“I thought about the former days, the years of long ago;. . .”
I have a shard of old newsprint to prove I’m not telling tall tales.
Once upon a time, a tenant farmer worked some land in an obscure county in an obscure state. Wasn’t good land, at least not by his neighbor’s reckoning. The soil was light and thin, and useless bluffs, lots of them, shouldered a river that all too often flooded the valley beneath. This farmer rented that land from a man who determined that most of what he’d made during his life would be given, upon his death, to a hospital not far away.
Along came the Great Depression, the complication of the story on this yellowed sheet of newsprint. The landlord mortgaged his land to the hilt to keep from losing it; but when he died mid-Depression, that hospital became the renter’s landlord.
To say times were tough is understatement. In this corner of the world, it was smarter to shoot cattle than feed them, if you had cattle at all.
When things grew desperate, the renter went to the hospital board and asked for grace—1,000 dollars’ worth of rent simply couldn’t be had and consequently couldn’t be paid. The hospital graciously nodded their consent.
Those hills nobody else wanted? They ended up at the heart of the family’s survival. When drought meant no feed could be grown or purchased, the renter let his sheep graze the bluffs, where they ate the buck brush. When things got even bleaker, he shooed his hogs up there to munch acorns from the burr oak that run like an unruly moustache over the hills. When other farmers were dumping livestock, those unwanted bluffs saved the operation, and by the time the Second World War came around, the family farm got on its feet.
This old newspaper clipping is from 1976, some 44 years after the hospital board shook their collective heads and let that $1,000 rent payment ride. An old guy stands in the picture, his shirt buttoned up tight beneath his chin. To his left is his wife, in a hair net and a print jacket, a mother-of-pearl brooch perfectly centered on her chest. The man is handing a piece of paper to a big guy with an open collar, a thousand dollars. All three are smiling. Forty-four years later.
Like I said, I have the newsprint to prove it. I’m saving this one, because an otherwise long-forgotten story for our time and all time, a story about integrity, won’t be remembered.
I’ve always been a sucker for nostalgia, for the warm glow that remembrance of things past offers to at least some of us. I don’t think I’m a fool. I’m not assuming that, regularly back then, people paid back long-ago forgotten old debts. I have always had a Calvinist’s sense of human nature.
But sometimes it’s hard not be wistful, and good old stories, whether or not we were part of them, can fortify us. I for one would argue that stories do more than laws to make us good. When Asaph looks back in Psalm 77, whatever it is he remembers argues for God’s love, even in what seems now to be his God’s absence.
“Once upon a time,” he tells himself. . .and he remembers. . .and he’s strengthened. That’s why I don’t just toss this old news story, yellowed and faded though it may be.