Rants & Essays

Kindling Spirit

By Cindy B. Harding

Work is a part of living - my grandparents understood that. They lived and worked on a central Pennsylvania farm that has been in my family for 150 years. Hess Farm, at that time, was self-sufficient. They raised beef cattle for meat, chickens for eggs and hogs for pork and lard. Dairy cows were kept for milk and the cream from which Grandma made butter and cheese. What little yard they had became a garden.

The Depression, therefore, didn't make a dramatic change in their lives. But it did bring an unending flow of men out of work, drifting from job to job, to the farm. The first man to show up on the kitchen porch was ragged-looking, but courteous. He doffed his hat and quietly explained that he hadn't eaten in a while. Grandpa stood watching him a bit, then said, "There's a pile of firewood stacked against the fence behind the barn. I've been needing to get it moved to the other side of the fence. You have just enough time to finish the job before lunch." With that, he stuck out his callused hand to the stranger.

Grandma said a surprising thing happened. The drifter got a shine in his eyes and, behind the scruff of his beard, he smiled. He hurried to the barn in a near trot. She set another place at the table and baked an apple pie. During lunch, the stranger didn't say much, but when he left, his shoulders had straightened. "Nothing ruins a man like losing his self-respect," Grandpa later told me.

Soon after, another man showed up asking for a meal. This one was dressed in a suit and carried a small, battered suitcase. Grandpa, who'd been fixing the hay mower in the toolshed, came out wiping his hands when he heard voices. He looked at the man and then offered a handshake. "There's a stack of firewood along the fence down behind the barn. I've been meaning to get it moved. It'd sure be a help to me. And we'd be pleased to have you stay for lunch."

The fellow set his suitcase at the edge of the porch and neatly laid his coat and vest on top. Then he set off to work.

Grandma says she doesn't remember how many strangers they shared a meal with during those Depression days - or how many times that stack of wood got moved.