I’m a Midwestern girl through and through, having lived in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. With all three states side-by-side on the American map, I grew up believing we were the cornfield coastline. Folks in seashore states gazed at the ocean from their lawn chairs, but on my relatives’ farms, outdoor seating faced the fields.
We watched corn.
Far more than a scenic landscape, it was an unspoken religious experience, rewarded with abundance in good times if we were lucky. Yet we knew natural catastrophes could destroy those fields at any moment. Every growing season was a test of faith.
Our cupboards held agricultural rosaries of a sort. I inherited my grandmother’s dish for baking cornbread shaped like tiny ears of corn. My mother gave me dishes for the sole purpose of eating corn on the cob. I suppose these were our mystical trinkets to encourage the blessings of a golden harvest.
One of my earliest memories, when I was probably three, involved my grandparents’ cornfield. I rocked alone in a wooden swing while a rainstorm approached. Advancing black clouds erased the blue sky, as the wind rhythmically lifted and leveled the green rows. Like ocean waves, the shooshing stalks and leaves rustled and crashed before me. When thunder rolled in and lightning cracked overhead, I thought the whole field was coming to get me.
Fear paralyzed me until my grandmother threw open the porch door, holding tightly as the wind tried snatching it from her right hand. “Get yourself in here, Chicken Little!” she called, stretching her other hand toward me. I ran and buried my face in her apron. “There now. Don’t fret. Granny’s got you,” she said.
I was never afraid of stormy cornfields again.
I stopped to buy corn at a roadside stand on my way home from town. The farmer and I spoke pleasantly about crops and weather. Nice as you please, he placed perfect ears in a bag, mentioning he’d never seen me before. My explanation of our recent move from St. Paul, Minnesota, must have triggered a link in his brain to the perils of big cities because his kind demeanor disappeared.
He quit making eye contact, stepped away, and began speaking of our nation’s decline. His voice grew increasingly louder as he waved his arms and rattled on about drugs and Muslim men with six wives each whose sole purpose for sneaking into the United States was to brainwash their children into killing Christians until no white people would have enough power to set things right again.
American citizens would have no food or shelter or medical care because the Muslims would seize it all.
I glanced at the cornfield behind him, fearing an ugly wind was about to bend those stalks and their taunting leaves at me. But the sun was shining on the motionless rows of corn, corn waiting for me to collect my courage. When he paused to breathe from his tirade, I took a chance.
His thundering hatred wasn’t going to get me.
I said something he never could have seen coming.
I told him my husband had retired from a school with many Muslim families who were nothing like he described. I said my daughter had Muslim friends who were delightful, considerate, and studious. He turned deathly silent. I was certain he’d never known a Muslim or anyone who had actually encountered one. He struggled to fit my truth into his red-hot paradigm.
I paid him, wished him well, and walked toward my car. Unfortunately he stepped in front of me, winding himself back up in a rant about abortion. I was momentarily frozen, wondering how to escape his menacing rhetoric.
Then I remembered my grandmother holding the door in the storm, calling me in to safety. She couldn’t help me now. I had to save myself, and all I had was corn–the only thing he and I had in common.
I held up my bag and said, “In this heat, I need to get this refrigerated so I don’t lose the goodness.”
This was a man who would have argued bitterly about any reasonable thing I said.
But not about corn.
He stepped aside to let me pass.