My Father had a store of words he drew from when an ordinary vocabulary fell short of expressing what he wanted to say. One of the favorites he used was “spizarinctum” (spiz’ uh rink’ tum), which meant something like putting one’s whole body and soul into whatever task or activity was being pursued at a given time. His work ethic demanded perfection and dedicated enthusiasm. He fervently dug ditches; he ardently pitched hay; he vigorously swung a scythe.
Dad always reacted like a bear out of hibernation when the first warm days of spring dried the fields enough for plowing. He and his team of horses, Pete and Frank, made an art out of turning brown furrows and releasing the sweet smell of fertile soil. His energy level remained in high range through the harrowing and disking as he prepared the soil and then planted the seeds. By the end of May the green blades of newly sprouted corn marched in even rows across the field. The drama of new life was beautiful to watch up to this point, but then the drudgery began.
Like all newborns, the hundreds of little plants demanded individual attention—hoeing, digging weeds, and replanting the hills that didn’t make it. The hoeing and digging weeds had to be done three times, at one-week intervals. So as the school year ended, my sisters and I donned our new straw hats and headed for the corn field. Dad and one of the horses tilled between the rows as we hoed. He kept a watchful eye on how we were doing the job and at what speed. He was still going at the pace he began three months earlier and he would not slow down until the crops were harvested in the fall.
Dad expected us to approach the dreaded chore with his level of enthusiasm. “Put some spizarinctum in it!” he would shout across the field. I probably heard that directive more than any of my sisters because I was the one prone to lag behind and approach my tasks with less than the acceptable level of exuberance.
Dad watched my lack of enthusiasm and would often stop on his rounds of plowing to give me a one-on-one “spizarinctum” speech. Then he would show me how, hoeing as if his very life depended on it. When he handed the hoe back to me I would take it and do as he had done—until he was out of sight. Then as he came around again in the next row, I would go into the life or death hoeing mode, slacking off once he passed me. I might have chanced a better showing if I had skipped a few hills, but I knew better. Dad also watched with spizarinctum.
My hoeing career started off well enough, when I was perhaps seven or eight. My two older sisters, Winifred and Mildred, gave me a hoe during break time one morning and showed me how to use it. They cheered me on, telling me how well I was doing. I felt grown-up when Winifred offered to let me use her hoe later that morning while she went to the house to prepare lunch. I worked for an hour or so until noon. Had I read about Tom Sawyer’s fence whitewashing episode, I would have suspected my sisters of the same kind of trickery, but I was too young to have known that story. After lunch I was given a hoe of my own and I worked until Mom told me that I had done enough for one day. But from then on, I was expected to be a part of the work force.
Hoeing corn was one of the non-negotiables of summer. One had to be seriously disabled to escape. I did manage that for a few days one summer. It was my turn to fix lunch and I chose a jar of last year’s raspberries for dessert. As I worked to loosen up a tight lid, the jar broke in my hands. I felt a sharp pain in my left hand and saw red flowing profusely. I couldn’t tell the berry juice from the blood. I remember fighting hard to keep from passing out, then suddenly Mom was there working to get the bleeding under control. I always suspected her of having some sort of mental vibrations that let her know when I was doing something I shouldn’t. Fortunately, that ability must have tipped her off when I needed help also. She bandaged my hand and cleaned up the mess. The scars from the cuts still remind me of her vigilance.
A few days reprieve because of injury is not a desirable escape, but I managed other ways to make the corn hoeing endurable. A little fantasy went a long way. Actually, I was an Olympic daydreamer. But getting wrapped up in my own imagination often made me slow down, which in turn called forth Dad’s spizarinctum lecture, making the escape more inviting, and so ad infinitum. I would fantasize about what I would do when I grew up. Certainly I would be far removed from a cornfield!
Some of my favorite things to think about were the heroic women whose biographies I had read. Among them was Florence Nightingale, “the Lady with the Lamp.” How she attended the sick and wounded soldiers during the Crimean War captured my admiration. Women were not encouraged in science and medicine in her time, but if she could be a war nurse and change the role of women there, then surely girls of my era should pick up her lamp and carry it further. Why couldn’t I? Maybe I would find a cure for some dreaded disease. Or I perhaps I would marry a scientist and we would become a team like Marie and Pierre Curie and make some significant discovery.
But when I read the biography of Jane Addams, she became the one I most wanted to be like. I read about her work with poor people at the Hull House in Chicago. I admired her efforts to bring about reforms in women’s working conditions and to improve living conditions for children. Maybe I would leave the farm and do great things as a social worker like she did. It is strange that I should have had such an aspiration. I had no idea what slums were like, and I had never even seen a city. I knew nothing of life away from the fields and woods of Grayson County.
Eventually, all the “spizarinctum” lectures and the daydreaming would end for the year. The corn crop, on its way at last, required no more of us until harvest. I would view the dark green expanse of the knee-high crop with a mixture of pride and guilt. The corn would grow tall over the summer and produce an abundance of beautiful long white ears in the fall, even though I had not given it my very best.
But Dad had other ways of keeping summer adrenaline flowing. The worst of the summer jobs might have been over for us, but Dad’s extraordinary skills were just getting started. It was in the next task that he excelled. The wheat that had been planted the previous fall had by this time matured into golden waves that undulated in the gentle summer breezes, signaling the time for reaping. Dad was a legend when it came to harvesting wheat. He earned a reputation as a champion cradler when he was still a teenager. Cradling was the way of harvesting grain before the introduction of the combine which cut and bound the sheaves of grain in one operation. The cradle was a long curved scythe-like blade in front of a row of curved wooden teeth. As the reaper swung the cradle, it cut and gathered the stalks, delivering them in neat piles for the person who followed to bind into sheaves. Dad could swung the cradle in rhythmic motion for hours, stopping only to drink the water we carried to the field for him. Maintaining his reputation for speed was his obsession.
Dad believed in having tools adequate for the job, so he made his own cradle and he kept its blade razor-sharp throughout the harvest. He used a grindstone, turned by kid-power. Garnetta and I would take turns, turning the wheel until our arms ached. We didn’t dare complain, and the concentration required did not allow for daydreaming. When the blade was finally honed to perfection and we thought we could get back to our play, Dad would bring out the ax, hoes, shovels, and everything else that needed to be sharpened “while we are at it.” My sister and I noted that we were born too early when we came home from college one summer and found that he had built a rig with which he could turn the grindstone himself using his foot!
My dreams of women achieving in unorthodox places began to become reality during World War II, but not for me. My oldest sister, Winifred, was among the first to join the newly formed United States Marine Corps, Women’s Reserve. Dad didn’t approve, or at least he didn’t verbalize approval. But that was expected of him. Real men were supposed to be opposed to women going to war. Dad soon got used to the idea, and though he would not have admitted it, I think he was really proud of her decision to come to the aid of her country. Maybe he could see beyond his time to another generation of spizarinctum that found expression in new ways. Perhaps that was also true of the fathers of Addams, Curie, and Nightingale. I wonder what Dad would have thought a few years ago if he could have see his teenage great-granddaughters, Sabory, lugging a cello the length of South America, taking the gift of music to eager audiences in remote areas, and Sarah, helping to construct a children’s home in far away Surdan, Mexico.