I was husking some sweet corn the other night, in the kitchen sink . . . and for one brief moment I had a flashback.
A fleeting trip back in time to the summer when I was 14 and sweet corn was much more than a sticky, hot chore . . .
When it was time to bring the sweet corn in, I was filled with dread. It was always the hottest point of the summer, when reaching 100 degrees was pretty much protocol and flies were guaranteed. It was at that point of the summer where the Fourth of July was gone and school was right around the corner.
There was still that one big task ahead of us — the canning, freezing, blanching, husking, washing, cutting, chopping and scraping sweet corn. Funny how it took for me to be the age I am now to appreciate the fact that it wasn’t all terrible — and that sweet corn also created some sweet memories on the cob.
I remember my dad would pull into the yard with this big wooden wagon behind the little Ford tractor. It would be completely filled to the brim with ears, representing what I and my nine-year-old sister, Nancy, would be doing for the rest of the day.
He unhooked it under the cottonwood tree in the middle of the yard, and Mom yelled at us to get our stools and dish tubs.
We’d moan and bellyache and complain as we grabbed our “field hats” and headed out the door.
“Hurry up, before it gets too hot!” she’d yell. “And remember, you girls actually do have fun, you just don’t want to admit it.”
Are you kidding? Fun? There was nothing worse than baking in the heat, sitting on a wooden box or a bucket, ripping the husks and silk off a bottomless container of stinky, sticky yellow stuff. Hour after hour, ear after ear.
I had my fabulous ball-shaped, yellow radio — I could actually pull in one radio station from Norfolk. That at least was a bright spot. We could listen to music and try to visualize that we were in another place, a place of paradise and peace.
But it’s when I was ripping those husks off the corn, as an adult in my own kitchen, I realized that there were good things happening under that tree. Nance and I were making sweet memories on the cob, and didn’t know it.
It’s been a lot of years since I’ve laughed with Nancy — she passed away when she was 15. So we didn’t get a lot of time together. All I have are mental images and photos in a bunch of albums. And occasional sounds of her voice in my brain as I remember how funny she was. Buried in corn, that’s what I heard — that little sister of mine, laughing and acting impressed as I talked about how I was going to marry Rick Springfield. I think she actually believed me — because for whatever reason, she thought I could do anything.
We talked about school shopping that would start soon — and what we wanted more than anything if the family could afford it. The truth of it was that we knew we’d be getting hand-me-downs from my young Aunt Michelle, or the neighbors down the road who had three girls that were older than us. But we’d still fantasize about that “cool poncho” we saw in the store, or the “neat blue tennis shoes with white stripes on the sides,” just like they wore on “Charlie’s Angels.”
We complained about having to take care of the mean roosters and I lamented about crushing Dad’s finger between two irrigation pipes the Tuesday before. Nancy said she could hear the cursing from the house and even learned a few new words.
We sang along with our favorite tunes and we used the corn cobs as make-believe microphones when the chorus got really good.
The only thing that would interrupt our gab session was a full dish tub that had to be taken into Mom who was knee-deep in her process.
We’d husk and shuck — whatever term you want to use. We had corn silk in our hair, flies in our faces. And just when we thought we were near the end — Dad would pull in with more.
I never realized how wonderful those hot summer afternoons were — singing “Jesse’s Girl” with my favorite girl . . . my Nancy. Thank God we had an over-abundance of sweet corn — because we were able to spend so much time together.
Shortly after my sister died, we found her diary entries. We so desperately wanted to read them, to be close to her, but my mother said no . . . out of respect for Nancy’s private thoughts. So we kept them private. We packed them in her denim purse and tucked them away. A few years ago, however, I ran across them and started to read. I felt guilty at first, but swore I’d never share anything in them with anyone.
As I read, I realized these were the thoughts of a very young girl, who was mesmerized by the simplest things. And I remember a segment where she wrote about “me and my sister, Melanie, shucking corn all day. She’s really cool — that’s the only good thing about it. We had a lot of fun.” The words were all misspelled, and the penmanship was atrocious, but never have I ever had such a compliment.
You’re right, Nancy — we did have a lot of fun. And that’s only because you were so cool. Talk about sweet memories on the cob.