Richard Rejino is a pianist, teacher, writer and professional photographer. Having recently graduated from SMU with a Master of Liberal Studies in Creative writing, his most recent creative works have appeared in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher and Ten Spurs. Most recently, Richard won third place in the Reported Narrative Category at the Mayborn Nonfiction Literary Conference in July 2017. As a photographer, his work has been featured at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, California, and he is the 2015 winner of the LHSA Annual Photo contest.
creative WRITING AWARD – 2017
Water for the Harvest
Richard Rejino, Southern Methodist University
Clean snow fell the morning of the funeral,
White winds across dormant fields
Turned them suddenly pale,
Cold, like my father’s body.
Detached from the sorrows
That filled the church,
He lay silent, made to look asleep;
Eyes closed – resting.
His strongest features were now
His lips very still,
Never again to reveal the brilliant
White teeth beneath them;
Or to whisper his secrets in the fields
Where his sweat watered the harvest,
Like raindrops falling one by one.
We forgave him long ago
For the mistakes he made with us.
He lived and he learned,
And quietly, he loved us.
Richard Rejino, 1991
In the summer of 1965, my father was already fifty-eight years old. He had been a farmer for all of his life and worked in the seasonal rhythms that farming demanded of him. He watered, plowed, and made certain the delicate crops that covered our farm were healthy and strong. That same summer also marked the first time he took me with him to work in the fields. It was an experience that changed my life. I was only eight years old.
When I think of him now, I remember him as a man who sweated nearly every day of his life. We lived on the plains of the Texas Panhandle, where the wind blew in currents like a river without regard to who or what stood in its way. In the fields that were once oceans of grassland, he harvested the crops that sustained us and were the source of a better life for our family.
His name was Bernabé Cervera Rejino, which when pronounced correctly, had a crisp and dignified sound. The English translation of Bernabé is Barnaby, but when one of his landlords, a white man, couldn’t pronounce his name, he decided to call him Ben instead. The name attached itself to him for the rest of his life.
My father was born on June 11, 1907, somewhere outside the small town of Maxwell, about thirty miles east of Austin, Texas. He was the second of eight surviving children. When he was twelve, his mother died of an illness, and his abusive father abandoned him soon after, leaving Bernabé and his older brother, Lazaro, to take care of their family of eight. The few photographs that exist of him before he married reveal a tall, angular man who was all legs. Perched on top of his lanky frame was a head of jet-black hair, thick and unruly, that refused to be tamed and pointed in every different direction. When he was older he cut it all off into a crew cut, and it stood straight up at attention. He had dark, oily skin that preserved his thin face and gave it the sheen of soft leather in the sun – and then, there were his hands: large, rough, and worn. They had the strength of a proud man, and they looked like mine.
Even though he was a farmer, my father never left our house without being neatly dressed. He wore khaki pants, cinched tightly around his waist with a leather belt, an undershirt, and a long-sleeved plaid shirt, which was always firmly tucked. His size eleven shoes were impossible to keep polished, but he always cleaned them before the start of his workday. Many farmers wore traditional cowboy hats or baseball caps from the local feed store, but my father always wore a stylish fedora: a straw one in the summer and one of felt in the winter. After a day of working, he came home looking much like he did when he left, and my mother always marveled at how his clothes were never dirty.
For a large part of my life, my father sharecropped a section of farmland, 640 acres, seven miles outside the small town of Bovina where I attended school. He also rented and bought additional acreage and soon farmed close to twelve hundred acres. He grew sugar beets, maize, corn, cotton, soybeans, and wheat. During the winters, he bought sixty to seventy head of cattle and fattened them up to sell for a tidy profit by summer. By any standards, he was considered a success within our community, and as a Mexican-American man with only a third grade education, he had considerable respect from the Anglos.
We were no different from the neighbors around us, but in the details of his work ethic were the flare for neatness and tailored finishes that separated him from the others. Most farmers were content to keep their fields clean of unsightly weeds, but my father went a step further. With a small tractor, he plowed up the ditches around our farm and kept them clean. When he finished, he sent me with a hoe to chop down the weeds that were too close to the telephone poles, insisting that not one be left behind. It was nothing short of pure beauty to see our crops as we drove along the dirt road: lush and green, graced in the evening sun, and trimmed with the flawless edging of rich brown soil.
When he first came to Bovina, my father made the acquaintance of a neighbor farmer who lived a few miles to the east of us. His name was Mr. Beauchamp. He had a nice family and kids who were older than me, but who knew my sister Erlinda and my brother Ben. Many years after my father had passed away, Mike Beauchamp, their oldest son, told a story about what his father had said about my mine.
“We were all sitting around the table for dinner [the noon meal],” he said, “and my dad came in from the fields and sat down to eat. After a few minutes, out of the blue he turned to my mother and said, ‘Honey, when I die, I want you to call Ben Rejino. Before my body gets cold, before you call for an ambulance or go to the hospital, and certainly before you put me in the ground, I want you to drive over to Ben Rejino’s house—don’t waste a minute—and ask him if he’ll farm our land for us.’
