Dad teaching me to drive a tractor at my grandparent's farm in South Jersey.
The house, in 1969.
Some of you know that we lost my dad last year. It takes a long time to wrap your head around loss, and to understand the influence of a person who you took for granted would always be there. I wrote Dad's eulogy for his funeral, expressing some of the many things that I understood I had learned from Dad, but as time goes on, and as spring gets closer, I find myself reflecting on the profound influence that Dad had on the farmer girl I am, and have always been.
My relationship with Dad was a complicated one: he and my mom divorced early after a tumultuous and short marriage. Mismatched from the start, they were meant to split. He later met and married the love of his life, a woman who shared his passions for growing things, recycling, thrift, and country life. They liked to quip that their "courtship" consisted of re-roofing one of the many chicken coops on Grandpop's chicken farm. Out on a drive in the country in 1969, they passed this crazy, falling down house, and June (my stepmother by then) demanded they stop. Dad pulled into what appeared to be a driveway, and pulled right back out. "No!" she said. "I meant STOP!" They got out of the car, the IBM engineer and the registered nurse. The next thing they knew, they were the owners of the Neal property, 75 acres of land and an unlivable house. They (we) spent our first year in what amounted to a hunting cabin that they found on the property, with no running water and a fireplace that never did work right, while we remodeled the house. It was a big change from their suburban house in Vestal.
I spent the summer of '69 clearing brush and hammering horsehair plaster off of the walls of the old house. I loved this work; although I complained constantly, I looked forward to weekends at Dad's for the adventure and for the open space. (Mom, my brother and I lived in an apartment above a garage. I longed for the freedom of country life before I could even put a name to it.)
My brother Errik, chipping plaster from the living room.
Dad, in 1949.
Dad grew up on a chicken farm in South Jersey, during the Depression (the real one) and World War II. There he learned to make do and mend, to do good work, the value of thrift, and, like all gardeners and farmers, how to keep an eye on what I call the "long game." Farmers know that what they do today will not bear fruit for weeks, months, years, or even decades. Dad learned to be a patient man.
As children, my brother and I spent many weekends, and 2 weeks every summer at my grandparents' farm. They were chicken farmers, raising eggs. Lots of eggs. At peak production, they had over 10,000 chickens, in what we now call "free-range" systems. Grandpop collected the eggs by hand twice a day, in wire baskets. I use those baskets now, to collect eggs on our farm. Grandpop had an enormous garden, and Granny canned and preserved. They kept a couple of hogs, which they butchered themselves. They hunted for extra meat. Dad learned all of these skills, and more: he could fix anything, was a skilled hunter, and gardened like crazy, even while he pursued his IBM career. He and June practically invented the organic gardening movement back in the 70's, and "wildcrafted" all the foods they could. (It wasn't a term yet.) We collected maple sap and boiled it to syrup. We tried cooking daylily buds (not a new family favorite). We gathered hickory and black walnuts. We made salad with dandelion greens. They bought and released ladybugs and trichogramma parasitic wasps, and pruned the ancient apple trees they found on the property. There were so many that they named their home "Applewood."
Me feeding Grandpop's hens.
Between the time spent in New Jersey on the chicken farm, and the weekends spent at Dad and June's the rest of the year, I became attached to the idea of farming. So many years of picking rock and clearing land had ingrained themselves thoroughly. I learned first hand the satisfaction of eating a homegrown meal. In addition, I learned that not following the crowd is acceptable. Dad and June were 60's non-conformists in their own way. While their contemporaries were digging in to the status quo, they were taking the path less chosen.
At first, I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian. (Vet school had a different opinion.) Everywhere I ever lived, I planted something. While Scott and I lived in apartments, we borrowed land from friends, or grew tomatoes in pots. I just could not help myself. We spent years dreaming and researching and learning and planning our farm, until we were finally able to buy land.
Dad was not that big a fan of us starting a farm. That's probably not surprising considering his childhood. No one knows more about how hard it is to make a living farming than the son of a farmer in the 1930's. In fact, he thought we were crackpots. We had some crazy new ideas that did not really fit in with his idea of farming. (This is especially ironic, when you consider that they spent most of their adult lives doing various crackpot things. I have mentioned in another blog post about making tofu. From soybeans. That they grew themselves. Oh, and did I mention that they made home made soap? From venison fat? That they rendered from the deer that Dad hunted?)
But we soldiered on. During the last year of Dad's life, he began to soften a bit. First, he told me how proud Grandpop would have been of my gardening skills. Then, one day, on the way to his physical therapy appointment, he told me that he had been wrong about us farming. It was a big moment, to finally be acknowledged as a success by Dad.
One of the hardest parts of losing Dad has been having to remind myself that he isn't there. I catch myself wondering about something (When do we stop cutting asparagus? How late can we plant carrots?) that I used to just be able to call him up and ask about. I learned so much from him, but now all the cumulative knowledge of his lifetime is just gone. I am grateful for the time that we did have, and I am especially grateful that his grandsons got to know him. Through Dad's example, we learned integrity, a work ethic, patience, a love of learning, and that difficult to quantify characteristic: grit. As we who are left behind live our daily lives, we keep alive his memory through the way we live each and every day. I hope he would be proud to know how far his sphere of influence reached.