Back to the Farm

“I am one of eight kids,” he began, “my name is Brad. When you have eight kids, it’s easy to get a baseball or softball game going out in the yard, so growing up we did that a lot. Because we were wealthy,” he paused and the audience laughed, everyone knows that farming was a meager living when he was growing up, “we played with whatever we could find. A hunk of plywood for first base, a two-by-four for second.”

“Well one day we were playing in the yard,” he continued, “and Peggy hit the ball and started running around the bases.”

He pauses and looks into the audience for his sister Peggy, giving her a big grin.

“A rooster starting chasing her as she ran, so Peggy started screamin’, but he kept chasing her and pecking at her.”

He takes a sip of water.

“You never saw Ma do the forty-yard dash so fast. In a flash she was out the screen door and across the yard, she picked up second base and that rooster was DONE.”

Everyone chuckled, imagining Millie taking out a rooster with a two-by-four.

“Then she turned to me,” he continued, “and said, why don’t you go clean that thing? We’ll have it for dinner.”

He paused and then finished, “That was Mama. You mess with her kids, she’ll have you for dinner.”

My cousin Brad, actually my mom’s cousin, so my second cousin, told us that story yesterday at my Aunt Millie’s funeral. Those are the kinds of stories you get to hear, when you come from the farm. I am several generations removed from the farm now, my great grand parents being the last farmers in my lineage, because my grandparents and parents did not choose to farm. All of my grandpa’s siblings did farm, he was the only one who went to college and pursued another way of life.

Farming is something that lives in your blood, though. Even when farmers don’t farm, they do. They grow big gardens, or they till enough acres to farm something, but it’s not enough to live on. I even know one person who works a full-time job and lives in the suburbs but rents land to farm in the country. My Uncles David and John, Grandpa’s brothers, both turned to tomatoes once they retired from farming. I toured my Uncle David’s impressive homemade greenhouses and irrigation systems at a family reunion one year. Once a farmer, always a farmer.

When I was growing up, close friends of my parents decided to move to northern Minnesota and start a dairy farm. While I visited the great aunts and uncles and their farms as a child lots of times (my first cat was barn kitten from Uncle David’s farm) I never got to know the farm really intimately, or more, what farm life was like, until I spent a lot of time at the dairy farm. We spent quite a few New Years holidays at the farm, we were always there for deer hunting season, and there were some years in a row where my parents would drive us kids up to the farm and leave us for a week, because they had kids the same age, and it was summer, and farm kids often live far from their nearest neighbors.

I worked for my keep at the farm right along with Jenny. We’d get up at six am to feed the calves, blasting Bon Jovi over the sound of the milking machine in the barn while we mixed up formula to feed the hungry little cows, via bottle and dish, because on a dairy farm, the calves drink formula. Mom’s a milker.

One time I helped Jenny’s mom, Helen, chase a loose cow back into the barn. Helen tried to cut the cow off by making a quick move over a pile of manure. She thought would be frozen (It was Christmas break) and sank in up to her knees. Manure, it seems, stays warm for a really, really, long time.

I scraped manure from barn floors, filled up pitchers from the milk tank for the family milk, climbed on the big round hay bales (FYI that makes you really itchy), played with the barn cats and laid on the floor of the barn, peeking under the door and giggling with my friend Jenny, watching the bull chase a female around the yard. (My dad busted us watching, how embarrassing) I even went to school with Jenny. She was allowed to bring a guest so I followed her around all day. From the almost two- hour bus ride, to the school that housed K-12 in one building, it was an entirely different experience than my city school.

What usually happened was that I, city kid, loved every single thing about the farm. The rolling hills, the animals everywhere, the sun setting and rising on fields of gold. The miles of open space to explore. Jenny, farm kid, hated every single thing about the farm. She hated milk from the milk tank and refused to drink it. She did not like playing outside that much, I would have to beg her, and she hated that her jeans had to be line dried. She would make a giant production out of rolling them in a ball and stomping on them over and over and over all the while complaining about not having a dryer. (They started out meager when we were kids, they did eventually have a dyer)

When we say “the farm” in my family, we do not necessarily mean any particular farm. My mom will say she “grew up near the farm” or people will say they “come from the farm”. It is not a place, but a series of places. More a way of life, a certain kind of people.

