Quiet Money

Money (what little we ever saw) seemed to have an inoffensive presence in everyday  life on the farm in the fifties.  This was not a laissez-faire attitude: it was a chosen perspective that had strength and history.  We appreciated what we had and didn’t think much about what we didn’t have.  It wasn’t until many years later that I realized how very little actual money was available.

There was no connection that I can recall between the amount of money available and the quality of life in our home.  Our Dad specifically trusted God, but he also had an earthy sense of humor about money that was sometimes expressed as “Money isn’t the first thing in life, but it’s sure ahead of whatever’s in second place.”

Good years (good cattle prices and big crops) and bad years flowed together.  Most farmers only got paid one time a year; some got paid two times if (like Dad) they had beef cattle to sell.  Wheat was our only cash crop and would be taken to the grain elevator nine miles away when prices seemed decent, usually right after harvest.

One hot day in August Dad was up behind the garage tuning up the 6-foot combine  because the wheat crop was ripe and ready to be harvested.  Canvasses are tightened.  Belts are checked.  Auger operation is tested.  Everything’s looking good.  And then, about 4 pm, perpetually rain-starved eastern Montana gets dumped on.  A violent 20 minute thunderstorm with heavy hail comes, roars, pounds and leaves.  As the thunderheads head for North Dakota and dissipate over the horizon the combine looks a little embarrassed, sort of “all dressed up in John Deere green with nowhere to go.”  Dad walks out into the fields near the house, gets down on one knee and holds a broken wheatstalk in his hands.  Then he gets in the truck and drives down to the far fields. Much later, when he comes back, he pushes the little combine back into its place in the line of machinery.  The wheat is gone and the combine isn’t needed tomorrow.

Now every morning at the breakfast table Dad would read from a little devotional slip that he tore off a 1-year supply in a small wooden frame that hung on the wall.  It had a Bible verse and a little reading, and after he read it, we would sing a song from the little blue Danish songbooks (English translation).  Then he would pray.  The Night The Harvest Was Destroyed  I went to bed wondering how he would pray the next morning.  Was he disappointed in God’s failure to act?  Or in God’s decision to act?

Dad was never rude or demanding toward God~~God being the Sovereign King of the Universe and all~~but neither was he dishonest.  So, of course, when he prayed the next morning, he was neither rude nor dishonest, and he never mentioned the crop.  I realized he didn’t think God owed him an explanation and didn’t figure God had changed, so there really was no need to mention either the hail or the wheat.

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One summer day when my parents were gone and I was there alone for a bit, I dared open the drawer of Dad’s desk in the corner of the dining room, because  I have decided I am going to look at his checkbook to see how much money we have.  I lifted the checkbook out and lay it flat on the desk.  I take hold of the edge of the top flap and carefully lift it straight up, watching for any loose paper or anything that might be dislodged and then accidentally left out place later.  I press it flat down and look it over.  No loose pieces of paper.  So now it only remains to look through the ledger portion and find the balance.

I found it.  Here it is~~the balance….is $656.00.

Now I am so scared and wish so badly that I didn’t know this.

We have a great big house and 1200 acres of land.  We have lots of farm equipment and a hundred head of cattle and a great big barn and two chicken coops and three tractors and a great big freezer in the basement….how is it possible that we have so little money?  Then I remember that he hasn’t hauled all the wheat into town yet.  But still…will that be enough for the rest of the year?

Enough for the clothing items Mom couldn’t sew? For canned fruit during the winter?  For flour?  To buy the coal required to heat the house?  To buy fuel for the field work?  To pay to have the seed wheat treated so that it was bright pink before it went in the ground?  To pay the vet to come and vaccinate a hundred head of cattle?  To buy DDT  (undiluted, by the gallon) for the big hand spray cans we used in all the outbuildings to kill flies and spiders and anything else that needed killing?

After I close the checkbook and put it away, I silently vow to never, never, never again look at any of my father’s papers.  I go outside and sit on the step for long time waiting for them to come home.

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In our little country church, there were one or two elderly couples who “had money.”  I had overheard comments about these people, neither unkind nor envious, but comments that made me know that they did, in fact, have more money that most folks in the community.

I had also heard the word “rich” one day, and realized it applied to those people.  I couldn’t figure out whether or not it would apply to us.  Although I certainly didn’t think we were “poor,” neither was I sure who was included in “rich.”  Were people like these couples the only rich ones?  Or were we perhaps “rich” even though we only had $656.00 sometimes?  How much money did it take to be officially “rich?”

As a child I sometimes asked questions I shouldn’t ask,  saw things I shouldn’t see and said things I shouldn’t say, so I didn’t say anything about this for a long time.  But finally I did,  “Daddy,…are we rich?”

He hesitated then chuckled a bit and said, “Yes we are, and someday we might even have some money.”

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We never did.  But we definitely were.

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