Blow up your TV, throw away your paper
Go to the country, build you a home
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches
Try and find Jesus on your own
– John Prine
Small Farm is a vivid green from all the rain, with splashes of salmon from the flowering quince, intense pink on the redbud, soft purple from the Dead Nettle, and violet in the bugle weed. Weeks of unseasonable cold mean the flowers arrive and pass slowly. It took ages for the crab apple to bloom; we had seven full weeks of daffodils outdoors and in vases. Just before the big rain, I planted native Jacob’s Ladder, Mist of the Mountain, spiderwort, and freckled violets from Toadshade Wildflower Farm. Even the littlest chicks, who are still fluffy, now run free outside. They skibble here and there, scratch away dead leaves, and peck all the clover and chickweed they can find. To their palate, it’s much better than grass. We haven’t used herbicides since we bought the place more than a dozen years ago, so the lawn and meadows are full of violets, ground ivy, buttercup – the broad-leaf, flowering weeds (“phorbs”) that the American Way of (Lawn) Death exterminates with extreme prejudice.
At the farmers’ markets, we see only greens – nice, thick spinach, spicy microgreens, soft Bibb lettuce, but still – it’s all green. We’re eating storage apples, onions, California carrots, and exotic fruits: organic bananas and Cara Cara oranges. Thanks to our new shopping habits, the children have discovered canned pineapple chunks and peaches in syrup. A can of Del Monte was a supermarket treat when I was a kid, too.
Every time I open a can of peaches, I pine for John Prine, who died in April. I put on the radio, wash the dishes, and cry. He was the country singer I loved before I knew I loved country music. His lyrics could be earnest (“say hello in there”) or sly (“Well, I sat there at the table, and I acted real naïve/for I knew that topless lady had something up her sleeve”). He lit into capitalism. (“Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away”) He opened a neurotic vein you didn’t hear in country music then (“It’s half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown”) and he wasn’t afraid to write a savage line to haunt you all your life (“There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes”). He cut a sweet, goofy tune with the great Iris Dement about a happy marriage stripped of phony romance and glamour (“He ain’t got laid in a month of Sundays/Caught him once, he was sniffin’ my undies”). Prine was not one for the selfie age. He was humble, his face was funny, his voice was funny. It’s a sin he’s dead, and I can’t get him out of my head.
Ego in a John Prine song was scarce as hen’s teeth; the note he strikes is empathy: for the aged, the overlooked, the working man, the addict. He was damn good, too, because over thirty years, I’ve pictured myself as every John Prine character, even though I’m no exotic dancer, working man, Vietnam vet, heroin addict, or miner’s kid.
The character I loved to inhabit most was the topless dancer, and not because I’d be good at that job. Dance-wise, I am all thumbs. But long before I had an apartment in the city, a husband, children, or too many leak sinks – hell, before I had anything to give up – I wanted to head for the hills. I couldn’t wait to throw away my paper, blow up my TV, move to the country, build me a home. I wanted to have a lot of children and feed ’em on peaches. I had no religion as a child. Mom was a lapsed Catholic who quit the church in kindergarten. Dad was a lapsed Unitarian, if you can lapse from that church. As he liked to say, “We believe in one God, at most.” So I found Jesus on my own.
What the topless lady preached, I got. We moved to the country, built us a home. But we kept living the school year in New York City. Now, thanks to coronavirus, the five of us are here on 37 hidden acres. We have no cable TV. I read the paper once daily, at most. There’s time to learn the names of weeds and watch Cooper, a rooster in his prime, command his harem of old hens. It’s crowded, true, and we can’t leave, but I am not looking to escape. My husband and kids are all over me, at all hours, and I couldn’t be happier – it’s as if they all moved back home, and they hadn’t even left. They want me to tuck them in at night. There’s no boo-boo too small to show me. Hugs come constantly, out of nowhere, like tackles. They call for me all day. When finally I have a minute alone at 10 PM, and I have to bring the chicks in because I’ve checked the weather and reckon they’ll freeze, I am happy, because I have creatures to care for.
