Of memory and change and the lingering smell of tobacco in November

A LETTER FROM KENTUCKY

December 02, 1990|By John E. McIntyre | John E. McIntyre,John McIntyre is a copy editor for The Sun.

The tobacco in the barn is nearly gone. In late October, it's possible to stand amid the drying leaves suspended from beams and poles as they change from yellow-green to brown, filling the air with their penetrating smell. But by mid-November, most of the sticks have been taken down, the leaves stripped from the stalks and pressed into bales. Tractors roll along the road in front of the house, pulling wagons of baled leaves to market in Maysville. The barn reverts to an empty, dusty building, air filtering through the unpainted walls.

Tobacco has been the means of living for my mother's family. We think, though no one has bothered to check, that this farm outside Elizaville, Ky., belonged to her great-grandfather or great-great-grandfather. It was probably in the family the day Confederate soldiers coming up from Nepton reached the crown of the hill to encounter Union troops marching from Johnson Junction, in one of the least consequential skirmishes of the Civil War.

My mother is the first person ever to live alone in the farmhouse, built 99 years ago of yellow poplar felled on the property. She worries whether the drop in demand for cigarettes and the uncertainties of the federal price support program might spell the end of burley farming, because she doesn't know what cash crop the farm would produce instead.

Tobacco, as surgeons general (and my own children, when they see me light a pipe or cigar) remind us, is also a means of dying. My father smoked Camels for more than 40 years, quitting after his heart attack and bypass surgery, fretting through another decade of enforced idleness and decline until, struggling for breath at the last, he died in June.

I never did so much as an honest hour's work in the complicated and laborious cultivation of burley tobacco: the plowing, the transplanting ("setting"), the "topping" of the blossoms, the harvesting, the hanging in the barn to cure, the stripping. (Once, when I was 14, intoxicated by Thoreau's lyrical account in "Walden" of hoeing beans, I went out with a hoe to the garden in the hot sun, persuading myself within 20 minutes of the inherent superiority of literary labor, done indoors, sitting down.)

So, while Jefferson's vision of a stout yeomanry supporting itself on small family farms may be gradually closing its long run here, and this whole rhythmical tradition of life may be passing away under economic and social pressures, I'm just a visitor on the scene. My own interest, walking from the house to the barn to the fields, turns out to be more narrowly and selfishly personal.

The issue -- as I sit drinking coffee in the kitchen and listen to my mother's accounts of one person's scandalous behavior and another's lingering illness, or drive to Flemingsburg to the bank and library and say hello to the handful of people I still know, or go to the cemetery and stand at the graves of my father and grandparents -- that nags the occasional visitor is how to make the past coherent.

As we grow older, we multiply selves, and keeping them in line gets to be troublesome: the child playing quietly with toy soldiers during his grandmother's soap operas, the shy schoolboy hungry for books, the difficult adolescent, the bumptious undergraduate, the supercilious graduate student, the journalistic drudge, the father in his own turn. How is anyone supposed to find a string that will hold all these beads together?

We know that the land doesn't care for us. It will get our remains somewhere, and if our hands do not till it, others will. The earlier selves have passed away, along with many of the people who knew them. Choices have been made, for good or ill, not to be made again.

What remains is the struggle to shape memory into some continuity, into a pattern that will make some kind of sense, to fashion a net to catch and hold these fragments together. And because we do not merely live in bodies, but are our bodies, we hold on to the physical memories. We come around full circle to one of those unmoving points at which we recognize that we are the same because we have known this thing before and will always know it: the smell of tobacco curing in a barn on a warm morning in November.

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