Both of my parents began counting down the days until Dad's last day on the job, December 26, 2014. "We've got three months left", Mom would say with an updated count each time I called to check in. And each time, I thought about what it is I might have to say, why I felt compelled to write something, yet each time I sat down to write, I wound myself up in a tangle of words that were much more about me than about my father or mother. In one attempt, I stumped myself with writing a question I never would have uttered out loud, "Who am I if my father isn't working?". And then because I felt uncomfortable, I stopped writing about it. I wrote about other things instead. And when the scurrying in the back of my skull would pick up again, I'd think yes, yes, I will write a piece about my father, my mother too. A tribute perhaps to their long, dedicated hours of farming, farm education, and a self-made life. A piece about them, to highlight the work of their lives, but not a piece about me.
I think nearly everyone who has sat in a free-writing workshop with me can vouch for the fact that at some point in the workshop, whether I want to or not (and 99% of the time it's not), I will write a scene about my childhood, growing up on a dairy farm.
I've written about riding in the cab of the tractor with my father when I was just three, and how carefully and specifically he would guide my hands on the steering wheel so that I could "help" steer through the turns. I've written about the time, when I was five or six, Dad taught me to drive the riding lawnmower and how, when he let me loose on my own, I drove over a sapling he had just planted for my mother. I've written about my father teaching me how to stop a full-grown ram from knocking me over when I was eight ("All you've got to do, if a ram is going to charge you, is get his chin up."). I've written about my first wages, getting paid a quarter to help my father with the milking, about learning to deliver a calf, about butchering and eviscerating fifty chickens in an afternoon, about teenage summers spent driving around hayfields. I've written about shit. Shoveling it. Getting spattered with it. Throwing frozen clods of it at my brothers (self-defense, of course). The different smells of it, the way it lingered in my hair and my clothes.
Through all of these stories is the persistent thread of my father teaching me to be a productive, problem-solving, conflict-resolving member of barnyard society. The echoes of these teachings through my life have led to, in spite of the smelly parts, a rigorous work ethic, a staggering sense of responsibility, and an ever-niggling motivation to do things "all by myself". I have, for as long as I can remember, defined myself by my abilities, my independence, and my unwillingness to do something just because everyone else is doing it.
Perhaps what I really want to say as a tribute to my father, and also my mother who has been right there too, is thanks. Thanks for making it possible for me to hug a calf with hair still dried stiff after being licked clean by its mother. Thanks for teaching me to drive at an age that makes people question the authenticity of that story. Thanks for assuming that I could and should learn to protect myself in any given situation.
These are stories I will have with me, always.