Saturday, February 23, 2013


I recently read a humor piece in our local paper in which the writer reminisced about working with her dad.  I could relate of course, because I grew up on a farm where working with Dad (and Mother) started as soon as we were old enough to be of any use at all.  It's sad that the family business/family farm has fallen victim to "progress."  I'm no Luddite who wants to go back to "the good old days," but there are things I miss.

It was a given on the farm that we would begin working as soon as we were able.  The first jobs I can remember were feeding chickens and milking cows.  Not long after, I was steering a tractor as it pulled a baler across the hay field.  Each time we reached the end of the field, Dad would have to jump off the baler, where he was tying the bales, and climb onto the tractor to turn it around because I wasn't strong enough to do it.  I was also too small to reach the pedals used to stop the tractor, but still I was working and contributing to the family enterprise.

A few years later, when I was about 12 years old, Mother took a job to supplement the family income.  Because my brother was two years older than me and big enough to do most of the farm work, he became Dad's helper and I was designated to help Mother.  This mostly consisted of having lunch ready when Dad and John came in from whatever work they were doing.  Oddly enough, I didn't resent this and in fact still enjoy cooking today.  Eventually of course, I was able to work alongside them doing all the different types of work required on a livestock farm.

Of course there was plenty of time to play too.  The big difference was that there wasn't a gang of neighborhood kids to play with, most of the time I played alone or with my brother, your great uncle John.  Imagination was the best toy we had; we were soldiers, cowboys, pilots, sailors, or anything else we chose to be.  Perhaps the best part was having a three hundred acre backyard to play in. Pastures and creeks, barns and trees were our parks and play sets.  Old farm equipment made as good a jungle gym as ever was, with the added benefit that we had to learn to be careful because no safety engineer had made sure there were no sharp edges or hard landings.  We had a few scars by the time we grew up, but I think we were better prepared for the grownup world than we would have been had we been padded and protected from every hazard.

The creek that flowed through the farm was always a focus for exploration, play , and wonder.  We lived on three different farms while I was between eight and eighteen years old and each one of them had a stream running through it that could go from completely dried up in late summer to a raging torrent in early spring.  Even when I was high school age, I still spent many long summer afternoons poking around along the creek, occasionally still playing some of those imagination games that I "should" have outgrown by then.  

Perhaps the greatest blessing of that way of life  was one I have only come to recognize since raising a family of my own.  Mother and Dad were always there.  Even during the few years when Mother worked "in town" it was part time and mostly while we were at school.  Usually we had two parents 24/7 .  A short walk out to where Dad was working and I would ride on the tractor with him while he worked the field.  There wasn't much conversation because of the noise of the equipment, I was just being with him, sharing our world with him.

Extended family was also part of that closeness. Going to visit or being visited by grand parents or Dad's brothers' families was about our only "social" activity.  At least that's the way I remember it being through my grade school years.  Getting together with cousins was always fun, and aunts and uncles treated one anothers kids as if they were their own.  We were family in the best sense.  I still feel some of that whenever I think about my cousins, even though I haven't seen them for years and only rarely communicate even by email.  A big "social" event of the year was the annual Swartout family reunion.  It was the one time when all the cousins would get together at once.  The reunion was held at a park with a well equipped playground  which was another rare treat for us country kids; swings and slides and teeter-totters were town stuff.  The highlight of the reunion was always the meal.  Every family brought something to the feast and, always, the women who prepared the food wanted to show off their best dishes.  Not only was the food as good as they could make it, but for once we kids were allowed total control of what we put on our plates.  No one insisted that we eat our vegetables that day and taking some of every kind of dessert was practically encouraged.

Dad, his brothers and sister; Mother and all the other spouses, are all gone now.  The cousins are scattered, and a few of them gone too, but those days and the feeling of belonging are still a part of me and, I'm sure, a part of all of us who were there.  I hope that whatever has taken the place of family reunions and Sunday visits will mean as much to you some day.