Yesterday I went back to the farm for Aunt Millie’s funeral. When I arrived in town, I didn’t go directly to the church. I drove slowly through the town, which is basically one main street, because I hadn’t seen it in many years, since my great grandma passed away. Great grandma lived in a little white house next to the church. Her husband, who was nineteen years older, bought her that little white house back when they were still living on the farm, so that she would “always have somewhere to live”.

In my whole life, the town has changed very little. Farm towns don’t really grow, they just go on existing for what people need a town for. The church, the post office, the auto repair shop, the gas station. The senior center.

The town was quiet, and I felt a sadness, not because of Aunt Millie, because I know she lived a good, full, life and she was not afraid to die, but because I thought to myself, as Grandpa’s siblings and their spouses leave us one by one, we are losing a generation of farmers, and with that, we’re losing a way of life.

Farm families were big families, because farms need farm hands. When Uncle David’s children grew up and moved on from the farm, he and his wife Ellen began to take in foster kids. It was a great, safe, place to grow up, and my aunt and uncle needed the help on the farm. (One of those foster kids grew up to marry my cousin Rachel, and make a career in the military as an Army Chaplain). J’s parent’s are from the farm. My father-in-law has eleven brothers and sisters.

The farm is devout. That is one thing that is always impressive at the funerals of my farming family. They were ready to meet the lord. They were devout in their prayers and their good deeds and even when they didn’t have two pennies for themselves, ten percent always went to the church.

Brad held up his mother’s tattered, worn and well used bible for us to see yesterday and he said,

“When your bible is worn, your life has been good.”

It should be noted that he is the Revered Brad. One of five reverends that I am aware of among the farm family.

“Isn’t it terrible,” Aunt Norma, the matriarch of the family these days, said when Mom and my sisters and I all gathered around her after the service “that it’s such a sad occasion but we’re so happy to see each other?”

We all laughed. Lately we see each other at a lot of funerals and it is sort of terrible that we’re so happy to see each other, but when it’s the only time you see each other you make the best of it.

“I was sitting here listening,” Norma said, “and you start thinking, I wonder what they’re going to say about me.”

“All good, I’m sure,” Mom said reassuringly.

“I keep telling her,” Norma’s daughter Rachel interrupts, “that it won’t matter what we do because she won’t be here.”

“I wish it was me, today,” Norma said, “I’m ready.”

We all felt kind of sad about that statement, but we didn’t say anything because to the farm family of our lives, going to meet Jesus is the prize they have been waiting for their whole lives. The reason for their dedication to the bible, their dedication to the church. The way they get to see the loved ones they are now missing.

“That’s one of the things we all said,” Brad said as he continued to talk about his mom, “that we never once doubted the existence of Jesus. That we knew he was right there with us, every step of the way in our lives, because Millie taught us that he was.”

The farm might not have had much to give, but they were, and still are, rich in prayers.

The service yesterday talked about the joys of Millie’s life- her children, her twenty-six grandchildren, her nineteen great grandchildren, her love of Jesus and singing in the church, her love of music because of the message of god, her dedication to being a woman of virtue and righteousness. Her strength and perseverance at overcoming the challenges of being a farming wife.

As I said good bye to Aunt Millie at the end of the funeral, to her smile and her laugh and the way Grandpa used to say, “Why hello, Millicent”, I felt like I was also starting to say my goodbyes to a way of life that our children will never know. There might be a time soon, where there’s no longer a farm to go back to, and I feel the loss as keenly as I feel the loss of each family member.

Its hard to imagine a life where you can’t go back to the farm.

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