You may have noticed yesterday that I didn’t have a Fiction Thursday. There are many reasons for this but one of the main reasons is that I looked at the next chapter and realized it wasn’t finished. Since we just moved into our new house this week after a lot of drama, I didn’t have the energy to finish the chapter. I did have Chapter 3 for The Farmer’s Daughter done, however, so I can share a new Fiction Friday. As always, this is a work in progress, which means there could be typos, left out words, and plot holes.
Find the links to the other chapters HERE.
The dirt broke easily in Robert’s hands and filtered through his fingers. It might look dry now, but he knew underneath there was mud from the heavy rains the week before. When weather was this wet it made planting difficult, if not almost impossible. If the corn couldn’t be planted it would mean little to no feed for the cows over the winter, unless more feed was bought from elsewhere, which would add more to the bottom line.
Robert had been working on his family’s farm for more than 45 years, starting at the ripe age of 3. In the last 10 years, the farm had expanded to include farmland once owned by neighbors who had sold family businesses after the decline in milk prices had devastated them financially. Robert, his brother, and his father had offered area farmer’s a fair price and in some cases had even given them jobs in Tanner Enterprises. The farmers were able to keep their homes and remain in the area, with the Tanners taking over their planting, harvesting, and milking. Robert’s son Jason helped Robert work the main farm and five years ago they’d added Jason’s college roommate Alex on as a farmhand. Then there were more employee additions, cashiers and shelf stockers at the farm store they’d opened three years ago. Now the company employed 30, hard-working, well-trained people, all local residents with families to support.
He stood and stretched, felt a hard pull between his shoulder blades and winced. Farming had been hard on him, there was no denying it. He was 49 but there were days he felt 85. There were no days off for farmers. No downtime, no chance to rest aching muscles. He was on call sun-up to sun-down. If a cow calved in the middle of the night, he was usually there, though sometimes his brother drove down from his own farm to take the night shifts. If one of the pigs went into labor in the middle of the night, he made his bed in the small room by the pig pens, waking up every couple of hours to check on her.
Robert’s elbow cracked as he straightened it and pain shot up through his arm. He wondered if Walter, five years his junior, felt this old too. He must. He had been working as hard and as long as Robert had, both of them growing up on their parents’ farm. Their childhood had been a good one, full of hard work, time together as a family and eating the food they’d grown themselves. They had both learned about what it meant to work for what they wanted and needed in life.
Robert thought about how so much had changed since he and Walt had grown up on the farm, how costs had gone up as profits had gone down.
He had never doubted he’d raise his children the same way he and his brother and sister had been raised and that one day they’d work this same land, instill the same values in their own children. He’d never doubted, until the last few years, that was
As big farms started to take over the market, pushing out the small farms, Robert and Walter had felt the noose tightening. They’d both started to wonder if they would have to let go of their vision of their own children taking over the farming business. Robert couldn’t imagine what he would do with himself if he had to sell out like many of his neighbors had.
“So, Walt, we have to talk about it,” he told his brother one foggy morning before the sun was even fully up.
Walt shoved a wad of chewing tobacco against his gum and lower lip and turned toward his older brother. “About how I have to stop chewing?”
“Well, yeah, that, but we can have that talk later. For now, we need to talk about what the future of this farm is. How much longer can we do this? With barely making a profit, barely staying afloat? How much longer can we support our families?”
Walt spit chew at the barn floor and hooked his thumbs in the belt loops on his jeans.
“I don’t know, big brother,” he said. “I truly don’t. But what are we doing to do if we don’t do this?”
Robert shrugged. He hadn’t known then, and he didn’t know now. He couldn’t imagine working a job where he couldn’t pour his heart and soul into it like he had with farming.
He loved being able to provide food for not only for his family but other families, knowing where that food was coming from and how it was being produced. He worried about the impersonal aspects of corporate farming, the decrease in food quality with the pressure to produce food at a high volume and the possibility of a loss of stewardship of the soil.
Dropping the rest of the dirt to the ground, Robert kicked at the ground with his boot, slid his hands into his jean pockets and looked out over the field. He fought back emotion, trying to ignore mental images of a future that included this land being barren, starving of nutrition and void of hands willing to work it. He closed his eyes against the vision, opened them again, and focused on the sun reflecting off the water pooling around tips of corn that should have been as high as his knee by now.
He wasn’t ready to give in yet, to throw away all that he’d built. He was determined to keep fighting, to keep his family’s small farming business alive as long as he could, to keep food on the table of his employees. He’d keep planting, keep harvesting, keep milking until he absolutely couldn’t anymore. If he pushed through the challenges, helped the land and the family business prosper, maybe it would encourage other farmers to do the same and maybe he’d have a business to pass down to his son.
