"Do you want to go to the John Deere store with me?" Dad asked the other morning. His tractor has been balky lately, and nobody in the shop could get it running right, so he decided he might as well get a new one.
Well. I don't turn down chances to go tractor-shopping. Since I don't listen to any country music post-Johnny Cash, a walk through the John Deere dealership is just about my only chance to feel all patriotic and awash in Americana. Plus, I've thought tractors were cool ever since I was a small person.*
My love of tractors, although I suspect I was born with it**, may also have something to do with one of the best toys I ever got: a toy tractor, from my babysitter.
Nobody was really rich in the town where I grew up. Okay, one or two families, but it's a lot easier to be rich in a town of 5000 souls on the western side of nowhere in particular than it is to be rich in, say, Manhattan. Most people where I grew up counted their pennies. Twice. Children were not randomly showered with gifts.
One day, our babysitter was running errands with my sister and me in tow. We were old enough to be tempted by anything in a store, but not old enough to keep our hands to ourselves without being reminded. So, after she pulled up in front of the dime store, she turned to us and said, "Now what are you going to do?"
"Look but don't touch!" we chorused. We did this Q & A every time we went into a store with her.
"That's right," she said, and we got out of the truck and went inside.
In my memory, this particular dime store was a veritable Aladdin's Cave of childhood delights: squirt guns, Barbies and their accessories, Matchbox cars, GI Joes, marbles, paddleballs, rubber snakes, rats, and spiders, kaleidoscopes, kid-sized purses, play jewelry, jacks, tiny plastic pinball games, yo-yos, harmonicas, kazoos, play doh. I wanted to touch it all—to plunge my hands in the open bins and fondle every last piece of merchandise.
My sister, being younger, practically vibrated with her desire to run her hands over the goods. She tried so hard to be good, but it was not a state that came naturally to her, and she had to keep her hands clasped tightly behind her back so she wouldn't reach out just…one…little…finger to stroke a necklace of pretty pastel plastic beads.
Oh, it was so tempting.
But we were expected to behave, and so we did, even though behaving was not our natural state and we didn't enjoy it even one little bit.
Our babysitter, unlike some adults, had once been a child. She knew what a horrible temptation the dime store was. She saw our longing stares at all those lovely toys. She noticed my sister's hands clenched tightly behind her back. She understood how hard-won our good behavior was.
I know now that she didn't have any extra money to toss around, and at the time I certainly didn't expect any kind of reward for good behavior. Good behavior was one of those things that adults mysteriously expected you to exhibit, but which they did not generally reward.
On this particular day, however, our babysitter knew that we had earned a reward. She bought us each a plastic tractor in recognition of our good behavior. Mine was red; my sister's was green.
I loved that tractor. I had earned it by doing the one of the hardest things I had ever had to do in my young life, and it was more precious to me than diamonds and rubies. And every trip to the John Deere store reminds me of that tractor, and of the love of our babysitter, who didn't have to buy somebody else's children toys but who, one memorable day, did anyway.
*When you grow up in the rural west, these things can happen.
**Granddad was an ag teacher. Great granddad was a rancher. This little apple did not fall all that far from those particular trees.