from Paper Dolls and Homemade Comforts, A Living History of Northwest Virginia

Otis and Mother and the Ear of Corn

By Verna Rodes of Bridgewater, Virginia

I grew up on a large dairy farm and, from time to time, our family boarded various hired hands, who worked with Daddy taking care of the cows, crops, and other farm responsibilities. Many of the hands we liked, some of them we really enjoyed, and one or two of them we only tolerated.

Otis was one of those we only tolerated. My siblings and I heard many stories through the years about Otis and his unorthodox ways and, although I was only eight or nine at the time, I remember a lot of them. I guess, to be honest about Otis, he had a very short ladder when it came to matters of common sense.

One cold Sunday morning Mother was feeding the chickens in a converted corner of the barn floor, when Otis stuck his head in the door, for what reason Mother didn't know, and slowly closed it again. Being a cold morning, and a Sunday morning too, Mother was in a hurry to finish and get back to the house and get breakfast for us, so we could get ready for church.

As Otis closed the door, Mother yelled to him, "Be sure and don't turn that knob on the door, so I can get out. I don't want to be locked in here." Otis yelled back, "Okay, I gotcha."

Well, you guessed it. When Mother finished her task and tried to open the door, it wouldn't open. She was locked in. She hollered and hollered, getting more frustrated and angry by the minute, but no one heard her - at least, it appeared that way. But Mother always believed that Otis was somewhere just around the corner, thinking he had pulled off a really good joke.

You can believe me when I say that it was no joke to Mother. When Daddy finally heard her yelling and rescued her, she was as hot as a steaming teakettle.

At the breakfast table, she really put Otis through the mill. "Why did you lock me in the chicken house when I specifically asked you not to?" she demanded. "Didn't you hear me hollering? You know, I don't have time on a Sunday morning to be going through this tomfoolery."

Otis, being Otis, just sat there pouring syrup on his pancakes, and smiled rather sheepishly while mother waited for an answer. The longer the silence went on, the more Mother struggled to keep from getting up, grabbing him around the collar, and shaking him until his teeth rattled. Finally, he said, "I guess I was just doing my chores."

"Well," she said, "you should have heard me hollering." I don't think she ever believed him but, with Otis, she knew it was futile trying to press the issue.

As you can imagine, after that episode Otis was no favorite of Mother's. We children didn't have to imagine, because Mother didn't hold back in expressing to us just where Otis stood with her from that day on. It was even more apparent when he bragged about how much food he could consume and how many times one should chew each mouthful. Each time Otis emptied dish after dish during a meal, as was his habit, he didn't gain any brownie points with her, either.

Come summertime, when we ate a lot of fresh vegetables right out of the garden and sweet com was one of our mainstays, Otis's actions at the dinner table rankled Mother and our eldest sister, Lou, a little more than they could endure. He would look over the plate of sweet corn; shifting the ears around, making sure he got the biggest and best ears of corn. Otis always ate four or five ears and, even though we had plenty, we always wondered where he put all those ears of corn, along with all the other food he ate.

Otis's actions got to be too much for Mother and Lou, and they decided to give Otis a challenge that he wouldn't be able to resist. Although we younger children were not in on the conspiracy, we were aware that something sinister was taking place. We knew that something was going to happen the day that Mother and Lou laughed a lot as they brushed the ears and put them in the cook pot.

Lou went to the large cornfield behind our house, pulled off a large ear of field corn, and cooked it, along with the sweet corn, for dinner. Because field corn was grown for cattle and pigs, it was really not intended for human consumption. It was chewier and not as sweet or tender as sweet corn. Mother and Lou put the ear of field corn on top of the ears of sweet corn and placed the dish right in front of Otis's plate. Of course, Otis couldn't resist. He reached for the large ear of field corn, buttered and salted it, and started counting his chews. At least, we supposed he did. Daddy had also been left in the dark concerning this "special" ear of corn. He kept looking at Otis, probably wondering why he was taking so long to eat one ear of corn.

Otis chewed and chewed, wiped his mouth, and then chewed some more. He took another bite of corn, had a long drink of water, and picked up the ear again. He emptied his water glass, having taken a drink after almost every chew, and turned to Lou. "Could I have a bit more water?" he asked.

Lou and Mother had barely been able to hold it together, seeing their little plot turning out so well. They had not dared look up at him, keeping their eyes glued to their plates, and eating their food in silence. When Lou got up from the table to refill Otis's water glass, she had this sneaky grin on her face. I noticed Daddy looking at her, trying to figure out what was going on. Although she kept her eyes averted from all of us, I noticed she and Mother exchanged glances for an instant. They were trying very hard to pretend that this dinner was as normal as any other.

It took Otis the entire meal to finish that ear of corn. I think Daddy was still wondering why Otis wasn't reaching for more corn, because he asked, "Otis is there anything more you would like to have? How about more sweet corn?" Otis took a deep breath and said, without hesitation, "I think I've had sufficient for this time."

Of course, we had plenty of sweet corn left over that day.

As soon as Otis and Daddy were out the door, there was no more pretenses of Lou and Mother keeping a straight face. As they cleared the table, they laughed so hard that when they tried to relate the story to my sister Norma and me, we couldn't understand what they were saying. Finally, they calmed down enough for Lou to say, "That couldn't have gone off any better. Otis played his part perfectly. But you all better not tell him, you hear?"

By this time, we were joining in the merriment of a very funny joke played on Otis, and there was no way we were about to let him know about it.

One would've thought that Lou and Mother pulled off the scheme of the century with all the satisfaction and laughter they got from one ear of corn that day. Mother always said afterward, "That is one time Otis bit off more than he could chew."

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