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.