Cut the Mustard

The trees along the river near my house had bulging leaf buds. I said, “Any day now, those old, gray branches are going to be clothed in beautiful green!”

Home for a visit, my daughter Tammie scoffed, “You said they’d be leafed out by the time I came home for this visit. I’m here, but the leaves aren’t. What’s the hold-up?”

Sighing, I said apologetically, “Spring is a naughty tease. One week she makes me think full summer is just a minute away, then the following week, I’d swear that winter had returned. To make it more difficult to know when things will turn green, she never puts her leafy skirts on at the same time each year.”

After my daughter had returned home, Dame Spring dealt us a week of May thunderstorms and tornados. It wasn’t until the weather became frigid again, that leaves burst forth from tree branches, bushes and vines. Suddenly, lilacs, flowering crabapples and honey suckle competed for attention.

Holding my spring jacket shut against the chill one morning as I scurried out to the garage, I noticed how beautiful the yard was now that everything had turned green.  I thought even the weeds were pretty. All across my farmyard lawn were yellow dandelions and purple creeping Charlie. As I drove out of my driveway, I spotted a bright yellow weed flowering in what was once a flower bed, but is now would more accurately a weed bed. “That’s mustard!” I thought to myself.

For the rest of the day, the word “mustard” rolled around in my mind. Every once in awhile, another word would pop up in place of “mustard”. That word was “yellow rocket”. These were very old words that took me back to my early grade school years. When I had time, I allowed myself to recall when I was eight.

Getting out of bed at the crack of dawn was never my strong suit, but seven in the morning hardly qualifies for sunrise during the spring months on a farm. “Get up and get dressed.” My big sister commanded me one morning. I frowned and turned over. She said, “Get dressed. We’re going to pick rocks today.”

An hour later everyone in the family was out in the field. Daddy had his small John Deere hitched to a hay wagon. Everyone was directed to look around, pick up the rocks we saw and pitch them up onto the wagon bed. If a rock was too big, Daddy lifted it for us. When the area around the wagon was picked clean, someone drove the tractor further down the field where we continued to pick rock.

Until this year, I had been considered too young for this work.

Halfway through the morning one of my sisters grumbled, “Didn’t we pick this field last year?”

Daddy chuckled, but also sounded disgusted when he answered, “We did, but every year the frost heaves more stones to the surface.”

Being eight years old, I was now also on the work crew the following month when it came to pulling weeds in the oat field. The oat plants were only tall enough to cover my ankles, while the weeds had grown faster and were up at least to my knees. These yellow blossoming plants dotted the field. I quickly learned to walk through the oats by placing my footsteps between the rows, so as to not crush the crop plants.

When I asked what the weeds were called, some of my brothers and sisters called them “mustard” and others called them, “yellow rocket.” I didn’t question the double name, because after all, I had a double name, too. I was Kathleen in school records, but at home everyone called me Kathy.

As an adult, I have more curiosity about the weed than as a child. That evening I sat down at the desk and looked up mustard and yellow rocket in my computer. What I found was that the two plant varieties are related, but so similar I’m still not sure what my family and I were pulling all those years ago in Daddy’s oat fields.

As I searched for information about these two plants, I kept coming across explanations for the phrase, “to cut the mustard,” which means to work up to expectations. I thought, “That phrase should be, ‘to PULL the mustard’. We wouldn’t have been working up to Daddy’s expectations if we had merely CUT the mustard!”



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