Iowa Writes

GERRY MILLER
Collins


The first thing the boy remembered in his life was sitting on a woman's lap in a weekday church in a cornfield town and hearing someone say, "Is that the boy? It's a blessing he's young enough he won't remember any of this."

There was an almost intentional vagueness about it as solemn, season-battling farmers milled about; well-scrubbed wives and daughters whispered; and a funeral-weary minister blackly droned. And there in the middle of his memory was an American flag.

The boy sat with his young mother, back for the day from her new job at the button factory in a far-off eastern Iowa river town, back from new friends and the unanticipated rebuilding of her still young life. And the boy sat with his grandmother, barely more than a mother's age herself, given a grandson by her daughter to begin to raise, a day-shortening companion to help fill her long farmhouse hours.

Not given...loaned.

Years later, yellowed, bible-flattened newspaper clippings could recall more of that day than the boy would ever be able to: Who attended, who sang, who spoke. But he would find in no bible any answers to satisfy his growing curiosity.

*

Where? Perhaps in an open field in France with grazing cattle lowing sadly and watching from a distant hillside like porcelain figures in search of a crèche. Or maybe in the winter dark of a Belgian forest or in an Alsace vineyard, dormant in the early December sun.

The first thing the boy remembered in his life was sitting on a woman's lap in a weekday church in a cornfield town and hearing someone say, "Is that the boy? It's a blessing he's young enough he won't remember any of this."

There was an almost intentional vagueness about it as solemn, season-battling farmers milled about; well-scrubbed wives and daughters whispered; and a funeral-weary minister blackly droned. And there in the middle of his memory was an American flag.

The boy sat with his young mother, back for the day from her new job at the button factory in a far-off eastern Iowa river town, back from new friends and the unanticipated rebuilding of her still young life. And the boy sat with his grandmother, barely more than a mother's age herself, given a grandson by her daughter to begin to raise, a day-shortening companion to help fill her long farmhouse hours.

Not given...loaned.

Years later, yellowed, bible-flattened newspaper clippings could recall more of that day than the boy would ever be able to: Who attended, who sang, who spoke. But he would find in no bible any answers to satisfy his growing curiosity.

*

Where? Perhaps in an open field in France with grazing cattle lowing sadly and watching from a distant hillside like porcelain figures in search of a crèche. Or maybe in the winter dark of a Belgian forest or in an Alsace vineyard, dormant in the early December sun.

How? As he grew older, the boy could better attempt to imagine the possibilities: A bullet while he was sitting, talking, nervously laughing with nearly friends by the frost-white side of a frozen road. Or a piece of chest-shattering shrapnel from a grenade lobbed by another frightened farmer's son, a boy himself, with no higher purpose in mind than shedding soon his own blood-brown, mud-stiff uniform and living until dark.

Had he time for thoughts of home? Had he thoughts of his aging parents, of brothers and sisters; thoughts of familiar Iowa fields in other winters or of favorite horses, shaggy now and snorting visibly in the cold December air; thoughts of tarp-covered Chevys waiting in quiet, dark garages and of ear-droopy dogs drowsing in the cold, half-dark silence under porches; thoughts of a young wife waiting or of a waiting son?

*

But the wakening boy on the woman's lap in the Wednesday church, the boy now at the threshold of his consciousness, thought of none of this. He thought rather of the going home, the return to the small farmhouse still in its post-Depression shabbiness. He thought of playing again with the farm dogs in the clothesline yard south of the low, brown, brick-papered house. He thought of stooping in the morning sun to study pansies by the gate to the disheveled vegetable garden. He thought of wind-wavering hollyhocks hovering well above his head, of sun-bright sheets and threadbare towels wind-wavering on the line. He thought of the low keening of speckled hens in the mulberry's midday shade and the sad lowing of giant cows in the late afternoon barn shadow.

A minister he didn't know gave a benediction; six men he didn't know carried past him a shiny wooden box; and a father he didn't know was murmured out the church door, sniffled a short distance to the cemetery, and cried into the fertile, black soil.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


GERRY MILLER

Gerry Miller was born in Des Moines, started out on a family farm near Iowa Center in Story County, and grew up in Muscatine. He earned a B.A. degree in French from the University of Iowa and has been a UI employee for 35 years.

This page was first displayed
on June 22, 2007

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