“I swear, if one more person tells me they drink almond milk I’ll scream,” Jason had said one day, climbing down from the tractor and slamming the door to the cab closed. “It’s not milk. You can’t milk an almond. Milk comes from mammals. It’s false advertising. They should call it almond juice. Plus, who knows what’s in that stuff – it isn’t only almonds, that’s for sure.”
If it hadn’t been for Jason’s passion for farming, along with the brothers’ efforts to keep the business sustainable, Tanner Enterprises would have gone under a few years earlier when the family patriarch, Robert and Walter’s father Ned, had retired and then been struck with a list of health issues. Jason’s decision to bring his friend Alex home and convince Robert to offer Alex a job had been an integral part of the business’ success, as well. Alex’s first year at the farm had been rough; he was often late for milking, distracted on the job and hungover too many mornings. Hard work had been a remedy for much of what ailed Alex Stone, maturing him in a way Robert hadn’t expected. Now Robert considered Alex part of the family and the backbone of the entire farming operation. Without him and Jason to help pull the weight, Robert felt certain he would have had a heart attack years ago, or maybe even given up last year when his father had died.
Robert was proud of how he and Walter had been able to grow the family business his grandfather had started almost 100 years ago with the help of their family and staff, but he was also tired. It hadn’t been easy to keep a small farm running in the black. Now, with an even bigger farming enterprise and so many employees under his care he felt the pressure even more with each year that passed. Diversifying what the farm produced and adding a farm store had increased profits enough to keep food on his, and his employees’, tables, but there were some days Robert wondered when the other shoe was going to drop and his dream of being a farmer would die.
No one wanted to be nice anymore and everyone was always staring down at their phones.
That’s how Franny Tanner felt about the world these days and she wasn’t afraid to say it.
When she was young people actually talked to each other, face to face. No, they didn’t always say nice things and they didn’t always get along, but they were a lot more alert and a lot less like braindead zombies; that much she knew.
The feet of the rocker hit the porch hard as Franny pushed her feet down. She felt turned up inside and angry at the world. She knew it wasn’t right but darn it, she was tired of being visited only if the battery on one of those cellphones died and her grandchildren were bored.
“Oh, Mom, there is nothing wrong with them being on their devices from time to time.” Her daughter Hannah had been in a lecturing mood as she unpacked the groceries earlier that day. “They aren’t hurting anyone and some of their games are educational. Just because you didn’t have technology like this when you were younger doesn’t make it bad.”
Hannah closed the refrigerator door.
“Now, I got you that bread you like and some more of that ham you can slice up for your dinner,” she said. “Robert will be over later with some dessert and to fix the buzzing sound in the TV. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
Anything else she could do? Why? So she wouldn’t feel guilty for rarely visiting her own mother and always being too busy to stop and talk awhile?
“No, thank you.”
Franny’s top lip had disappeared against the bottom as Hannah leaned down and kissed her cheek and walked toward the front door.
“Call if you need anything,” Hannah said casually, closing the front door.
“Always nice to be talked at and not to,” Franny mumbled to herself as she rocked.
Franny knew she shouldn’t be so uptight and disgusted with everyone and everything but lately the frustration simply seemed to spill over. It was spilling over even more as she thought about her daughter’s condescending tone. She increased the speed of her rocking.
“Hello, there, Miss Franny.”
The voice of Joe Fields, the new pastor of the local Methodist church startled her. She didn’t like being startled and she jerked her head around and leveled a furious glare at the smiling, red-faced balding man standing on her porch.
“Well, good grief,” she snapped. “I thought you Southerners were supposed to be polite. No one taught you not to scare an old lady?”
If the pastor was surprised by her snappy response, he didn’t show it.
“I’m sorry Miss Franny,” he said cheerfully. “I have been told I have a quiet way about me, and I guess that didn’t work out as a good thing this time.”
He laughed easily. Franny didn’t.
He stopped laughing and cleared his throat.
“Did my daughter send you here to talk me into coming back to church?” Franny snapped.
Joe found himself clearing his throat again. Suddenly he felt like he was 10-years old.
“Well, no, I mean, yes, but that wasn’t exactly what she said – I mean..”
The chair creaked loud as it rocked.
“Or did she send you here to tell me she’s sending me to a nursing home?”
“Oh. I-no-“ the pastor laughed nervously. “That wasn’t something she – I mean, she didn’t ask me about – or that is to say that I don’t know of any such plan –“
“Not sure I’d ever want to go to church with a preacher who can’t seem to figure out how to finish a sentence ,” Franny said tersely.
Joe wasn’t sure if he should laugh or run back to his car and drive away.
“Well, yes – um — anyhow, Miss Franny, I just stopped to tell you that anytime you want to come to church, I’d be glad to send someone to pick you up.”
He spoke quickly before she struck him down with her tongue again.
