MIDWEST FARMER’S DAUGHTERS

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MIDWEST FARMER’S DAUGHTERS

I’m all about celebrating birthdays.  Gail’s was last month, and we honored her in several posts.  Suzanne’s is in August, and she will be feted as well.  And, just so you don’t forget, mine is coming up next month.

We recognized Mom’s birthday in January, and now it is time to celebrate Dad.  He would have been 85 next weekend, and I like to think we would have had a big party for such a big birthday for such a big-hearted man.

We had a giant party for his 70th birthday.  We had one planned for Mom on her 70th,  but the weather didn’t allow it.  We never did make up for it, and I wish we had.  Yet another reason to keep celebrating them every day of our lives.

So, in his honor, we are celebrating his farmer heritage, which also gave us our farm-girl heritage.  We wouldn’t trade it for all the riches we never had, and likely never will.

If you knew our dad, you knew this about him:  he loved to talk—to anyone, he spoke his mind—even when it didn’t make him popular, he called a spade a spade and he was a man of his word.

He worked the land, and he worked it hard.  He knew the value of hard work, and, along with Mom, he taught this value to his seven children.  And we are forever grateful for that lesson.

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Dad’s favorite tractor was his  Farmall “H”

Life on a farm in a family of nine people brings many tasks; work that simply must be done.  Ground to work, crops to plan, plant and harvest, livestock to breed, feed, care for, take to market and perhaps butcher, machinery to maintain and a multitude of other obligations to the land that must be met in order to have our needs met.

And they were always met.  Perhaps not our wants, but always our needs.  Nine mouths to feed was not an easy task.  Having beef and pork in the freezer—and chickens to butcher in the earlier days, I recall (more on this torture later)—was the most fundamental building block of our meal planning and preparation.  Despite the toughest of times in the farm economy in the 1980’s,   I don’t ever recall a time when there wasn’t enough food to go around.  I remember an abundance, to be exact. We always had a garden planted in the spring (Mom didn’t enjoy gardening much, but she knew it was part and parcel of the package), we had fruit trees—apple, pear and cherry (more on cherry picking later), and in our small-town grocery store, we had a running credit account.  I remember the folded, lined card that was produced from the box under the counter that constituted our “bill.”  It was ongoing, and it was a wonderful service the grocer provided for many families in our community.  We simply initialed it when we made a purchase large or small, and somehow, Mom and Dad always had the money to pay it off.

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As an only child, Dad inherited the family farm without question.  He was the third generation to farm our family land, and now two of our brothers farm the land he left.  Two of our nephews show promise to be fifth-generation farmers, and for this, we are so grateful.

The land is more than just property, and farming is more than just a job.  The land is part of our heritage, and farming, if it is what you love doing, is in your blood.  It is a lifestyle, not just a job.

Perhaps it would have been different if any of us three farm girls had fallen in love with a farmer, but none of us did, and neither did any of us marry farmers.

We would have made good farm wives, though.  Gail, being the eternal Swiss Army Knife in whatever job she finds herself in, was the Jill-of-all-trades, (and master of all) both indoors and outdoors.  She could drive a tractor, truck or combine—and often did.  She also could cook and bake, clean and do laundry, change diapers and take care of whatever younger siblings needed care, which was five of us.

Me, I was mostly inside.  I never learned to drive any farm machinery, but I could—and still can—bake and cook.  I remember folding clothes, a task I rather enjoy now.   I still enjoy baking, and I will cook when I have to.  I was also in charge of taking out the trash, which was mostly burned in barrels just across the fence near the chicken house.  Speaking of the chickens, they were my responsibility, and I loathed them.  My husband occasionally jokes about getting me more chickens, and I tell him “I hope YOU enjoy taking care of them.”

Gail reminded me that the chickens were initially her idea.  When she was in the eighth grade, apparently she felt she needed more responsibility, so she set up the chicken operation.  She quickly became disillusioned with the idea, and since she had plenty of other tasks to complete, the responsibility fell on  me.  Thanks, Gail.

