Kathryn Wilkens has been participating in the Inlandia Creative Writing Workshop in Ontario since September 2011, and in that time it has become apparent that Kathryn’s work is that of a seasoned writer and not a novice. In this piece, “Crossroads”, her rich descriptions of rural life embody both the joy and heartache of childhood, and are representative of her skill in her favored form — the personal essay.
— Cati Porter
Barefoot, I slammed through the screen door, bounded down the gravel driveway past the abandoned chicken coop and ran toward the golden fields of midsummer grain. When I passed the equipment shed, my eyes swept to the left, then widened as I stopped short. My heart pounded as I took in a row of stunted cornstalks rustling listlessly in the breeze.
Of course corn was a common sight in the Midwest—driving down the road you’d see rows of lush green corn stretching off to the horizon. But these plants had emerged in an odd place: on an earthen ramp, directly in front of the double doors which Dr. Martin would soon slide open to roll out the huge harvester. He would wonder how in the heck cornstalks had sprouted there. I was pretty sure I knew.
The farmhouse my family rented from Dr. Martin was at a crossroads on U.S. 27, two miles south of Lynn, Indiana. A gravel road ran along one side of the property, then skirted soybean fields and crossed railroad tracks before disappearing into the woods. We moved there the summer I was five. My first memories are indistinct, like an Impressionist painting by Monet: flashing fireflies in glass jars, a green sofa where I lay recovering from measles and mumps, newborn kittens mewling their helplessness.
It was a four-season home. On autumn Saturdays we visited apple farms and burned piles of leaves that fell from elms and maples. In winter, storms coated branches with gleaming ice, and I learned how to skate on the frozen creek. The whole house vibrated when a truck backed in the driveway and let loose a load of coal which tumbled down a chute into the basement.
In spring I inhaled organic smells the sun coaxed from the ground on windy days. Along the railroad tracks grew wild strawberries which my older sisters, brother and I picked and ate. We lined up pennies on the rail and waited for the next train to flatten them to the size of fifty-cent pieces.
In summer we set off fireworks in the driveway, ran through wheat fields after a rain and walked on stilts. At night we spread blankets in the front yard to count cars whizzing past and trace the Big Dipper in the sky.
Some things lasted year-round—fighting between Dad and my brother, my sisters’ bickering, silent strife between Mom and Grandma. As the youngest in the family, I was powerless to intervene, so I spent time alone—wandering along the creek or reading Bambi in a tree.
Or I’d play with the litter of kittens in the hay barn. My favorite one, the calico, died and I cried for days. Not long after, a group of men came to shear the sheep, and must have forgotten to close the gate when they left. After dark the flock escaped and several sheep ran onto the busy highway and were killed.
That summer my mother planted a vegetable garden which yielded tomatoes, cucumbers and carrots. Just for fun I filched a dried-up ear of field corn from the barn, broke off a few kernels and pretended to plant them on the ramp behind the equipment shed.
Weeks later, as I ran by barefoot, I saw the row of puny cornstalks. Didn’t the corn know I was only playing? Apparently not—the stalks were undeniable proof that it had taken me seriously. My heart pounded—not in fear, but in the dawning awareness that something I did had actually brought about a change in the world.
By the time I turned seven my Monet memories were sharpening into focus. We would soon move away from the house at the crossroads, a place that marked for me another kind of crossroads, the intersection of childhood and—not adulthood, certainly, but call it personhood. While living there I had learned to count, read, ride a bike and ice skate. I confronted sadness and loneliness. I began to see that a world existed beyond my family, a world of specificity.
I lived in a particular place. Other places could be reached by going north, south, east or west. The things around me could be counted: two sisters, seven kittens, one brother. Dr. Martin’s farm covered sixty acres, with forty trees around the house. There were 26 letters in the alphabet and 48 stars on the flag. I fit into a logical, quantifiable scheme where nothing was random or vague. My actions had consequences and those consequences were predictable. A penny left on the railroad track would be flattened by the next freight train. And seeds, poked into the earth in jest, would grow into serious cornstalks
Kathryn Wilkens began writing for publication in 2000. Several of her travel articles have appeared in The Los Angeles Times. She has written essays and articles for Writers’ Journal, Personal Journaling, Verbatim and The Christian Science Monitor. Four of her essays have appeared in anthologies, most recently Writers and Their Notebooks (South Carolina Press, 2009). She lives a short drive from the Ovitt Family Community Library in Ontario where she has enjoyed Cati Porter’s Inlandia workshop.