“I’ll keep you updated,” she said dryly, looking away from him to watch the neighbor’s pick up pass by the house. Henry Sickler waved and Franny lifted her hand in a quick movement and then laid it back on the rocker arm.
“Well, that would be –“
“But don’t hold your breath,” she quipped, still not looking at the young pastor.
Joe cleared his throat again and nodded.
“Well, okay then. Is there anything else I can do for you, Miss Franny?”
“Stop calling me Miss Franny for one. He may be dead but I’m still a Mrs., thank you very much.”
“Of course. I’m so sorry. I meant no disrespect, ma’am. Down South, we just use the term ‘Miss” as a sign of affection or respect.”
Franny felt a twinge of guilt. Maybe she really was being too hard on the young man. He was just trying to be nice, to do what he felt was his calling, or whatever. She decided to throw him a line and hoped he wouldn’t strangle himself with it.
“That’s fine. I’m sure you didn’t mean to be rude.”
She focused her eyes on a bird on the bush next to the porch instead of looking at him.
“If you ever need to talk – you know – about your loss . . .”
Franny snorted and rolled her eyes. Good God he’d just hung himself from the nearest tree with the line she’d thrown.
“I don’t talk about loss,” she snapped. “There is no sense in talking about such things. If that’s all, it’s time for my afternoon nap. You probably have a nursing home or two in town to visit so don’t let me stop you.”
Joe stood slowly.
“Well, yes, uh, I should be going. You’re right.”
He tried to smile, to ignore the internal feeling of disappointment that he wasn’t able to hit a home run on one of his first home visits as the new pastor.
“You have a good day, Miss — I mean Mrs. Tanner,” he said softly and at the risk of being yelled at again he added: “I meant what I said about being here if you ever need to talk.”
Franny nodded curtly without looking at him. She listened to him step off the porch, walk down the sidewalk and to his car.
When the sound of his car faded she tightened her jaw and fought the tears. She would not cry. She’d cried enough tears in the last year since Ned had died. She didn’t need to be reminded of all she had lost that day and she didn’t need to be reminded Ned wasn’t there anymore. Not by her family and certainly not by some upstart pastor from the South.
She picked up her rocking again, sliding her hands along the smooth, curved arm of the chair Ned had built for her. He’d built two chairs; one for him and one for Franny.
“We’ll just rock the rest of our lives away,” he said, the night he’d presented them to her, two nights after he’d told her he wanted to back off farming as often, passing the bulk of the farm operations to his sons.
For a few years they’d been able to do just that. He would come home when he wished, eat lunch and even dose in one of the rocking chairs in the cool breeze of the summer afternoon or inside in the recliner if it was cooler out.
After he passed away last year, it was months before Franny started to sit in her rocking chair again. When alone, she looked at her husband’s empty chair and remembered the warm nights with cold iced tea, the cool nights with hot cocoa and the laughter.
Most of all she remembered the laughter.
She tried her best not to remember the confusion, the days he couldn’t remember what they had laughed about the day before. She pushed the memory of the day he asked her who she was and why he was sitting on the porch with her far to the back of her mind, closing her eyes against tears when it surfaced against her will.
The last three years had been like a very bad dream she couldn’t wake up from. First, the weakness and exhaustion had struck Ned, then a diagnosis of Congestive Heart Failure, and within six months after that diagnosis the confusion settled in. In the beginning, they thought the confusion was from the medication, but she remembered well the day Dr. Lester told her Ned’s medication wasn’t the cause. It was Alzheimer’s and there was no cure, he’d said.
“But, with patience and the right therapy, we can delay the progression,” Dr. Lester said, his hand on hers, trying to reassure her.
The progression hadn’t been delayed, though. The confusion had spread faster than Dr. Lester had expected and combined with a weakened heart, it was more than Ned’s body could bear.
At a time when they should have been enjoying time with their grandchildren, traveling together or simply spending time together rocking on the front porch, Franny was navigating her golden years alone. She wasn’t navigating them well, either. She was floundering; angry and bitter most days, pushing the people who loved her the most away.
And worst of all, she had pushed God away, angry at him for taking Ned before she was ready. She’d believed in and trusted God her whole life, never doubting his love for her, even when she’d had a miscarriage between her first and second son and even on the toughest days at the farm. But this? This cruel loss of her husband not only mentally but then physically too? In some ways Franny felt like this was truly the end of her rope, her naïve belief in a God who loved her. In other ways, though, she wasn’t ready to let go of the trust she had held on to for all these years. More than anything she wanted answers. She wanted God to show her some reason for her pain, for Ned’s suffering.
“You owe me that much, Lord,” she said softly as she rocked.
After all her years of service, all her years of blindly following the teachings of the Christian faith, God her owed her some explanations and he owed them to her soon.