The Best Gift
I’m not sure why that day was so special; I only know that I often find myself recalling it vividly. I can still feel the warm wind blowing on my skin, the thick mud between my toes, a strand of dirty white hair in my mouth. And the love.
Daddy was participating in an experimental project for the Idaho Extension Service. He was one of those first farmers to raise the “certified” potato seed which would eventually make Idaho world-famous for its quality baking potatoes. That particular day he came in from the fields to get mama in the middle of the day. He talked her into lugging along her big black box camera. My sister and I tagged along as they walked to the far side of the north field.
When daddy turned to walk down one of the deep furrows, MarJean and I each started down furrows of our own. We carefully scanned each lush green plant for the slightest trace of yellow. After all, we knew how to “rogue” potatoes.
Part way down the row daddy stooped, and with the flat of his hand began to burrow in the ground beneath a large thick potato vine. There he unearthed the biggest potatoes any of us had ever seen. A grin spread over his face and his eyes shone as mama took snapshots of him with half a dozen huge spuds resting in his hands and on his arms. Then she took pictures of my sister and me holding the giant potatoes. I sat in the furrow and made mud bricks, carefully shaping each little square with my fingers until they were as perfect as the miniature bricks grandma kept at her house for us to play with when we visited. Every once in a while I would glance up to see daddy with his arm around mama’s shoulder, his hand lightly gripping the top of her arm. They smiled and talked. I demolished my brick house before we left so it wouldn’t dam up the water the next time daddy irrigated.
That night daddy came in from watering while mama was still washing dishes. I knew he was going to tease her because he had that look on his face. With his hands behind his back, he sneaked up behind her. She really jumped and I giggled when he thrust a bouquet of wild flowers into her arms. He often brought her flowers: dark purple violets, delicate lady slippers, sweet-smelling pale-pink roses, and feathery lavender daisies.
Years later, as a teenager, I ran across the snapshots my mother had taken that day. I was so dirty and ragged! My wispy white hair looked as though it had never known a comb. Shocked, I wondered why I remembered that day as one of the happiest of my life, when I had obviously looked like one of Dickens’s street urchins.
It was not until several more years had passed that a glimmer of understanding came to me when I read the words of Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, who wrote: “The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” (Reader’s Digest, Jan. 1963, p. 25.) At that moment I understood how a single day, bathed in the love of parents for each other, could be one of the greatest gifts of childhood.
Crows in the Corn
“Crows! Crows! There’s crows in the corn!” The two children standing guard in the cornfield burst into the house screaming in desperation. The family at dinner stopped mid-bite and raced out to do battle in the cornfield.
The year was 1877. Ross Ransom Rogers, with his wife, Cynthian, and their six children had been sent to Arizona as part of the colonizing effort of the Church. Together with ten other families they had wrested their little settlement from cacti, sagebrush, burning sun, sand, and iron-hard earth.
This was their second year of struggle. The cacti, mesquite, and sagebrush had been hacked away by hand ax, then the roots of the mesquite painstakingly dug up and stacked outside the kitchen for firewood.
The cholla cactus, unaffectionately nicknamed “jumping cactus,” was one of their worst hazards. A person merely brushed by, and the monster seemed to leap out and grab, leaving a venomous chunk of itself imbedded half an inch below the skin and secured by ugly chartreuse barbs. It was impossible to cut the plants down without being attacked. Sister Rogers produced flaxseed poultices, evil-smelling concoctions that were plastered on the afflicted area to draw out the poison and the sticker. Even so, her husband had developed a severe infection from an imbedded cholla spine which had left him with a stiff left leg. Cynthian called the surly cactus “a thorn in the side of the desert.”
But the reward of their labors, the corn crop, was the family’s mainstay. The first year’s crop had barely paid for itself and seen them through the winter. They badly needed a crop this year; without it, they would be destitute.
A flock of crows had already stripped the cornfield twice this year. And now a third time, led by a crafty old bird the family had named “Old Wily,” they once more zoomed in unerringly on the tiny green banners as the first shoots appeared, about five days after planting. No amount of apron flapping, shouting, barking dogs, or slingshot rocks deterred them—until at a signal caw from Old Wily, they rose as one undulating raven blanket and sailed noiselessly away. In their wake was a bare field of sunbaked earth.
The situation was desperate. Their third planting was now being digested by the airborne thieves. It was almost too late in the season to sow again—and there was only enough seed corn for one more planting. If it too went to feed the crows, they were ruined.
The next day was the Sabbath. The family fasted and prayed more earnestly than ever before. Monday morning they had prayer before breaking their fast; then they rose from their knees and started for the field to plant the remaining scant supply of seed corn.
But Sister Rogers detained them, having received a sudden inspiration. She sent the children to the barn to pull hairs from the horses’ tails, while she took scissors and large-eyed needles from her sewing box. Cutting three-inch lengths of horsehair, she gave it to the older children with instructions to thread the coarse hair through the kernels. Understanding her intent, they all brightened. When the planting began, every few feet they buried a seed strung with horsehair.
The corn sprouted, as usual, on the fifth day. On the next, the expected ominous black cloud soared in from the west. The family gathered at the edge of the field to watch.
Old Wily was the first victim. He had swallowed the seed kernel, but the hair was irretrievably stuck in his throat. Hanging from his bill on each side was about an inch of horsehair, and he was frantically clawing at it. He squawked, flapped, and began running awkwardly about. Then he flew in lopsided circles over the flock, screeching his brand of “help!” Several other crows circled about him, unable to offer anything but sympathy.
More birds became similarly afflicted and set up a hideous racket. Finally, still clawing at their throats and emitting raucous cries, the flock rose and flapped away. They never returned.
The family gathered once again in the kitchen. On their knees, they thanked their Father in Heaven for their corn crop, for his inspiration, and for their life in Arizona—which continues today through the hundreds of descendants of Ross and Cynthian Eldridge Rogers.
“He Isn’t There”
“I’ll try, but I don’t think I can do it,” I told the bishop over the telephone that morning. Usually, an invitation to sing is a happy opportunity, but he had asked me to sing at a funeral that afternoon, the funeral of a two-year-old boy who had suffocated in some dirt while at play.
The bereaved parents had asked the bishop to help with the funeral because the father had attended an LDS Sunday School for a while. That had been the extent of his contact with any church; but when trouble came, he reached back all those years to that source. The bishop had asked me to sing “O My Father” (Hymns, no. 139), a song that always moved me to tears. As the mother of three small children, I was sentimental where children and helpless things were concerned. How could I sing that song—any song—on such an occasion?
But I had told the bishop I would try. I practiced at the organist’s house, then we drove to the meetinghouse and met with the bishop for prayer in his office. I put off entering the chapel, but finally had to open the door. There, against a mass of gladiolas and palms, I saw a tiny, blue plush coffin. The scene blurred. I choked and lost control.
Then into my mind came the words “He isn’t there.” That was all. But the assurance that accompanied the words drove the lump from my throat and the tears from my eyes. I could sing.
I sang—not for the child who wasn’t there, but for his parents who were there and needed to hear the message in that hymn. The bishop’s sermon of reassurance and comfort visibly affected them. I remained calm, even when the mother half rose and gasped, “My baby …” as they carried the little coffin out.
The family joined the Church. I don’t really know how the hand of the Lord worked in their conversion, but I do know that the message of the song was important enough that I could be calmed to sing it. As an echo of the angel’s words at Jesus’ tomb (see Matt. 28:6), the message of the words that had come into my mind has remained with me, and I have never forgotten it.