Caney Creek long had a different channel, my father-in-law would remind me. Years ago, it had run diagonally across the land he farmed.
I can’t remember the reason for this, though it probably had to do with a massive Southeast Missouri drainage project, a literal draining of the swamp that left this land with enviable topsoil.
A town also had the name Caney Creek, a bustling concern in its day, with an array of businesses, a one-room school and a station for the St. Louis Iron Mountain Railroad.
Only ruins of those things remain, as does the creek, which flows to a collector ditch known to locals as “Number One.” And the land remains, rich, well-tended and cherished.
Long gone is the orchard that once stood in front of the house beside the old creek channel. In that orchard run by his parents, Harold Kielhofner, home on leave from the service, met Luella Hamm, whose folks had stopped by to get apples.
They would not know that day, as young people never know in these first encounters, that they would become husband and wife. Nor did they know that almost every day of their 71 years of marriage would be spent in this pastoral place.
The two of them raised five children on this farm, the third in this line being the woman I married.
For that, I owe an unpayable debt to Harold Kielhofner, who died earlier this month, a week short of his 94th birthday.
Sons can have complicated relationships with their fathers. Multiply those complications with men and fathers-in-law.
He might have expected me to be more conversant with the ways of farm life. I learned quickly not to talk during weather telecasts. I picked up more slowly the shorthand he employed while I tried to assist with chores.
Besides, I think he took some quiet joy in my puzzled looks when, say, he would take a chain saw to trees that needed clearing and I, the guy who stole his daughter away, didn’t know which direction the trunks would fall.
With each evasion I managed, there seemed to be a glint in his eye.
In time, I grew to admire the bargain he had made with this land, the careful stewardship that returned him a living.
Once, a rogue thunderstorm came up, dumping too much rain on a chemical application he had that morning put on some soybeans.
“Guess I just lost $1,500,” he said to me, with no more emotion than asking about the Cardinals score. He knew that God did much of the work on the farm: the right soil, the proper growing season, the just-so amounts of moisture and sun.
If one day went badly, Harold knew the rest would find a balance.
Mostly, I admired his commitment to family and faith. Any chore that needed doing at St. Ambrose Parish or with the Knights of Columbus council he helped establish, Harold loaded tools in his truck to do the work, endlessly resourceful. For decades, he fussed over the parish cemetery, the one where he now takes his rest.
My oldest son suggested that his grandfather might already have a garden growing in Heaven, the saints soon to gather around and marvel over the size of his harvested onions.
During World War II, he sailed the world. An old photograph shows his younger self topside on a ship, some port-of-call in the background.
Harold saw plenty, but he came back to this land.
That seems legacy enough for any farmer, that he appreciated the earth beneath him, the Almighty above him and all those loved ones around him.