To further illustrate my distaste for chickens, I must share this story:

Our grandpa—Dad’s dad—lived in town five miles away and would often come to the farm to see how his progeny was continuing his legacy.  (I think he was pleased.)  He accompanied me into the chicken house once to feed them and gather the eggs.  My routine was swift and mindless, as I had performed it hundreds of times.  So mindless, in fact, that I forgot he was in there with me.  I got in and out quick, locking the door from the outside when I left.

Several hours later, one of our brothers heard a faint “Hey! Help!” coming from the direction of the chicken house.  They let him out with no apparent harm done.

I was only an observer of the chicken’s demise when it was time to butcher.  I know firsthand where the phrase “like a chicken with it’s head cut off” comes from.  I wish I could un-see that, but it’s burned on my brain.

Suzanne’s responsibilities included a lot of mowing.  She also kept the cats and dog fed and watered—we always had one dog, and several cats, and some indoor duties as well.

Come June, we were all involved in cherry-picking. (Ugh.)  I remember groaning at Mom as she woke us up early to beat the heat when it was time to pick the cherries.  We picked most of the morning, and pitted most of the afternoon.  I grew to despise that job, too.  Now, however, I am thrilled to finally have a producing cherry tree in our backyard thanks to my husband’s efforts.

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Last year’s harvest

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I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to have grown up on a farm:  for the lessons the farm taught me, for learning about nature from the seasons, the weather and the animals, for the chance to get dirty and dusty—and especially muddy, for learning how to climb trees and how jump safely into a hayloft or out of a swing.

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We delighted in the muddy squalor the heavy summer rains sometimes left us, just like our boys did when they were kids.

 

More than that, I am thankful for the women we became from our early years on the farm.  Each of us spent our first 18 years on the farm before leaving for college.  We learned how to work hard to make our way in the world, because, for us, there was no other way.   Looking back now, we would have it no other way.  We learned early and often that in farming, and in life, there are no guarantees.

 

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Spending a day in the harvest field every summer is still a priority for me.

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My husband and I had the opportunity last week to take in an amazing concert in the beautiful Stiefel Theater in the downtown of our small city.

Playing together for 53 years, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band put on a show we will never forget.  Much of their music has a sense of fun and lightness, such as one of their most notable songs—”Fishin’ in the Dark.

They were talkers as well as singers, often explaining the meanings and origins of many songs.  Another one of my favorites hit home for me after they explained the origin.

Nowhere To Go” is a heavier song, a 1988 hit that tells the story of a farmer who lost his farm due to the ailing farm economy.  The 1980’s was a devastating decade for many Midwest farmers, due to extremely  high interest rates, record debt for land and equipment, record crop production which subsequently lowered the grain prices and the grain embargo against the Soviet Union.

“I’m a workin’ man with nowhere to go…”

I was in high school in the early 80’s, and I remember clearly the specter of the auction block lingering around us and many other farmers in our area.  I recall that several of the farmers lost their farms, and I remember the very real concern that it could happen to almost every farmer.

My heart broke for those who lost their farms, and mercifully, we were able to hold on to ours.  I will be forever grateful to my dad and my brothers for their hard work that helped us survive these toughest of times.

The lead singer of the band went on to talk about his friend Willie Nelson, who, along with John Mellencamp and several other musicians, started Farm Aid.  Their goal was to provide their musical gifts in concert to raise money to keep American farmers on the land.

Nelson and Mellencamp then brought family farmers before Congress to testify about the state of family farming in America.  As a result, Congress passed the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 to help save family farms from foreclosure.

Farm Aid continues as an annual event; this year’s concert will mark 34 years in operation.

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In the process of sorting and rearranging during the remodel, I rediscovered this book that I stacked under some other books, never reading it.  I am reading it now.

My husband and I are Willie Nelson fans, having seen him in concert three times.  Dad’s birthday is next Saturday, the same day Willie plays live just across the Kansas border in northern Oklahoma.

Happy Birthday Dad.  I think it’s time to celebrate.

