Writing on these Sundays in July, I decided to go back to my childhood on an Iowa farm and all the treasures I learned from my parents.
On early summer days, my dad often took the tractor and cultivator out to rid the corn of weeds. The metal cultivator with pointed teeth followed the tractor, turning up the dirt and weeds. This was long before no-till and sophisticated weed killers. My dad took his coffee break out in the field because the job could take all day and driving the tractor back to the yard was inefficient. Mom often asked me to bring coffee and a snack out to Dad since laundry, gardening, cooking, and taking care of my little sister and brother filled her day.
I loved this job. The fresh air blew through my hair and I loved the smell of overturned dirt. I got a snack too so that was a plus, but what I loved most was the one-on-one time with my dad. Growing up in a family with six children, I seldom got Dad all to myself. We talked about the weather, the birds, and life in general.
One day in early June especially stands out. Even though the corn was shorter than me, Dad warned, “Stay at the end and wave. Don’t walk in the rows. I might not see you. I will stop and you will be safe.” That is just what happened.
I heard the Farmall 500 and I could see Dad perched on the tractor seat. When he saw me, he waved and cut the motor. The big red tractor grumbled to a stop and Dad stepped off onto the ground. He took off his green Farm Bureau cap, shook the dust out, and sat in the shade of the big tractor wheel. We opened the lunch bucket and found a thermos of coffee, a bologna and cheese sandwich, and two cookies. I knew one of the cookies was for me. Dad poured black coffee into the top of the thermos.
He took a swallow and gazed across the field. “Isn’t that the most beautiful sight?” he asked. His face shone with pride and I could see his joy that the rows were straight and the cultivator was sending the weeds to no man’s land.
“I don’t need to be an artist,” he continued. “I have art right here. There is nothing prettier than a new field of corn.” Even as a small child, I knew my dad felt he was doing what he was called to do. He loved being a farmer and he loved keeping the corn clean and seeing the rows straight and sturdy. Right then I believed bringing coffee to him helped and I felt proud too.
Sometimes I heard my mom say, “Hank could have been anything, even a teacher or preacher.” She wasn’t convinced farming used all his abilities. When Dad graduated from 8th grade, his dad asked him if he wanted to be a preacher. He declined and that was it. My grandpa said education wasn’t necessary. Dad, however, never looked back. He loved the farm.
As an adult, I often envied dad’s sure commitment to his life’s work. I was never quite as sure about my own. I seemed to second guess myself often. Was I a teacher because that was the only job I saw women doing besides homemaking and nursing? Was I really patient enough, smart enough, creative enough? Was I equipping students in the best way possible?
Dad never worried about being enough. He looked outward as if his occupation was a gift. More than anything he was grateful for his life’s work. He truly lived Philippians 4:11: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” I am still working on that verse.
I wish I could ask Dad one more time just how he managed to love farming so much. Farms have no shortage of stinky manure, ornery hogs, sick cattle, and scorching weeks of drought. Income was risky and budgeting inconsistent. but Dad looked at life as a big picture. Dad believed things would all work out and he taught me to look at one’s occupation as a gift.
Maybe a shy smile, a thank you note, and an equation mastered were my straight rows without weeds. I have a harder time seeing work as a gift, but remembering the look on his face as we sat beside the tractor often helped me muddle through one more day of teaching and treasure the small things.
Even now, as a retired woman in a small town, I grumble about being invisible and slightly ignored. I miss the hectic days of needy students and challenging children.
Then I look at a pot of flowers where the colors come together just right and my loaf of sourdough bread rises just like it should. I hug a grandchild and send a text to another one taking a big test. And I remember that farmer on his coffee break.