Digging with Seamus Heaney

cratesYour kids’ toys and books are everywhere. Solution? Craigslist in upstate New York apple country.

For six bucks each we grab a bunch of apple crates to clean, paint and recycle into kids’ shelves. It’s only when I get them home, though, that I notice the stenciled words on the side of each crate. janto

Mysterious words on the sides of your newly acquired apple crates. Solution?

Sic your internationally-recognized genealogist mother on it.

Mom emails me within 24 hours:

Veto Janto was born in the town of Galen, NY, on 7 Sept.  1895 and died in Clyde, Wayne County, NY in Feb. 1968.  He was a  farmer.  He and his wife May had two children in the 1930 census of the  town of Galen, Wayne County, Josephine B. Janto, 8, and Rocco V. Janto, 5.  
Veto’s son Rocco (Rockie), probably named for his  paternal grandfather,  died at the age of 87 in April 2012 (b. May 3,  1924.)  His obituary says he was the son of “Vito & Mar Sapp Janto”  [sic].  The “Vito” spelling is probably the original, and I suspect the  surname was changed somewhere along the line.  From the obit:
 “Rockie  was a successful and innovative fruit, dairy and cash crop farmer for over 70  years.  He was the recipient of the Cornell Conservation Farmer of the Year  Award for his skillful knowledge in the field of farming and agriculture.   He was a past member of the Wayne County Planning Board.  Rockie loved  spending his free time with his family and grandchildren on the  farm.”


And then Seamus Heaney dies. Solution? There’s no solution to that. Just cry.


You’re feeling grateful for this opportunity to use your best skills in the service of one of the best things on the planet. For a little while, you’re a writer, writing about and for education. More than grateful. It’s like a unicorn has apparated into your living room and put its golden horn down at your feet.

But there’s the students, not here, not laughing and crying with you. And Syria. And whole city-wide school systems failing, and not enough food.


Solution. I don’t know.

But it has something to do with understanding where your apple crates come from. Remembering that the man who used them, and his son after him, cultivated the land along the shore of Lake Ontario.

It has something to do with Seamus Heaney– what he saw, what he remembered, what he honored. The man who used the spade, and his son after him.


Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests.

Like Veto and Rocco Janto– like Seamus’  father– and like Seamus.

I’ll dig with it.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper.
He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Seamus Heaney

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