 

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My son in the harvest field with Dad

 

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Gail’s son enjoying a tractor ride with Dad

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Dad taking a meal break in the field

AFTER HARVEST

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AFTER HARVEST

Night and Day.  Black and White.  All or nothing.  Abundance and Lack.

Sometimes it is one extreme, often it is somewhere in between.  As an adolescent in the late 70’s/early 80’s, I was sensitive—overly sensitive, as I see now—to the whole abundance and lack thing.  In my young mind, it was simply one or the other.  Plenty or scarcity.  Usually never just enough-which is what we always had.

Looking back now, I see that it was always enough, and, seeing it with my adult eyes, I view it now as plenty.  But I didn’t see it then.

Like so many things in life, it is rarely black or white.  It is usually an undetermined shade of gray.

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I went to the farm last weekend to partake of the annual wheat harvest on my family farm.  My two farming brothers had just got harvest into full swing, and I was able make the trip on the day they began.   Gail and Suzanne were not able to join me, so I went solo.  I would have preferred to have their company, but this did not deter me from making the trip.  I have only missed one in my entire life, and I was living far away from The Wheat State that year.  Mom sent me a card with several heads of wheat in it, in her usual thoughtful style.  I wrote more about that last year in Swheat Girls (July 2nd), and I could go on about that and so much more surrounding harvest, but that much was already written, so I will bring you the new.

I arrived in the field in the mid –afternoon hours and found both brothers across the road from each other in their respective fields; in their respective behemoth harvesting machines—both of them red, of course.

I found Ryan making his rounds (squares?) on this side of the road, so I jumped in the combine for the required ride.

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It was dusty, dirty and windy, and just as last year, I loved it.  I got dirty, although not as dirty as I’d hoped, because it was overcast, and not sunny, not hot and still as it was last year.  I didn’t get as sweaty as I wanted to either, but I tried.  That is part of the experience, you know.  The sweat, the dirt, the wheat dust.  Bring it on—at least on to me. It’s not quite as fulfilling without it, but I took what I could get, just as every farmer does out of his wheatfield.

Suzanne and I getting dirty and dusty in last year’s wheat field.

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Last year’s wheat dust hung lazily in the air with no wind to scatter it.

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A ride to the elevator is in order; as it’s not a complete harvest trip without it.  My younger brother had a load ready, and we labored down the dusty dirt roads with the full semi-trailer behind.

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Waiting for our turn at the elevator.  The moisture sensor takes a sample on the truck in front of us, measuring the moisture content on each load.  This matters in the end, as too much moisture gets a big red mark on your wheat’s report card, followed by a dock in your payment.

The trip back to the field was faster, lighter and a bit more urgent, as the wheat was waiting.  Waiting to be cut, augered into the grain cart and then into the semi again for a repeat trip to the elevator.

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I got it all in within a matter of a few hours.  I was fulfilled.  The trip was quick, but I got the job done.  The next day, it rained.  My timing was perfect.  The rain was welcome, with more to come later that week.  Even though it interrupted harvest, it was welcomed because of the dry conditions.

So it is not yet after harvest on the farm; it is still during harvest, even with the interruption.

After harvest, in the sense I am writing about, comes not after the last load of wheat is cut and hauled.  It comes after the final reckoning, after the farmer’s balance sheet is tallied to see where on the abundance/lack spectrum the numbers fell.  The numbers are black and white, and the results can differ from the expectations by as much as night to day; all or nothing.

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In the time period from the late 1970’s to the mid 1980’s, the American farm economy was in crisis.  The interest rates were at record highs, while the prices for grain were at record lows due to record production.

I remember Dad saying “The farmer is the only businessman who doesn’t get to set his own prices for his products.”  And, like most everything else Dad spoke, was so true.

The 1980 grain embargo against the Soviet Union brought exports to a record low, while farm debt for land and equipment rose to a record high.  Many farmers were unable to make their payments, so their farms were foreclosed upon, including several in our small farming community.  The auction block was the formidable potential enemy for so many Midwestern farmers during this time.

I know most farmers were worried about their own finances during this time, including our Dad.  I could hear it in the things he said, and as a sensitive kid, I could feel it, too.  He was worried, and so was I.