‘But why?’ she asked.
‘There is no better farmer I’ve ever met.’ ”
* * *
I was eight years old the first time the man named Ben Rejino took me with him to hoe the cotton fields on our farm. That summer, he paid me fifty cents an hour, and said that if I wanted new clothes or school supplies in the fall, I had to earn enough to buy them with my own money. And so I began my first summer as a paid employee.
Like any young boy, I thought it was pretty great to be working with my dad. Early every morning, I stood with him at the end of the cotton field holding my hoe and wrapped in blue jeans, a long sleeve shirt, gloves, and a hat. I always felt a sense of anticipation, even excitement, when we started. We marched up and down the endless rows of cotton, cleaning out careless weeds, white weeds, and Johnson grass. The sound of our feet landing in the hot soil was soft and steady. We worked swiftly, and in one loop, coming and going, we cleaned a total of twenty rows. After a couple of hours we had cleared out several acres. To see how much land we covered in one day was nothing short of exhilarating to me.
There was something about the silence that comforted me as we worked. It wasn’t unusual that we went for long periods of time without speaking to one another. We just walked and walked for miles, each knowing the other was close by. The soft sound of our footsteps and the wind in my ears were the only sounds I heard. When the heat began to rise and the winds increased, it was harder to keep moving, and the sound of my own breathing joined the chorus of whispered noises.
Things were not always so serene if I happened upon the misfortune of missing a weed. Inevitably I did, and my father barked at me in a voice that froze me in fear. I think that’s why he always let me lead. He wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything. He had a few other pet peeves, too, about how one should go about his work: “You don’t need to be looking at your watch,” he would say. “I’ll tell you when it’s time to go home!” Or when my cousins were with me, he would yell, “You don’t need to be talking. Keep your mind on your work!” Despite the abrasiveness that reared its head from time to time, I felt a certain kind of security and closeness from working with him. I watched him, admired him, and wanted to be like him in almost every way.
He had large, beautifully proportioned hands, and the veins below his wrists crawled all over them like giant worms. Sometimes at home, I ran my fingers over them, feeling their shape and I wondered how he got them. One morning, trekking up and down a field of sugar beets, I asked, “Dad, how do you get the veins in your hands to stick out like that?”
Pausing for a moment, he answered, “That’s what happens when you work hard.”
“Oh,” I nodded.
Taking my queue that I needed to work harder to earn the same hands he had, I moved a little faster. With the next weed I saw, I drove my hoe into it, pulling down hard and driving it into the ground with unforgiving force. It felt great! Except that I cut down a couple of sugar beets with it. I gasped and held my breath, waiting for the frightening voice to unleash itself on me. Instead, he looked at me sternly. Without a word, I learned to be more careful the next time—and every few minutes I checked my hands to see if my veins were bulging.
By the end of the summer, after I had saved all of my money, I went into town with my mother to buy clothes and supplies. I bought several pairs of blue jeans and several bright colored shirts, and even a pair of shoes. The salesperson smiled at me when I paid him with a wad of cash and a few loose coins. But the crowning moment came after I had bought all of my school supplies, because when I realized that I had a little money left over, I used it to buy a box of red pencils and had my name stamped on each one: RICHARD REJINO, in big, fat, golden letters. It was a good day.
* * *
In my teenage years, the novelty of working with my dad had long since worn off, but it was then that I learned another lesson I have never forgotten. It has become a favorite story, a fable really, that epitomizes his work ethic.
I was not doing much of anything one sweltering day after lunch, when my father decided it was time to sweep out the barn. Our barn was not at all like the ones in a Norman Rockwell painting. It wasn’t painted red and white, or filled with gentle horses and dairy cattle. It didn’t have a loft, laden with rich, dried hay on which you could hurl yourself and take a nap. No. Ours was made of a silver metal siding and had a concrete floor. On one end of the barn were four, fifty-gallon barrels filled with oats, corn, and wheat that we used to feed the chickens and the other animals we raised. Farm equipment and other implements were stored inside and made it crowded and difficult to move around.
All we had were two old house-brooms made of straw that seemed to stir up the dirt more than sweep it out. The concrete floor was filled with pockmarks and ridges, and I felt like a human toothbrush cleaning them. After a good hour of sweeping, the dust that hung in the air stuck to me like cheap make-up and my face was streaked with sweat. I was thirsty and irritable. This went on for several more minutes until we stopped and Dad said, “Let’s move these barrels and sweep behind them.”
“Move the barrels?” I said, looking at him as if he were crazy. Didn’t he know how heavy they were? I heaved and pulled, and cursed under my breath until barrel number one tilted at a forty-five degree angle, and rolled out of the way. Hunched over with my hands on my knees I was completely winded. Seeing me, my father rested his broom against the wall and helped me tilt and roll the second barrel. By the third, I was hunched over again, dripping from the heat. We walked over to move the last barrel and I stopped.
