Coffin: Summer Chores

Aug 22, 2014

My maternal grandparents, Hal and Anna Jillson, had a house and barn on two acres just outside South Pomfret. Years before, they’d farmed nearly 200 acres, but sold them to a Boston doctor as they aged. Gramp was now caretaker of the old place.

Some boyhood summer evenings I went to South Pomfret, often joining gramp listening to a Red Sox game. But he turned in about the fifth inning. “Call you at five,” he’d say as he went upstairs, his white hair softly glowing in the stair light.

I slept on the porch with the family cat, who cuddled and purred as the cool night air moved through the screen.

Next thing I knew, Gram’s soft voice was saying, “Time to be up, dear.” In the kitchen the wood stove crackled as into the chill dark morning, flashlight in hand, I went to the barn to gather eggs. The rooster always crowed a deafening greeting.

Gram fried the eggs with salt pork on the iron stove while gramp toasted her homemade bread on a wire rack over the open fire. The raspberry and strawberry jam were also of her making. Hot cocoa washed it down. I never, to this day, tasted a more delicious breakfast.

Then it was into the aged Plymouth, as the sky lightened, gram driving to the old farm. While the strengthening sunlight evaporated the dew, I helped gramp with some small tasks, until he decided things had dried enough to take the scythes from the shed. He swung his rhythmically, almost effortlesly, cutting the front lawn so close you’d think a lawnmower had done it. I flailed away out behind the house where the results of my choppy strokes, despite all his coaching, didn’t much matter.

Soon Gramp brought me to sit on the stone wall, where the view stretched 20 miles to Mount Ascutney. Taking a whetstone from an overalls pocket, Gramp set to sharpening the scythes. The stone darted back and forth from one side of the long curved blade to the other, his hand becoming a blur as the speed increased. I swear, the ringing of the blade filled the valley, from Tom White Hill to Breakneck, and maybe, with the wind just right, it carried half way to South Pomfret.

The cry of that stone on blade had a beauty to it, music almost, that seemed composed for a Vermont hill farm valley, complimenting the morning bird song it briefly silenced. Also, thinking back sixty years and more, that sound has a touch of sadness, some essence of weeping. Gramp Jillson’s scythe song remains for me been both an anthem and a dirge, for two wonderful people, and a Vermont way of life now gone away.