In the end, our farm survived.  It still does.

And so does my tendency to feel a sense of lack.  Those impressions made in childhood die hard.   In the face of my own relative prosperity now, my relative abundance compared to that of my childhood, the darkness of lack still lingers sometimes, still haunts me with thoughts of what if it’s not enough?

I know now I have power over that darkness, like so many others I have conquered.  Realizing our own strength is always the first step.

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If I wanted an extra material something as a child, something that was not a necessity or a need such as an extra pair of shoes, or perhaps a Barbie doll, I would bring that request to my parents.    If it was close to harvest, my answer from them would always be “We’ll see after harvest.”  After harvest –in my young mind–became code for it will either be abundance or lack, so we will see which one it is.  Black or white.  All or nothing.  Night or day.

Gail and Suzanne recall the same answer.  We all heard the same answer:  “After harvest.”

At least, that’s what the girls in our family heard.

The girls were inside during harvest, primarily preparing the many elaborate meals for the harvesters.  Dad and our brothers were the farmers, and they worked morning to dark—and as late into the night as the wheat straw allowed.  It becomes tough as night falls, and harvesting is no longer possible.

Suzanne and I reminisced yesterday about all three of us helping Mom prepare a full-on feast to be taken to the field.  A feast no different than the ones she normally cooked and served in the kitchen around our large table of nine.  A hot meat-and-potatoes meal complete with bread—sometimes homemade—and vegetables, and likely a dessert.  We prepared it as usual, then loaded it up and took it to the field.  The tailgate of the pickup was the dining table, and we raced to get to one of the two wheel hubs in the box to sit on, as these were prime seats.   We savored it with them as they took a short break, then came home to clean up the pots, pans and plates, and get ready to do it all over again.

In the spirit of Waste Not, Want Not (January 14th), Gail recalled that we saved our sugar sacks, as they were heavier, and somewhat insulated.  Dad would pack his only thermos full of coffee when he took off for the field, and we would pack a refill of coffee in a recycled mayonnaise jar, tucked inside of the sugar sack to keep it warm.   In another sugar sack, we packed another recycled mayonnaise jar of cold water to refill his water jug.  Small coolers were essentially non-existent, as were insulated bottles that are everywhere now.

Gail reports she still saves her sugar sacks.  Mine go in the recycling crate.  If you recall from The Baker, The Long-John Maker–and Suzanne (December 3rd), Suzanne doesn’t bake, so I don’t think she even purchases sugar by the bag.

These honorable duties were our jobs as girls; the boys helped Dad.

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One of our brothers made a surprise visit to our small city for dinner last night.  He and his wife decided to make the 80 mile trip from Wichita to have dinner with Suzanne and me.  We welcomed the gathering, as usual.  Good thing he treated us, because after dinner, while chatting at Suzanne’s place, the truth came out:

We asked him about his memories of the “after harvest” determination, and apparently, there was a double standard.  His memory was that during harvest, not after, Dad would discuss the “harvest wages” with the boys.   This apparently meant there would most certainly be some small, extra token of appreciation for their efforts.  David’s only recollection of what any of those annual tokens were was a new fishing pole.

If you know our family, you can imagine the good-natured banter that took place at that point.  A strong sense of humor prevailed between us three siblings, as it typically does between all of us.  We know, just as we always did, that fairness and equity among their seven children was the rule.

 

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David lived in our small city for a time, and the iconic pizza restaurant was a hit for us all .

We can choose to live with a mindset of abundance, or we can choose to believe in scarcity and lack.  We get to decide.  It doesn’t matter what your house or your car or your bank account look like, the truth resides in your mind.  It is a choice.

And, having chosen to believe in both extremes at various points in my life, I can tell you that choosing a mindset of abundance is always the best choice.

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May all your harvests be abundant, and never stop separating the wheat from the chaff.  

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My hometown lost another legend last week.  The mother of a dear friend passed away after a long and blessed life of 84 years.  She mothered six children, one of whom passed before her.