“Why do we need to move these barrels and sweep back here, Dad?” I blurted out in measured frustration. “It’s just going to get dirty back there again anyway!”
He looked at me and shot back “Why do you wipe your ass? It’s going to get dirty back there again anyway.”
Wipe my ass? I fell to my knees laughing, my ever-serious father laughing with me. Up against his dark, weathered face, his teeth shined brightly as he stood watching me with a big smile. I don’t remember how long we laughed, but in that moment of wicked humor he changed from being my father to being someone like me.
* * *
By the time I was twelve, I had learned to drive a tractor and plow the same fields I walked as a boy, and by the time I was in high school, it wasn’t unusual for me to spend days at a time, alone in the tractor, plowing the fields. I listened to music to pass the time, and I fought the urge to fall asleep at the wheel everyday after lunch. Some days the hours were endlessly stagnant and nothing I did cured the boredom that settled in the cab with me.
There is no escaping yourself when you are alone for that long. Perhaps that was the greatest gift that the farm gave me: the ability to look at myself and see who was staring back. I didn’t have the worries or pressures of farming that my father did, but I spent considerable time thinking about what my life meant, why you love certain people and not others, and what I wanted my life to be. I thought about school, girls, and how unlikely it was that a farm boy like me loved the piano enough to want to major in it in college. When I had exhausted every possible thought, I settled into a trance where I heard only the sounds of my breathing and the drone of the tractor engine.
I used to wonder what my father thought about when he was on the tractor. If he thought about his parents the way I did, or if he talked to himself out loud or let his mind imagine himself to be someone else. I wondered if he ever let himself cry when he was alone. I wondered, too, if he thought about who he might have been had he finished school and gone to college.
My brother and sisters and I experienced our father at different times in his life. The eighteen years that separated the oldest and the youngest of us meant that his sharp edges were softened by the time I was born. They tell me that they remember how much my dad and I laughed together when I was a boy. We spent more and more time together after my siblings left home, and he liked to take me with him after supper in his truck to survey the crops. We stopped at different fields so that he could pick a hand full of dirt to feel its dampness. I think it was his way of showing me how proud he was of his land and the crops he grew. It was a peaceful time; the winds always died down at the end of the day and the sun rinsed everything in an orange hue.
Sometimes, I joked with him about wanting to go to the Juilliard School in New York and major in music, knowing full well that I was not the caliber of pianist to attend a conservatory.
“It’s pretty far, Dad, and it costs a lot of money to go there.”
“If you want to go there, I’ll pay for it,” he said, thinking I was serious.
“Do you really think I could go there?”
“Sure,” he said, his voice rising. “You can do anything you want to do.”
I was too young to know the depths of feeling behind the words he spoke, the feeling of pride he must have felt in being able to say “yes” to his son if that was what I wanted, but I do remember how powerful that moment was for me, a seventeen-year-old kid. It felt as if he had given me permission to dream and become whatever I wanted to become.
* * *
I am now near the age my father was in 1965, the year I first worked with him in the fields of our farm. I, too, am married with children. On my bedroom dresser there is a photo of him taken on the day of his wedding. He was thirty-one and dressed in a dark suit and tie, sitting in a chair with his legs crossed and shoes polished: regal and dignified. His hair is long and combed back, but neatly trimmed above his ears, and below his broad forehead there is a half-smile and happiness in his eyes. But my eyes are drawn to his lap and his crossed hands…my hands.
My father died three months shy of his eightieth birthday, the same year I turned thirty. It has been a long time since I have felt the warmth of his hand on my shoulder and the reassuring love from that simple gesture. I see him from time to time in my dreams, but they are starting to fade with the distance between us.
In my twenties, when I left home for college and later married and moved away, I started having vivid dreams of my home and the farm as often as two and three times a week. The pull of those memories was so strong that the people who I knew in my new city life were often there with me. But I kept having one dream over and over, and unlike the way most dreams are forgotten quickly, it is still with me even today.
A silhouette of a man, tall and lanky, stands alone. He reaches back with a strong hand toward a woman, his wife, as they push across an open field and into a blinding West Texas dust storm. Taking her hand, he leads her one step at a time over the crests in the newly plowed soil. The smell of hot, moist dirt fills their nostrils with the fragrance of fertile country. Howling winds, with their rhythmic gusts, whip their clothes tightly to their limbs, etching their youthful bodies in the thick dusty cloud swirling around them. The man pushes down on his straw fedora and the woman shields her eyes from the stinging dust with her arm. Together they lean into the wind, planting each foot firmly before taking a step. When he turns and speaks to her, she can only hear the raging wind and the muffled sound of his voice. The man stops for a moment, his lungs aching. Then he pushes back against the storm cloud until they disappear into the dusty, swirling mist.
My father. It was in the fields of our farm, our large expansive acreage that I came to know him; where his sweat watered the harvest and nourished me with every drop.
Copyright © 2017 by Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs