate
section of a farm wagon. A chain from the wheel of the wagon runs
up to a sprocket on the seeder and spins a pair of trays to spray
seed out in an arc of about twelve feet. Someone drives the tractor
and pulls the wagon across a worked field. Someone else stays in
the wagon, shoveling seed into the hopper. You go up the field and
back. Repeat the process until the whole field is seeded. Up and
Now the young farmer stood at the edge of the
light in the machine shed, not far from the seeder; he stood a little
side-ways to the older man; he looked down at his shoes, then up
into the face of Tom Maury.
How much would you be wanting for the seeder?
the young man asked.
Old Tom said he'd probably have to have forty
The young farmer said he could probably give
The old farmer looked down at his own shoes.
He paused. There was a bird in the machine shed, making noise. Old
Tom looked up into the face of the young farmer. Then he looked
over at the softened roundness of the wife not yet four months pregnant.
On such a fine day as this, the old farmer said,
for such a fine young couple, I suppose I could let it go for thirty
Together the old farmer and the young one set
the oat seeder into the trunk of the Ford and tied it into place
for the drive back to Rodman. The young wife had been studying Tom
Maury's house and buildings and fields from her vantage point in
the doorway of the machine shed and now she offered how it was a
beautiful place he had. She might have been a little green with
envy, and wistful; she might have thought Tom Maury had everything.
And Tom - he was proud of his spread, sure. He beamed a little bit
at the compliment. But maybe Tom envied their youth, their whole
lives stretched out before them. That kind of envy was not something
he could put in words.
There you go, then, he said instead, pulling
tight the last knot in the rope holding the seeder in place.
They left Tom Maury's late in the morning, the
young couple did, to drive home. They were headed back to their
little rented farm. To a house without running water. With an outhouse
for plumbing. With an icebox, not a refrigerator. In the trunk behind
them, the oat seeder rattled and creaked. They would use it later
that spring, putting in oats and flax. They'd continue using it
as long as they raised oats, all their lives, as long as they farmed,
but they didn't know that yet. Still, driving home, the young couple
talked of the future. They didn't stop for lunch in Emmetsburg,
they went home to bean soup. The sun shone bright all across the
Iowa farmland. In the ditches along the roadside there was a faint
dreaming hint of green. The young farmer had been to war and did
not talk much ever; he was a man of very few words; but even he
talked of his plans, his hopes, his dreams. The young wife, she
talked too. They talked about everything, the whole life they'd
They might have talked about the children they
would have. The woman would have told her farmer-husband that if
he didn't want a dozen kids, he shouldn't have married her. They
might have talked about finding a better farm to rent next year,
better than what they were farming now, better soil, better buildings,
more acreage; about a big, old empty house that would stand on the
place, and how they'd proceed to fill it with children. They might
have talked about buying a farm at some future time, once they'd
gotten their feet under them good, once they had some experience
behind them and some credit built up, once they had sons and daughters
to help with the work.
They might have talked about old Tom Maury and
how maybe they'd name their first-born after the old farmer.
They might have talked about the first refrigerator
they would ever buy; how they'd get it at Wilson Hardware in West
Bend, a new Kelvinator model called the Shelvador, how they'd pay
for it with some of the one hundred dollars a month the young farmer
had earned as a soldier fighting the Nazis.
They might have talked about earning a reputation
for paying their bills. That would get them good credit. Why
- in the year or so that the rural electric cooperative made such
information public, three times it announced this young farm couple
had been the very first to pay their electric bill this month, and
this month, and this. Do you get that bill and always run right
out to pay it? a jealous sister would ask the young farmer when
she saw his name in the paper time and again.
They might have talked about grandchildren and
great-grandchildren, about fifty-some years of married life, a life
busting full of happiness, a life with its sadnesses as well.
Maybe they didn't talk about the lonesomeness
in those early years. About the day the young farmer would be planting
corn in the near field. His wife would be so lonesome for him, she
would want an excuse to go out and visit with him. They would have
had bean soup for lunch. She'd think: I'll take him a bean sandwich
and talk with him while he eats it. Bean sandwich! the farmer would
exclaim. Whoever heard of a bean sandwich! Well, the wife would
say, in my family we have bean sandwiches all the time. We have
bean soup for dinner and then a bean sandwich for supper. The young
farmer would go ahead and eat his and the couple could talk.
Driving home from Tom Maury's farm, the oat
seeder rattling in the trunk, maybe they didn't talk about the morning
the young farmer and the hired hand headed off to work the other
two hundred acres over near West Bend. The young wife still had
chicken chores to do, but they didn't have to be done right away
so she went back to bed. Along comes a knocking at the door and
there's a young fellow who says he's selling magazines to work his
way through college. I don't have any money for magazines, the wife
would tell him, but I sure get bored out here. Tell you what, she
says, you help me to do the chicken chores, and I'll play cards
with you. So that's what she did. The young wife and that magazine
salesman did up the chicken chores, then they went to playing cards
all morning. Along about half past eleven, the wife told that young
salesman that her husband and the hired man would be coming home
for dinner at noon and he'd have to get moving along. It wasn't
until years later she wondered what nosy neighbors might have thought
about her entertaining a young fellow all morning while her husband
was away. She was still that innocent.
Maybe they didn't talk about the coming August.
The young farmer would be working with the threshing crew to get
the flax in. His wife would see in the paper there was a 320 acre
farm at Curlew for rent, from an important man in Graettinger. The
young wife would have the nerve to call that important man and say
to him: would you mind not renting that farm until my husband can
come see you about it? And the important man would say: let me see
if I have this right - you want me to hold off renting my farm until
your husband has time to come see me? Yes, that's right, the young
wife would say, we want to rent it.
