Grandma set up the old wringer washing machine outside and hauled a basket of dirty laundry from the farm house. The screen door slammed behind her apron strings.
It was summer in central Iowa in the 1970s, and I was a scrawny kid helping with chores. I don’t remember the exact date, but it must have been a Monday because Grandma’s embroidered day-of-the-week kitchen towels, made from soft cotton flour sacks, taught me that Monday was wash day.
After sudsing and rinsing the clothes, Grandma showed me how to feed each item through the hand wringer to squeeze out excess water. Fabric emerged from between the two rollers, long and flat, like wide lasagna noodles from a pasta machine. Soon the basket was full of clean clothes ready to hang out to dry.
“I can’t carry all this,” I said as I struggled to haul the heavy, wet load of laundry over to the clothes line.
“Can’t died in a cornfield,” she gently corrected me.
Can’t did what? I thought, but I didn’t want to question my grandma, and the underlying message was abundantly clear; the word “can’t” was a dirty word and I had to figure out how to get the job done myself.
And eventually I did.
Years later, I heard someone use the same oddball phrase – can’t died in a cornfield – and I chewed on its meaning.
If you’ve ever walked deep into a cornfield when the stalks are taller than your head, it’s easy to feel claustrophobic and panicky, lost in a sea of dark green and overwhelmed by the predicament.
But corn is planted in neat rows, so as long as you stay calm and follow a row, you will eventually find your way out of a cornfield.
If you give up too easily, and sit down waiting for someone to rescue you, then you might wait for a very long time in the middle of that field – and the solution may never come. But if you make an effort, you’re bound to find a way out yourself.
My grandma was encouraging me to persevere when faced with a challenge. She was helping me develop a can-do attitude. She was teaching me to try.
So I think my hunch as a kid was right – “can’t” is a dirty word. And my grandma was right – having a negative attitude, and dying in the middle of a cornfield, is no way to go.
Today, as I sit down to work on the rough draft of my book – feeling panicky, lost and overwhelmed – I tell myself can’t died in a cornfield, and I follow a row.