A GRACIOUS PLENTY - ANDREW TAYLOR TROUTMAN
The young, who have looked on dying,
turn back to the world … Wendell Berry
I knew to find the two old farmers on the far, lonely side of the unused barn. The late fall’s setting sun had bitten into the mountain range, while the tractors in the valley were finishing the last of the harvest. As I walked up to these parishioners, their weathered face broke into smiles beneath their John Deere caps.
Each greeted me with a firm handshake. They no longer worked the fields, but their hands were permanently calloused. I found an old plastic bucket and turned it over, sitting at their feet. They leaned back against the barn and tilted toward each other. Between the two, they’d heard plenty of pastors over the years and seen them come and go. “Short timers,” they’d say.
I listened silently to their memories of harvests, bountiful and poor, the farmer’s equivalent to the size of a caught fish, until the talk turned to my second son.
“A hearty boy,” the shorter of them had said, causing the taller to nod approvingly. I reminded them that our second son was ten pounds at birth and the doctor had told my parents, “Congratulations. He’s a toddler!” They chuckled as though they had never heard this well-worn story. A red-tailed hawk screamed in the distance and the three of us silently watched the tractors growing darker in the shadow of the hills.
Finally, the shorter one wondered when my wife and I might try for a third child.
I shook my head, adamantly: “Two’s enough.”
There was a hint of a smile in the way he looked up at his old friend.
“You sure ‘bout that?”
“Yes, sir, I am. We already have ‘a gracious plenty,’” I added, mimicking what I’d heard them say.
To which the taller replied, “Ain’t three a holy number?”
Suddenly, those two grinned like little boys.
They both had three children. They were both married for more than fifty years. And both had farmed their entire lives except for when they were in the Army. Neither talked about the war.
But they both loved to talk about the weather, about the goings-on of the farms, and most of all about their families. One was a Democrat, the other a Republican, and they chided each other, gently. Together, they had been members of our small rural church for one hundred and twenty years and were the strongest financial supporters. While they were no longer active in leadership, I sought their blessing for every major decision.
They loved to repeat a joke at my expense. One would ask the other if he could recall what I had preached about. “About fifteen minutes,” the other would reply. And they would giggle.
Time was fluid behind the barn. The old farmers’ memories drifted in and out of the twilight like smoke. Something would remind one of them of a story and in an instant their old friends would be there among us in colorful detail, men with nicknames like Shorty. One time a pigeon suddenly took off from the hay loft and conjured Shorty, way up there in the loft unloading one last square bale of hay, when, without warning—the old farmers recalled—he did a backflip twelve feet down to the floor!
Many of their peers had nicknames, but the title “Mr.” was reserved for their mentors. I learned that a successful farmer was made by plenty of hard work, more than a little luck, and the generosity of the community, particularly the older men who gave young farmers a start, a loan, or forgave a debt. Both farmers would tear up at the mention of these quietly gracious men and their quirks: He always knocked his boots off away from the house when he came to visit; he smoked with his pipe clamped between his teeth; he prayed in a high-pitched, nasal voice.
“I’ve been blessed with good friends,” one of them would say.
“A gracious plenty,” the other would respond.
Both were so generous to me.
That Advent was the year my one-year-old son contracted walking pneumonia. Then, my wife caught mono. My older boy and I succumbed to double sinus infections. All of us were miserable for weeks. Just when my wife and I would be at our wits’ end, the doorbell would ring and a casserole would be left on the back step, a friendly hand waving from the driver’s seat as the truck backed down our gravel driveway.
A few days before Christmas, my family woke to the surprising sight of a giant pile of horse manure out in our garden, a weathered shovel tied with a red ribbon sticking out of “the big poop,” as our oldest delighted in saying. “Black gold” was what those two farmers called it. They had another saying, that pastors were like manure: Spread us out and we can do some good, but get a pile of us together and we stink to high heaven!
By Christmas Eve, I was well enough to preach or, at least, show up. For as long as anybody could remember, the Christmas Eve service began at 8 p.m. Not ideal for young children, but the farming families all attended with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren home for the holiday. In previous years, the two old farmers would be the first ones to lift their burning candles during the last carol, “Silent Night,” signaling to the rest of us to do the same.