She was a wife and mother, an artist, a master gardener, a knowledgeable and compassionate nurse who was called upon to be the small-town doctor at times.  She leaves a legend behind of all these things, which I will always remember her for.

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Tracy and her dear Mother Mary.

I remember her for other things, too.  She always laughed and smiled, no matter what her circumstances.  She laughed through sadness and illness, which were no strangers to her.  I lived with Tracy—one of her four daughters—in college, and she came to our college town for extended cancer treatment.  She stayed with us during this time, witnessing me coming in too late, even for a college girl.  She laughed at this the next morning, in her usual style.  I got to know her on a new and deeper level, now more as an adult than a child, which had been my relationship with her before college.

May her smile and laughter live in our memories forever.

 

 

 

 

ODE TO THE RED BARN

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ODE TO THE RED BARN

It once was the symbol of the Great American Farm.

It once held a  hay loft, as well as memories of our years as farm kids.

It once stood as a beacon on our family farm, just like so many other farms.

The red barn on our family farm lived a long and full life, and in the name of moving forward, it came down.

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Gail, Suzanne and I spent Easter Saturday on our family farm with three of our four brothers, and all our respective families.   Our oldest brother lives in another state, and wasn’t able to join us.   It was a day of visiting, eating, and reminiscing.  Like every time we get together, it was a memorable day.

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We grew up on this now-fourth generation family farm, and while the original house we all grew up in and the barn have since come down, the memories remain.  Our brother John and his family are caretakers of our family’s heritage, parceled into a farm on the Great Plains.  For their stewardship to the land and our legacy, I will be forever thankful to them.  I treasure the opportunity to have grown up as a farm girl, even though I chose not to stay there.

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The iconic red barns appear to be a thing of the recent past, and metal buildings are appearing on many Great American Farms as their replacement.

Wooden barns, John tells me, are no longer the most efficient and effective structure to have on one’s farm.  He, along with my husband, who has erected many of the metal ones–including helping with the one that now stands in place of the barn, tells me the metal ones are the wave of the present and future farm.  Perhaps a few fully-functioning barns remain, but they are likely on smaller, hobby farms.  They are costly to repair and/or maintain; the metal buildings are less so.  Some classic red wooden barns have been repaired, refurbished or renewed, but most working barns have been replaced by metal buildings.

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I have many fond memories of time spent in that barn in my childhood.  John, who has always been industrious, had a wood shop just inside the front doors.  He built many wooden projects there, and I recall lingering behind or beside him as he toiled with his craft.  I was fascinated, made a few feeble attempts, but never engaged as a carpenter myself.

Perhaps that is one reason why I was drawn to my husband, the builder extraordinaire.  But that’s another story for another day.

As long as I could remember, we always raised cattle on the farm.  John, somewhere in his teenage years, decided to start a small swine operation in the barn as well.  Suzanne and I were reminiscing about the lessons taught by Mother Nature when, no matter the hour, we would hurry up to the barn to see the baby pigs being born.  Once in a while, we even saw a baby calf come into the world.

John continues to raise cattle on the farm.  They once came in and out of the barn, but their new home is this metal building.  He no longer raises hogs.

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The barn had an upstairs hay loft, where many of our memories were created.  I didn’t realize the new cattle “barn” had a hay loft as well.  The small, rectangular hay bales are not as common as they once were; but John stores some in the loft now, just as we did in the barn.  The much-larger, round bales are the most common type now.

For those of you with no farm history, the hay bales are tightly bound wrapped bales of the wheat straw that remains after harvest.  The grain is harvested and sold, and the straw is baled for livestock feed and bedding.  These bales were stacked in our barn, both upstairs and downstairs.  There was a large, sliding door on the ground floor of the barn, the one traditionally painted with red and white stripes as shown in the pictures.  The smaller door upstairs slid open sideways, and a long bale elevator was used as a conveyor to move the bales from the ground to the upstairs through this door.

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Our younger brother Ryan with Kate, Gail’s first-born enjoying the view from the upstairs door.  The striped door below was the front door to the ground floor.  Circa about 1987.