The very first day they could, the young couple
went to see the important man with the farm for rent. They sat with
their straight backs in their straight chairs in front of the important
man's wide desk. He told them what was obvious - they didn't have
money enough to farm his land, they didn't have equipment enough,
they didn't have sons to help with the work. It all sounded hopeless.
The young wife spoke up. She said: if we had
enough money and equipment and sons, we could afford to buy a place
of our own, we wouldn't have to rent yours.
Let me call my brother, Charles, at the bank
in Emmetsburg, the important man said. Charles said the young farmer
had had an account at his bank for years and if he could get his
father to co-sign the lease, the young couple could rent the farm.
Then two weeks later the couple would have a
son and they would call him Tom and would send a birth announcement
to the important man.
They started to fill up that big old farmhouse
with children and every winter one more baby had to endure its draftiness
- wind came in around the windows in the bedrooms, in all the rooms.
It would be another autumn, another winter approaching.
The farmer would be out harvesting corn. His wife would be hauling
the corn up to the crib, unloading it, taking the wagon back to
the field for another load. As she waited at the end of the field
for the corn picker to come around with a full load, she'd bend
to pick up the corn which had dropped onto the headland. The cornpicker
loses some ears when it is turned around.
One of those chilly autumn days, it would be
a Saturday afternoon, the farmer's wife was out there again at the
end of the field, waiting for another load of corn, bending to pick
up ears that had dropped. Into the field would drive the landlord
- the important man with his important Cadillac. The young wife
would think this is as good a time as any to ask the very important
man for storm windows for the second floor of the farmhouse. In
winter, frost came into the corner of the ceiling of the stairwell
and piled up two or three inches thick in there; something had to
be done about it.
So she would ask for storm windows, the young
The important man would say: no, we can't buy
you storm windows. We have forty-some rental houses and we couldn't
possibly afford storm windows.
So the farm wife would bend and pick up an ear
of corn. You can see her, it's almost like slow motion. She throws
the ear into her empty wagon, just as she had been doing all day,
just as she had done often, but she throws it hard. When the ear
of corn hits the far side of wagon, nearly all the kernels explode
off of it - she threw that hard and the corn was that dry. If you
can't get us storm windows, the farm wife says to the important
man, you can bet that's the last damn ear of corn I'm picking up
The young farmer, when he heard about this exchange,
would be furious. He would say: Mother, it's just things like this
that's going to cause us to have to move.
That would be a Saturday afternoon. On Monday
morning, even before the sun was up, 5:30 a.m., the phone rings
in the drafty old farmhouse. The young wife answers. Ah, says the
important man on the other end, I got the boss. I wanted to talk
to you. Charles and I were visiting yesterday and we thought it
would be a good idea if you had the fellow at the lumberyard in
Curlew come out and measure the house for storm windows. You want
to have him put storm windows on the first floor, too.
The couple farmed that land near Curlew for
more than fifteen years. Every year they worried this would be the
year they'd have to move. They didn't know that the important man
would tell them, once they'd made a down payment on a farm of their
own, that he would never, not ever, have made them move. But buy
a farm they would, that couple, no longer as young as they once
They'd go to the bank in Emmetsburg to tell
the very important man's brother, Charles, that they'd bought a
farm. The hell you did, Charles would say. Your account is overdrawn.
Well, that's what we need to see you about,
the farmer would say. We wrote another check yesterday, for a $5000
down payment, and we need you to cover it.
All this lay before the young couple, lay off
in the future. As they drove home that morning in March, maybe they
talked about how 1947 would not be a good year for farming, or maybe
they did not talk of it. A storm on May 28 would put four inches
of snow on their fields. The corn that had been cultivated already
was killed. The corn that had not been cultivated, that corn survived.
Did they talk about the hail storm that would come on the sixth
of June, followed by another one two weeks later, chopping at the
crops; then the heavy, wet weather until the Fourth of July? About
the rest of the summer without a drop of rain? About the beans that
had been replanted because of the hail and that wouldn't sprout
until the end of September?
Maybe they didn't talk about this: after their
first year farming, they had less money than they had started with.
On their tax return for the year, they would include this note to
the IRS: "As near as we can tell, you owe us money."
Never would they remember exactly what all they
talked of that day, driving back to Rodman from Tom Maury's farm
with the oat seeder clattering in the trunk of the old black Ford.
They never talked to old Tom Maury again, though they drove past
his farm a hundred times over the years. Every time they did, the
farm wife would relive her most perfect day. That morning of making
plans for the rest of their lives, that day in spring, long ago
now, in March, 1947. The snow of winter was gone then - none was
left in the ditches, none along the fence rows. As the young couple
drove back towards their first home, they could smell the freshness
of the new earth. They could feel the weight of the sun against
their skin, the wind at the hairs of their forearms. The whole world
was throbbing around them, through them, in them. Their whole life
together was rolling out before them. Electric. As alive as anything
Tom Montag is a middle western poet and essayist
who was born and raised on a farm just south of Curlew, Iowa. He lives
and writes in a cinnamon-colored house in Fairwater, Wisconsin, just
three houses west of the best fish fry bar in the state.
Montag has published nearly 25
books and chapbooks, including a large collection of poems entitled
Middle Ground. His most recent book is Curlew:
Home - Essays & a Journey Back, a memoir about growing up
on a farm in Curlew, published by Midday Moon Books.
In recent years, Montag's essays
have appeared in a variety of magazines including: The Baybury
Review, Bellowing Ark, Cream City Review, Flyway, The Heartlands
Today, The Journal of Unconventional History, The Midday Moon, New
Stone Circle, North Dakota Quarterly, Northeast, and Rosebud.