But this year, the shorter one was plagued all evening by coughing spells. After the service was over and candles had been blown out, a nurse in the congregation pressed him to go to the hospital. I knew he would refuse. His family was home, the youngest daughter all the way from New York City with her two daughters, her youngest named after his wife. He was sitting in the pew, protesting that he was just fine, and I knelt down to offer a prayer. This is what you do. You show up. And you speak common words like “bless” and “heal” and “God.” You say “Amen” and you hope in the Infinite Incomprehensibility. That’s what the old farmer used to call the Lord Almighty.
But, for once, he didn’t even speak. His face glistened with tears. It was his last Christmas.
This was also the time when Brian Doyle, one of my writing mentors, shared publicly that he had “a big honkin’ brain tumor.” It was like him to make light of his situation, but he understood the seriousness of his diagnosis. It turned out that this would be Brian’s last Christmas as well.
Years ago, I first wrote to Mr. Doyle because I’d treasured his first-person narratives in magazines as diverse as Christian Century and The Sun. For all the charms of pastoring a rural congregation and raising young children, your world becomes pretty small. I inhaled Brian’s stories from different places and times, and I wanted him to know how much his stories meant to me.
He was gracious with his response, and every other month or so we’d mail short essays and poems across the country to each other. Born in New York, having worked in Chicago, and then living in Oregon, Brian had never been to this part of the Appalachian Mountains and was curious about the topography as well as the people, for he said that all beings are holy (except the New York Yankees baseball team).
I sent him little notes about the old farmers. How they said about parenting that life was best between diapers and dating. How they said about snow that it was a poor man’s fertilizer. How they did not like Wendell Berry, another of my favorite writers, because Mr. Berry was critical of tractors. Both of them had started farming with mules, and they remembered one of those stubborn creatures biting and kicking an innocent boy, and it would be a cold day in hell before they ever wrote poems about them! Brian chortled over that line.
I sent Brian a nostalgic paragraph about one lazy afternoon, before my wife and I had children, when I had stood in the gravel driveway, watching the late summer light ooze in the air like honey, listening to this old farmer (the shorter one) tell me that, when I did have kids, the school bus would come all the way down the gravel road to drop them off right in front of my house.
In response, Brian sent me a poem called “Lily” about a father who “shambles” to his car one morning at the same moment a school bus “bounces” past him. These delightfully contrasting verbs set the scene: “a little cheerful kid waves to me.” Brian’s daughter is named Lily, which is apparent enough to any reader. But what happens next in the poem calls for interpretation. Reflecting on that little cheerful kid, the speaker of the poem realizes that “for a moment I am / That kid and she is my daughter and I’m waving to her / Hoping she will wave to me.”
It is a mystery, these extraordinary epiphanies in the ordinariness of life, like what Brian described in his poem or like praying for that old farmer on Christmas Eve. I only know that, in such holy moments as these, I realize that eternity breaks into time and all of us are actually a part of everything and everyone else. Even the Yankees.
A few months after Christmas, I knew to find the taller one in his living room. After his friend’s death, he no longer returned to lean against that old barn. I didn’t blame him.
But, today, I had good news. The best news, in fact. I wasn’t telling everybody in the congregation. Not yet. But my wife was …
“Pregnant,” he finished for me. “You don’t say!” He started laughing, and I joined him. Then, suddenly, we were both crying, for we were grieving, too. Through his window, we watched the tractors plowing the fields in the distance. It is a grace in ministry, as in life, when you know people deeply enough to let the silence speak.
Finally, wiping his eyes, the old farmer says, “You think he had anything to do with it? You know …”
“Us having a third child?”
He nodded, very slowly.
I shrugged. I told him I sure didn’t know the Infinite Incomprehensibility. But I liked his idea. We smiled together.
“I’ll bet she’ll have a little girl, just like he would have wanted.”
A little more than six months later, our daughter was born. Weighing a little more than eight pounds, she was not as big as her brothers. Still a gracious plenty.
Andrew Taylor-Troutman serves as poet pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, NC. His fourth book, Gently Between the Words, will be published in 2019.