I’ve been haunted by death since I was six years old. My sister was hit by a car in 1977, and we buried her at home on the farm in a coffin my father made. Not long after, we buried our farmer friend Tony, who also died young, next to my sister. My 18-year-old friend Sean died driving his motorcycle into a fence. My friend Penny died on my birthday. Like many others, I had a miscarriage – just one, but one was enough. I am the sort of person who updates her will frequently and enjoys the chore. Each day I say to Death: I see you.
Now death is all around us. Yet by some miracle the virus has not touched us directly. So, while I wait for death to come, as it will, I am happy knowing that I am cheek to cheek with the people who matter – and calling my mother. However many days or months we have, I will not miss this precious close-up. Given how sobering the news is, on some days my happiness feels insane, like delirium.
When July comes and local peaches ripen, I’ll think of Prine again and weep freely.
For comfort, I will have a ritual, something closer to an obsession, and that is hiding the peaches. I’ll buy lots of peaches: white, yellow, donut. I’ll buy them from the tiny family orchard just up River Road, the one with the illegal sign reading PEACHES, and I’ll buy them from Solebury Orchard and from Manoff Market Gardens, two local family outfits locked in mortal farm-stand combat for shoppers of exquisite fruit, fine preserves, and gorgeous local flowers.
When I come home, my husband will ask why I’ve bought another ½ bushel of peaches when there are peaches all over the house, but I have given up explaining. The season lasts eight weeks, at most. Supplies must be steady. There is no reason to ration. A peach is God’s gift to the mouth. It is to be eaten by hand, juice dripping. And it must be dead ripe.
So I hide the peaches. Because when I see an unripe peach with a bite out of it, I seethe. It reminds me of picking melons, of swishing my hands through the scratchy melon vines, of finding a perfect Ambrosia or Sweet ’n’ Early and turning it over to discover a big old groundhog bite: the melon is not ripe, and never will ripen, and it can’t be eaten or sold and has to be chucked into the waterway or given to the chickens. A death too soon. A monstrous waste. But the woodchuck is innocent; she has to eat! My too-young-to-know-better kids and poorly-informed guests, on the other hand, have plenty to eat without eating unripe peaches.
I’ll gather my trays quickly and quietly to avoid detection: the old wooden ones, the one with the roses, the turquoise Fiestaware. I’ll lay the peaches in one layer (always one) and stash the trays. I’ll put trays on the shelf above my sundresses, in drawers, on top of the old piece of furniture where we keep the mittens, and if I have to, I’ll sneak into the guest rooms too, but this July, they will be empty. I am also hiding the fruit from myself; I have sinned by eating too soon. I’ll try to wait two days, then make the rounds. I’ll choose ripe peaches and bring them to the butcher block, where the household knows fruit is fair game. I won’t care how many peaches anyone eats in one day, or even in one sitting.
Doling out peaches in ripe-order is something I can control. I like that very much.
Sometimes I blow it. I’m the squirrel who buries too many nuts; my brain is too small to keep track of the trays, and I find the peaches overripe and squishy. If they’re not furry with mold, I say a little prayer, forgive myself, and make crumble.
NINA KAUFELT’S FRUIT CRUMBLE
½ – ¾ c flour (more if the fruit is very juicy) and perhaps a handful of whole rolled oats
4 c fruit, cut up and loosely packed
½ c or 1 stick cold unsalted butter
¾ c brown and/or white sugars, total
fresh lemon rind
Butter a glass or ceramic dish. Layer the fruit, sprinkle with lemon zest and a little of the sugar, and mix gently. Cut up the butter, mix by hand with the flour and the rest of the sugar, and sprinkle that on the fruit. Bake at 350F until bubbly, 20-30 minutes.
And to this very day we’ve been livin’ our way
And here is the reason why
We blew up our TV, threw away our paper
Went to the country, built us a home
Had a lot of children, fed ’em on peaches
They all found Jesus on their own
– John Prine
This essay appeared on Head Buttler, published by Jesse Kornbluth, who adds:
John Prine’s last CD, “The Tree of Forgiveness,” was the record of the year for many, including me. To read my appreciation, click here. To buy the CD from Amazon and get a free download, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.
To read my conversation with John Prine, click here.