Help on an Ozarks Tomato Farm From South of the Border

Aug 1, 2014

Credit Wikimedia Commons

This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how one’s perspective changes over time. In other words, I’ve noticed that the older I get, the more the things I think strike me as very funny sometimes, especially when put up against what I used to think.

For instance, when I listen to the news, I no longer agonize about the possible consequences of the things people do. I almost never gasp and exclaim – “ Oh my goodness. What am I gonna do about that?” 

Nor do the day’s events propel me into immediate action mode, calling my friends to deliver rants on all things political, social or anything else with which I disagree. My friends sometimes find these rants entertaining, but more often than not, they just make me, and my friends, tired.

I am finding instead, of late, that random scraps images and phrases are more apt to send me wandering off into the past. What WAS I doing the day the Voting Rights Act was passed. Where was I when JFK was killed. Or Rev. King. Or Bobby. Or I go farther back still, as I did the other day.

I had the TV on but the sound off, working on a piece of writing, when the television showed us pictures of all those kids coming across the border, and among them they showed an elderly man in a straw hat, holding a toddler. And my head soared instantly back almost 70 years, all the way back to when I was once that toddler. Here’s the story. 

It was around 1946,or maybe '47. The war was over, and the boys who lived came home. I remember my older cousin Bill bursting into the house saying my dad was down at the bus station. Somebody grabbed me up, dressed me in a dress I hated, and Bill carried me on his shoulder over the railroad tracks and down the street, where we met up with my mother and the fellow they called my dad.I was suspicious of him at first, but he grew on me.

Anyway, they had come home, and the family shifted around some to accommodate our new circumstances. I’d been staying with my two aunts, who owned the grocery store, while my father was sailing the pacific on a Navy destroyer and my mother was working in California in a war plant. Once home, she resumed her job at the cafe where she didn’t make much, and my dad, who had listed himself on my birth certificate as a farmer, was without a farm. He had worked for his father until he married, and by some means acquired a milk route, hauling milk from rural farms to the Pet Milk processing plant down in Cassville.

When he enlisted, his brother took it over and when he enlisted, their father took it. Somehow during the war, the father came to believe he owned the milk route and the milk truck, and he was very reluctant to give it up. They didn’t discuss the details, at least in my hearing, but at some point my dad had to go down to the farm, take the truck keys away from him, and bring the truck, and the route, home so he’d have a job. I’d sometimes get to ride the route with him, which I remember as being very cool.

Now, with the war ended and with a family, my parents decided they needed something more of a start to improve their circumstances. And since the local tomato canning factory was still operating and since my Aunt Laura had died and left my mother her property – which included a building that had been not only the family home but the local hotel and the several city lots around it, well, they decided to grow a tomato crop to sell. It was a good idea, and they were able to do all the labor of planting and growing, etc. But when it came time for harvest, or near to it, they realized they would need help. 

At that point a fellow came in on the train peddling labor. In other words, for a fee, he said, he could bring us a crew of folks, never mind from where, and they would pick our tomatoes. Paying them was actually  optional, as they couldn’t take us to court, he said. We would have to feed and house them, though, while they were picking. 

The folks had their trepidations, suspecting these folks might be illegal immigrants,  but they also had five acres of ripening tomatoes. So they agreed, privately vowing to pay these folks what they could, and the next train brought us a family – Mama and papa, grandma and grandpa, and two teenage sons.

Grandma had brought some food and spices with her, my two aunts’ grocery store was just across the tracks, so grandma took over the kitchen and cooked for all of us. The six upstairs rooms at the hotel was more than enough room for them to stay in, and the rest, all but grandpa, picked tomatoes. This was before tomatoes were bred to all ripen at the same time, so the harvest lasted three weeks or more. And what did Grandpa do?

His job was to care for sweet little me, which he did by settling me down on a blanket in the shade and singing to me, accompanied by the soft sounds of his guitar. My family laughed for years about how totally blissed out I was, listening to his music. I think it must have been engraved on my soul. 

And what has that to do with the news? One look at that old gent and that child and it all came back, the soft, tomato scented breeze, the lilting of the guitar,  the language that after a while I could almost understand, the indescribable scent of the milk truck and all those cans of milk, the lovely smells and tastes of a cuisine that was at first foreign and then craved. What a blessing for all my life that I was allowed to be there, to fit safely and comfortably into a family that had become as wide and deep as the world itself, or at least as much of it as I knew, and far more than I would have known otherwise.

Music, friendship, affection, a world of new things to learn and experience. They became woven together in my mind then, and have always remained. Even though I was virtually brand new myself, I came to understand over the years that it was that experience more than any others that changed me, that set the experiences of my life to music and lyrics, that birthed me into a far larger family than I would otherwise ever have seen myself as a part of. It induced a fundamental shift in me, sowed the seeds of imagination,by which, over time, I became myself.

For more stories and songs by Marideth Sisco, visit her web page: