Something to Think About - Field Corn

Mike McGough
July 2023

They were great people—all of them.  I liked being around them, and I think they enjoyed my company as well.  It was my grandmother and two of my great uncles.  They lived close to each other out in the country.  From the time I was three until I got married and moved away that’s where we spent most Saturdays.

There weren’t a lot of rules, and there was plenty of space.  Sometimes over the summer there were big picnics.  It wasn’t uncommon for there to be fifty or more people.  It was a mixture of family and friends.  One day a hobo, and yes, that’s how he introduced himself, happened along.  He too joined the picnic. 

It wasn’t anything I thought about at the time, but this was about as common a group as you could imagine.  Most of them worked in the mills in that area or one of the related industries.  This was a working-class group.  Many of them were first generation Americans; I’m a third-generation American.  Periodically you’d hear a little Croatian spoken, but by the time my generation came along, English was the language of choice. 

Even though they were a rather hardy bunch, they had been through a lot and several of them had passed by the time I came along.  When these folks were spoken of, it was always with kindness and respect.  There is little doubt that, like all of us, they too were flawed character and had made their mistakes.  But when they were recollected, that wasn’t part of the banter.

When I’d stay with my grandmother over the summer, it was only a short walk to my great uncles’ place.  They were interesting guys who never minded someone tagging along.  Most evenings they’d come down to my grandmother’s cottage for dinner.  Depression era and World War II stories fascinated me.  The food was good and plentiful, and the company was entertaining—actually fascinating at times.  I particularly enjoyed when it was just the four of us; I had them all to myself. 

I learned a lot from them.  On an August evening in the early 60’s, I learned the difference between field corn and sweet corn.  On this particular evening, my uncles were coming for dinner.  They’d spent the day working in the large garden they tended.   At dinner, you could always count on fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes of some sort, and meat.  For this evening my grandmother also wanted sweet corn.

About a mile below her cottage there was a small general store, and just below that store there was a produce stand.  My grandmother gave me fifty cents.  She said I should buy a dozen ears of corn at the produce stand, and I could have the money that was left to get something at the general store.

On the walk down, I passed field after field of corn.  Not thinking anyone would mind or even notice for that matter, I helped myself to a dozen ears of what I later learned was field corn.  That left the entire fifty cents for me.  I stopped at the store, and got a treat—a nutty buddy and some root beer barrels.  I thought I was clever for having an extra quarter.  However, I was about to learn a life lessons worth so much more. 

Clearly my grandmother knew the difference between sweet and field corn, and she knew exactly what I had done.  My uncles also knew the difference, and they too knew where I got the corn.  When we started eating, they commented how bad the corn was.  One of my uncles said, “That’s the last of her corn we’ll buy.”  They were giving me the chance to fess up.  Knowing I was busted, I started to cry.  I was embarrassed, and I knew I had disappointed them. 

What I’d done was wrong, and they made sure I knew that.  The next day we’d set it right, buying a dozen ears of corn and paying for two.  In the moment, around that dinner table, I learned a big lesson about owning mistakes, admitting them, and setting them right.  That was important, but how they taught it was an even bigger life lesson. 

Instead of being angry or frustrated, they were kind and patient.  Instead of showing disappointment, they showed understanding.  Instead of dealing out a measure of guilt, they offered tolerance.  And rather than making the situation worse for an eleven-year-old who knew he was wrong, they offered love and a way to set things right. 

When you have an opportunity to help someone learn and grow, do so powered by the virtues of kindness, patience, understanding, tolerance, love, and support.  Those virtues will be their own special lessons!