Knee-high by the 4th of July

Corn in dirt field

Read by Brenda

My city-raised daughters are certain that I grew up in the countryside, despite my protestations that it was a suburb. True, we did have an unusually large number of pets. These included two geese, a couple of dogs over the years, and at one point, we had a total of 14 cats if you included kittens. We also cycled through goldfish, which died and were replaced with others that we won at games on the 4th of July, a turtle, guinea pigs, and a canary named Caruso that chirped excitedly whenever my mother played the piano and sang.

Had we been a rich family, our amateur zoo would have been considered “eccentric,” but since we were common suburban folk it was simply a case of too many pets.

Other faux country traits of ours include – according to my daughters – not being able to go anywhere without a car, knowing all of our neighbors and what car they drove, and spending summers being so bored that we drank extremely bubbly soda pop and then recorded our burps on a tape recorder. I need not point out that these are less aspects of country life than they are of large portions of 1970s American life in general. Except perhaps the recording of soda pop burps.

By contrast, my father truly was from the countryside, from northern Illinois, the land of endless cornfields. He worked summers on a neighboring farm, owned by a couple appropriately named Amos and Allie. Growing up, I recall how he started tomatoes from seed in egg cartons on the windowsill. His favorite hobby was picking blackberries, which he brought in by the bucketful for my mother to bake blackberry pie. She was from northern Illinois, too. All that is missing from this tranquil picture of country habits is a rascally boy, perhaps wearing a straw hat if one has read too much Mark Twain, stealing said pie from the window sill while it was cooling.

I naturally picked up some of the habits and knowledge of my father. This especially applies to observations about nature, such as what a cornfield looks like during different stages of growth. I assumed that everybody knew these things, and was surprised to discover that this definitely did not apply to my husband.

So it happened that several years ago, after a bike trip through northern Italy, I called my father. I was brimming with enthusiasm about the journey and couldn’t wait to tell him about it.

“We started off in Mestre, on the mainland,” I said. “Then we had to ride our bikes over the causeway to reach Venice, which consists of lots of islands connected by bridges.”

“Uh-huh,” he said.

“We were in a hurry, so we walked right past St. Mark’s Cathedral, but went back later to see it.”


I doubt I could have made him say anything else if I had told him I had participated in a Venetian carnival and had had a drunken orgy while sporting a mask covered with rhinestones and feathers.

I continued.

“Once we were outside the city, we rode through lots of small villages and in between, we saw a whole bunch of cornfields.”

Now I had his attention. This was the one pertinent fact that I had foolishly omitted from my narrative.

“How high was the corn?” he asked.

He was not interested in whether we’d seen the Palazzo Ducale, ridden in a gondola, sipped cappuccino in a piazza or eaten pizza.

But corn. He knew corn. And in corn country, the benchmark for corn growth is “Knee high by the Fourth of July.”

Relating this story to my city-born-and-raised husband with much amusement, he looked at me, puzzled.

“Corn? There was corn?”

This got me thinking about similar contrasts I had noticed in the past. There is a certain comfort that comes with the realization that I am decidedly not one of those people who has married a person eerily similar to their parents.

Our house in the suburbs was visited annually by paper wasps, the kind that chews wood to make fine gray paper to build its nest. The biggest nest was always just inside the gable of the garage. The wasps expanded this nest throughout the summer so that by fall it would be around 20 cm or eight inches across. At night when the wasps were sluggish, my father would casually take a broom or shovel and knock the nests down, except for the big one in the garage, which had to wait until winter when they were all dead.

Against the background of this insectified childhood, I was not alarmed when wasps built three small nests under the railing of our terrace. I bought a can of bug spray and was confident that this would take care of the problem. We would wait to use the spray until evening, when they were quiet.

Not so my husband. He put on his reading glasses and turned the can of bug spray carefully under the kitchen light to study the minuscule instructions. Wait until nighttime, the instructions said. Wear protective clothing, they advised. Be extremely cautious.

To say he took these instructions to heart would be like saying the Pope thinks there are a few rather good ideas in the Bible.  

As dusk fell, my husband emerged in full battle gear.

He had put on long ski pants and pulled them down over the tops of tightly-laced hiking boots, a long-sleeved fleece fully zipped up to his chin, a ski mask, and ski gloves. The only visible body parts were his eyes – through ski goggles, that is.

 “Do you really think all that is necessary?” I asked him while trying desperately to stifle a laugh.

He held up his mittened hands and replied in a muffled voice through his ski mask.

“I’m not taking any chances.”

I should add at this juncture that I was the one doing the spraying, not him. I was wearing jeans and a hoodie.

Soon it was dark. I sauntered out onto the terrace with a flashlight, locating each of the three nests.

Pfft, pfft, pffft, and they were covered in bug spray.

Nothing happened. All was quiet. Nothing flying through the air, save for the faint smell of bug spray.

Overnight, a couple of dead wasps fell out of the nest. I swept them into a dustpan, then took a broomstick and nonchalantly knocked down the nests and threw them in the garbage, too.

Whew! That was a close one.

The only safety precaution I had taken was zipping my sweatshirt shut, which in fairness is more than my father had ever done.

And finally, this year I decided to plant tomatoes on the terrace. I started them from seed, of course. No self-respecting Ohioan would just buy the seedlings. They grew to be a full 15 cm or six inches high on the kitchen counter, at which time I transplanted them to a big pot.

At this point, my husband actually noticed their presence.

“What are those plants?” he asked.

I started to answer, and then stopped.

“Oh, never mind. You’ll see!”

I’ll wait to see at what stage he figures out what they are. I’ll let you know when he does, but don’t hold your breath.

Brenda Arnold

2 thoughts on “Knee-high by the 4th of July

    • Expat chatter says:

      That’s so funny – but then again, you’re from Iowa, so you would know! I guess it is taller these days. I can’t help it but every time I look at a cornfield I assess the height (against my knees….and the date…). :0

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