“Pile the soil all around the boards, Jimmy,” said Mama. “We want the tiny plants to be warm.”
Littlejim carefully banked the soil around the frames of the three oblong beds Mama had formed near the garden fence. Cousin Tarp had helped the boy spade the soil and rake it until it looked like fine dark powder. By noonday dinner, Tarp had left to work the soil in his own garden.
Littlejim and Mama worked all afternoon sowing the seeds for lettuce and placing the tiny onion sets in holes dug into the soil with their fingers. Among the onions, Mama had sown radish seeds, not bothering to plant them in rows. Radishes would be the first vegetable to mature in the garden and would be picked as soon as they could be eaten. Other vegetables planted with them would have more time and space to grow.
Finally, Mama helped Littlejim plant the tiny tobacco plants in a separate bed in another corner.
“We will let your papa think we have another lettuce bed.” Mama winked at Littlejim. “Shall we?”
“I think this will make Papa happy,” said Littlejim. “I think tobacco tastes terrible, but most of the men here on the Creek chew it. If I chewed tobacco, do you think Papa would think I was a man?”
“Jimmy!” said Mama. “Chewing tobacco does not make you a man. You are a scholar. You want to learn to be a gentleman. A gentleman does not rely on tobacco to prove himself.”
“Isn’t Papa a gentleman?” asked her son.
His mother stood looking into the distance for a long moment before she answered. “Your papa is a fine man, in his own way,” she said. “He is a good man. He did not have a chance to learn the ways of a gentleman. That does not make him less of a man. But you, my son, will have the chance your papa did not have,if you do not take up chewing tobacco!”
Mama’s eyebrows were raised, and Littlejim knew that whether Bigjim chewed tobacco or not made little difference. But he knew that if her son chewed tobacco, Mama would be very disappointed in him, and he did not want to disappoint her.
Mama stretched canvas around the edge of the board frame and Littlejim drove in the nails to hold it in place. The canvas would provide a warm bed where the tiny seeds and plants could mature protected from the winter winds still to blow down from the Spear Tops.
“Mama, I’ve been thinking about the essay competition,” Littlejim said. “You know the day Mr. McGuire was killed when I wrote and wrote on my tablet.”
“Yah,” his mother said. “Putting what happened into words helped you to feel better, did it not?”
“Yes, and I keep remembering what Mr. McGuire said that day, Mama. He said, ‘I hope when my time comes, you’ll lay my old bones to rest in this good land. For I’m a part of ye now.’ I think what he was saying was that he felt he was an American, not an Irishman. So that is one thing it means to be an American.”
“My fine son, I think you are right.” Mama chuckled. “My fadde always said he felt he was an American when he found he was counting in English instead of German.”
“Mr. Wiseman told a story about his grandfather who stowed away on a ship to be an American,” Littlejim said. “It seems that being an American means something different to everybody. How can I write about all those different meanings?”
“Ah, perhaps, my son, what all those meanings mean is that every person has found a place where he belongs, where he is an American. What do you think, my Jimmy?” she asked, looking intently into her son’s eyes. Her son thought about the words she had spoken.
“Every person has found a place where he belongs,” repeated Littlejim. His eyes brightened and he smiled at her.
“That’s it. I think that’s what they mean, too, Mama, but I don’t know how to put it into words,” said Littlejim.
“We are finished here,” said Mama. “Put the tools away. There is still time before dark for writing on a fine young man’s essay.” Littlejim gathered the tools to return them to the woodshed. Mama returned to the house to her sewing.
Littlejim climbed the narrow stairs to his room. He took out his tablet and pencil. For a long time he sat staring at the tree outside his window as the March wind blew the branches back and forth.
“What it means to be an American,” he wrote. He chewed on his pencil and thought about his essay. “I knew a man named Adam McGuire. He was the head gaffer in my Uncle Bob’s sawmill on Henson Creek. He had a good house and a family. Being a gaffer is hard work, but he always had a pleasant word and a smile for everybody. The other people who lived on the Creek respected Mr. McGuire.
“One day he told me that this country had been good to him. He had come from Ireland to work on the railroads here. He said if he had not come to America, he would be shoveling peat for pennies a day, but at Uncle Bob’s sawmill he made almost fifty cents a day. That is a good wage, so Adam McGuire earned a good living.
“On the day he died, he said this country had been good to him and that he wanted his bones to rest in American soil. Mr. McGuire was happy to be an American even if he came from somewhere else. So I guess that’s what it means to be an American.”
Littlejim chewed on his pencil some more. Then he stared out the window.
“Jimmy! Jimmy!” Mama’s voice was far away, but it sounded as if something terrible had happened. “Jimmy, come help me! Lilac’s out of the pen!”
Littlejim quickly hid his pencil and tablet away. He ran down the stairs, through the kitchen, and out the back door.
Mama was standing in the garden flapping her apron at Lilac, the huge sow. Lilac had already torn the canvas on the tobacco bed and was standing near one side of the frame. She was rooting her nose into the canvas and the soil beneath it. Tiny tobacco plants came flying from beneath her front feet.
“Mama! Papa’s tobacco bed!” cried Littlejim, running toward Lilac.
Mama had grabbed a hoe and was hitting Lilac’s back with little effect on the pig. Lilac continued her rooting.
Littlejim ran to the corncrib, opened the door, and grabbed two ears of corn. Quickly he shucked the husks from the ears and ran toward Lilac.
“Sooey, Lilac, sooey,” he called. He waved the ears of corn toward the pig’s face. Finally, Lilac sniffed the air and trotted toward Littlejim. He threw one of the ears on the ground. Lilac stopped to munch. He reached down and grabbed the corn. Then he began to run toward the pigpen. Mama followed with her hoe prodding Lilac’s backside.
Littlejim led Lilac back into the pen while Mama guarded the opening. Then he brought the hammer and nails to repair the rails. Mama helped him to secure the fence, then she said, “The tobacco bed is ruined, Jimmy. We’ll have to start all over.”
“I wanted to grow Papa’s tobacco. I wanted to show Papa I could do something he cared about, but Lilac ruined the bed,” said Littlejim sadly.
“You will show your papa, tobacco bed or no tobacco bed, my son,” she said. “But right now, we start again. I will cut some more canvas, and you will go to Tarp’s and get some more plants. We do not give up! Lilac or no Lilac!”
When Mama said “Ve do not gif up!” her son knew that she could do anything. He set out across the hill to Tarp’s house for more tobacco plants. They would start all over.
“We will start all over,” Mama had said.
“That’s what Mr. McGuire did when he came from Ireland,” thought Littlejim as he walked through the dusk. “And Opa and Oma, too.” He smiled at the thought of Opa suddenly counting in English. “And old Will Wiseman and all the others. They started over. I can start over, too.”
The thought gave new energy to Littlejim’s steps as he crossed the footlog to Tarp’s house.