We built many forts out of these bales, and it seemed our brothers always possessed superior architectural and building skills that made their forts “cooler” than any we could construct.

There was a square, hinged “trap door” in the back of the barn from the upstairs to the downstairs.  We spent many hours jumping from the upstairs to land in the loose hay downstairs, not caring one bit about the hay that ended up in every crevice of our clothes and bodies.  It was good clean—but dirty—fun.  Suzanne and I commented that now, we would likely land with a few twists and sprains.  Gail, however, probably would free-fall in such a way to avoid that.  She always seems to land on her feet, literally and figuratively.  As a little sister, I am still watching her, still looking up to her to learn how to do so many things.  Recall from her birthday post that she has zip-lined…as Suzanne has as well, but not me–yet.  And did I mention, she also bungee-jumped just a few years ago?  She holds that singular honor among us three.

The steps to the upstairs of the barn began to show their age in their last years.  I recall holes in the steps—some large, some small—that needed to be avoided in order to make a safe ascent.  Several steps probably weren’t safe to step on, but I don’t recall any fall-through injuries.

Those steps were well worn not just from our family, but from an old tradition of “Barn Dances.”  Our parents spoke of earlier years when our grandfather would host other couples for a dance in the upstairs of our barn.  The music was provided by local musicians, and I am quite sure fun was had by all.

The upstairs in the barn was also an indoor playground for us.  There was a basketball goal and modified half-court.  Gail recalls the days when our oldest brother hosted frequent Sunday afternoon basketball games with his friends.  The group was large, as our barn was apparently the hot spot on Sundays.   She recalled, and I do too, that caution had to be taken to not get too close to the edges of the floor near the walls, as they weren’t always reliable.

Ryan turned what would have been the back half of the court into his work site with his Tonka tractors, graders, and other equipment as well, farming the loose hay.   There were some cabinets and other older, perhaps antique furnishings and small equipment stored in the back as well.

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Gail, Suzanne and I visited the new “barn” last weekend.  Instead of cattle and hay, it now houses the machinery that plants and harvests the crops, as well as the other necessary implements and machines that keep the farm running.

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Gail was the only one of us three girls who learned how to operate the farm machinery.  Recall that she has always been a Swiss Army Knife.

I recall the good-natured argument between farm kids regarding the best color of farm machinery:  red or green?  My family has always been red, and probably always will be.  Those color allegiances tend to be passed down to the next generation, although I did spot a few small pieces that looked green to me…

When I meet retired farmers who are now my patients, I always ask:  red or green?  Typically, it sparks a good-natured discussion, and sometimes well-intentioned banter and boasting.

The barn, with its resident hogs, was a smelly place.  To add to that, Suzanne recalled the family of skunks that took up residence there as well.  I don’t remember as clearly as she does, but when she was perhaps ten, there was a mother and about four babies that kept her away from there for months.  I probably didn’t go near it for a while, either.

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The barn came down in 2008.  The house came down last fall.  Some things, while they served a purpose and were well-loved at one time, are not meant to last forever.  That’s how things in life are.

Sticks and stones.

Moving past the sentimentality and emotional attachment can be hard, but sometimes a small gesture and/or token can ease the pain enough to move forward with the good memories, and leave the pain of loss behind.

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John’s wife, Lara, rescued several small pieces of the barn wood after it was torn down, as it was headed out to be burned.  She took a picture, put it on a barn-shaped piece of this wood, and created a Christmas ornament for each of us–and other relatives as well.  It is a treasure, one I display year-round.  This small token, this actual piece of our farm’s history is all I need to keep the good memories alive and leave the loss behind.

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Thank you, Lara.

Thank you, John.  You and your family are keeping Our Great American Farm alive and well.

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Dad, posing for his high school graduation.  The barn lives on in so many pictures, and in so many memories.

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Dad’s legacy–and progeny, too, lives on–in the same place he was raised.

Long live the farm, and the farm girls of The Sister Lode.

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When I chose the format and  title picture for the front page of my blog last summer, I was drawn to the barn picture featured on the opening page of THE SISTER LODE.  Hmmm…