Jilly D.

Cannonball Run on harmonica: sounds of summer

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on August 1, 2014 at 3:28 am

AFCU Class Swenson & Cooper Work 20100521GHUncle Donald was beginning to show early stages of Alzheimers disease when I met him. I recognized some of the signs before others did. But I loved him so much immediately I couldn’t say anything to anyone they didn’t already know. Uncle Donald had a pea-shelling machine that would save me countless hours, I had heard from Sam and Tom during Charlie and Janet’s reception dinner. I stopped by their house in Mecklenburg to inquire.

“Oh, yes. Just bring them bushel of peas up here and we’ll do them up right.” Uncle Donald said. I returned within the half hour with two bushels of shell peas. Donald Warren had dragged his machine out of the garage and hooked it up with an extension cord. We set up operations in the driveway towards the back yard. He showed me how to use it, including the removal of cotter pins from the basket covering the wire mesh bin. Once we had filled the pea drawer, Uncle Donald called out for help. “Nori, it’s time for the running board.”

peasAunt Nori came out of the house with a plastic bucket. She walked to the side of the house and started unwinding the hose. Then she turned the faucet on, but the power head on the hose was still off. Nori aimed the sprayer at the wooden running board and shot it down wet in a hurry. Then she showed me the real magic to this process of cleaning peas. As she ran the peas down the board, all the chaff stuck to the board and the peas ran down clean into the bucket below.  Nori’s kitty kept tangling herself around her ankles. Every time Nori took a step that cat did a figure eight through and around her feet. Nori stopped to pick her up and held her nose close to her cheek.

Uncle Donald was already thrashing the next bunch of peas in the sheller. But he forgot that the drawer wasn’t there. Aunt Nori was still rolling peas from it. Peas were flying everywhere. I rushed over and pointed out the problem to him. He shut the machine off and started yelling at Nori. It was her fault. He was ready and she wasn’t. Soon enough Nori had that drawer back in the pea shelling machine and Donald was off and running it all over again.

I left half the shelled peas behind for the two of them to enjoy.

Uncle Donald found his way down to the farm a few days later. I wasn’t going to ask how he got there, since he hadn’t been driving for several years. I’d been playing around with a harmonica trying desperately to learn how to make my own music, instead of just consuming it. He pulled in and found me sitting on a big rock under the shade of the tree making noise.

Uncle Donald asked to borrow my mouth harp. He knocked it a couple time hard against his knee to get my spit out. Then he put the harmonica to his lips. He began to blow softly and the notes went up and down the scale. Then he set it down once more on his knee and tapped it. He put it to his mouth again and suddenly the familiar tune of “Cannonball Run” came flowing out of the little organ. When the tune was finished, Donald smiled so wide.

“Do it again, please,” I begged.

Donald picked it up again and played another foot stomping tune. “Red Wing is the name of that one,” he said.

“Keep going,” I said in rapture.

“No, I can’t. I don’t even know where that came from,” said Donald. I saw from the look of oblivion that he was telling the truth.

“Do another, please” I said to Uncle Donald. He looked at the harmonica as though it were a spatula and handed it back to me.

“No, thank you.” Uncle Donald turned to Sam and started talking about the carburetor of an Allis Chalmers tractor. I knew the moment had passed. I treasure that moment as one where I met Uncle Donald as himself.

From then on, it was a struggle with Uncle Donald. He became increasingly belligerent with Aunt Nori. Thomas moved back home for a while to help his mother keep track of Uncle Donald.

He’d always been the kind of farmer who would get up from a dining room table full of company and walk out the door and not say a word. He’d plow a field or fix that motor or replace mower blades or whatever the task he’d had in his mind. No matter that company could be sitting down to a meal to which he had personally invited them.

As the Alzheimers progressed, this personality quirk of his got dangerous. He’d be sitting in his chair in the living room with the dog on his lap watching television and the next minute he’d be gone out the front door without a sound. Down to the post office. He’d walk to the old grange, the cemetery, past the old general store and waterwheel.

“Things just don’t look the same anymore,” Donald said to me in the lobby of the Post Office one morning. Donald and Nori lived just one house away from the parking lot of the P.O. but he’d gotten lost.

Then one day at home Uncle Donald stubbed his toe bad. It got infected. He took a fall and the ambulance got him to the hospital. They say it was a stroke but it was a blessing.

Sam had a hard time attending the funeral. He mourned one of his fathers. Donald had taught him to farm, repair equipment, work hard, love one woman and be honest. While Charlie has always had a hard time showing Sam affection, Donald showed it openly towards Sam by treating his nephew as a son. There are still days when Sam talks about what Uncle Donald told him or taught him. Gospel, Donald spoke.

Donald gave me personal instructions in farming techniques unrelated to the tractors. He supervised the transplanting of tomatoes into the field, potato planting and hilling cucumber seeds in late spring.

“Here’s how to use a hoe,” Donald showed me. He didn’t say another word, just demonstrated a variety of techniques. He handed the hoe back to me. “Do it.”

I learned by watching him and trying to copy his actions. He didn’t explain the principals of leverage or the importance of a sharp edge. The swift and easy swing of the hoe’s head cuts through weeds and soil within an inch of the roots of the plant. I learned the technique of using a hoe to create a hill for squash and cucumber seeds without any words. He worked the hoe while I watched. I tried it. He did it again and he showed me what I hadn’t noticed the first time. I got the hang of it and learn to appreciate how sophisticated one could get with such a simple tool. Actions superseded the need for words. Sam is a lot like his Uncle Donald in this respect.


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