Monthly Archives: June 2013

Brad Now

I posted “Brad,” a chapter from Gift of Seeds, a few days ago. The tractor ride I described in it took place almost sixty years ago.

Yesterday, Brad phoned.

After my uncle Everett died in 1960, my grandmother leased her fields to other farmers, and my uncle’s right hand man had to find work elsewhere. The last time I saw Brad was at my uncle’s funeral. He stood off to one side with his wife, Ivory. I hardly recognized him in a suit and without a sweat-stained cap.

After Gift of Seeds was published, my sister gave me the address and I sent an email to Everett’s daughter, my cousin Mary Ann, in Milford, Delaware. I wrote her about the book and the people she knew who appear in it, including her father and our Grandma Stayton. Months later I received an email from Mary Ann’s adult daughter, Stephanie. The email address I’d used is actually hers. Seems Mary Ann isn’t much on email “but she’d love to talk,” her daughter wrote back, and gave me the phone number.

We talked. We scarcely knew each other as children. Now, more than half a century later, we had our first conversation. The next day she called me, and we talked some more. I was lucky to remember half the people she was bringing me up to date on.

“Bedie died, must be ten years ago now, and Herbie’s long gone. Janet lives somewhere in Arizona; I’ll get you her address. Aunt May and Uncle Tom’s farm was sold off in parcels, I don’t know whatever became of Martha or Dickie; Clint and Jane live right next door; we tore down grandma’s old barn last year; the only thing left standing of the farm buildings is the milk house; and Doug—remember Doug?—he lives over to Frederica; my husband Sam’s mom, Mother Day, lives with us. She stills drives to bingo in town at the senior center. A while before Stephanie was born I had a miscarriage, but the year grandma passed, I had my hysterectomy, and Aunt Zena died too; it was a bad year…”

A dust devil of details later, Mary Ann said, “Brad lives right here in Milford. I run into him once in a while.”

“Do you have his address?” I asked.

Mary Ann looked up “Bradie Worthy” in the phone book. I heard her flipping pages. She gave me his information right then. The next morning I mailed Brad a letter with a copy of Gift of Seeds, intending to wait a week and then call him.

He called me first. My cousin had given him my number. My smarter-than-me phone already knew the call was from an unknown number in Milford, but only I knew it had to be Brad.

“Jack? That you?”

His voice touched a gossamer wisp of memory, but this was an older, rural-sounding man, articulate, his tone gravelly but distantly familiar. He knew me by Jack, my childhood nickname.

“Brad!” I exclaimed.

“Yes it is! I got your book. Thank you! Thank you. I’ve never been so surprised.”

“Nobody ever wrote such nice things about me. Brings me back to a finer time, a happy time… Your grandma and your uncle were good people, and real good to me…”

We exchanged memories about family and friends, past and present.

“I read other stories in your book and liked them, but I keep going back to ‘Brad’ and reading it again. I’m still just soaking it up.”

I had thanked Brad in my letter to him, saying the meaning and importance of that long-ago time have stayed with me and influenced how I’ve seen the world ever since.

“Please accept this Gift of Seeds with my profound gratitude for the positive, formative part you played in my upbringing,” I inscribed in the book I sent him.

After a short silence, Brad said, softly, “I had no idea, no idea… no idea at all…”

I could almost see him slowly shaking his gray-haired head in time with the words he dropped one by one into the phone. From a deep well, a lifetime of feelings rose. His voice trembled. I teared up, too.

We’d both had no idea, until now.

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Brad

A Chapter Excerpt from Gift of Seeds by John Clinton Gray © 2012

I watched Brad eat his midday dinner at the small table in the kitchen of my grandmother’s central Delaware farmhouse. If he knew I was glancing sidelong at him, he didn’t let on. The rest of us ate at the big oval dining room table. The kitchen and dining room were actually one undivided space, but a Grand Canyon yawned between the two sides during those afternoon meals. Delaware borders the South, Brad was a black man, and that’s just how it was. When I innocently asked Grandma Stayton why, that was her answer. Something the grownups accepted as natural felt unnatural to me.

Outside the house, my uncle Everett treated his only full-time farmhand as a friend and co-worker. I think Everett trusted Brad with his life—at times literally, when they worked on dangerous machinery together. He gave him an acre and built a home for Brad, his wife, and their children on the farm—a neat, small, white house, half a mile up the dusty road on the edge of the woods. Race was never talked about. That’s just how it was. It was a different world from my all-white suburban neighborhood in New York, but for several weeks a year it was my second home. When I think of Grandma Stayton’s farm, Brad is always there, part of it all.

At seven, going for a tractor ride was a big deal. My uncle or my dad would usually accommodate my eager begging, as long as it wasn’t too often. On a warm afternoon after dinner, I asked and asked but both uncle and father were busy with something. Then Brad offered to take me with him when he went back out to cultivate a soybean field. My dad and uncle nodded.

I was elated. I’d never had a tractor ride with Brad before. We walked a long way out into the south field where he’d left the tractor, stepping over young plants, row after row after row. The dirt had a dry, crunchy crust but with each sneakered step my feet broke through to yielding soil.

Brad wore soft, dusty denim overalls and scuffed, wrinkled work boots with leather laces. Through a cut on one toe I could see shiny metal. He had on a faded long-sleeved shirt despite the warm weather, and a once-green ball cap. It wasn’t a baseball cap like my favorite New York Giants hat. It had a bill like a ball cap, but there was white stuff all around the headband, even across the front where it read “Milford Feed & Seed.” I asked, and Brad told me it was sweat. I thought sweat was wet, not white.

We reached the tractor. Brad climbed up on the metal seat mounted on a giant spring, then helped me up to sit between him and the hot, black steering wheel. Brad leaned over me to put his thumb on the worn metal starter button. He was warm and smelled good of dust, engine grease, and sweat. His left arm was around my waist like a seatbelt, and I felt secure and happy up on my tractor perch. A short whine later, the tractor’s loud motor rumbled, black smoke briefly spewed out a pipe on top, and we set off down the soybean rows.

The day was sunny, humid, breezeless. Haze blurred the distant woods. Brad drove slowly, straight and true. Below our feet I watched the cultivator’s metal points slide smoothly through the soil. A four-row-wide wake of freshly turned earth stretched out behind us, perfectly framing three lines of soybean green.

When we got to the edge of the field where it met the hedgerow, Brad turned the tractor in a tight semicircle, and we headed back straight in the opposite direction. The dry, weedy dirt ahead was transformed into fragrant, fecund soil as we passed. The soybean plants would be happy, I thought.

Brad didn’t talk. His arm remained around me, firm but gentle. The tractor’s motor droned. I felt like a barnyard cat stretching placidly on a warm, sunny ledge, and sleep took over.

I awoke on the sofa in my grandmother’s front room. Brad had carried me to the farmhouse and passed me to my dad, who’d laid me there, all without disturbing me. For years later the men recounted how funny they found it all. I had wanted that tractor ride so badly, and then didn’t last two full passes in the field before conking out cold on Brad’s lap.

Forty years later my sister attended a Stayton family reunion hosted by my uncle’s adult children. They had invited Brad, and were surprised and delighted when he showed up. Then in his seventies, Brad jokingly introduced himself to younger folk who didn’t know him as “the black sheep of the family.” He would never have said that back in my grandmother’s day! But times had changed, and to our generation he was part of the family. He just never ate at the big table.