Owning and operating a farm was his life’s dream. For years, my father worked for others. Then he worked for a dairy cooperative, serving those who farmed. Finally in 1957 the dream was realized with the purchase of 200 acres and a string of buildings tied together as one. The house stood at one end, the barn at the other, with garage, chicken coop, pig sty and storage in between, and the hay stacked on top of the milking department. Morning and night, he walked the cows to the trough so they could have a drink, then filled cans with milk and carried them across the yard to a cooler where they waited for pickup. In between, he headed off to work. Every spring, sap was brought in from the woods and boiled on the kitchen stove for endless hours on end, until finally it was declared to have become maple syrup. Vacations were for haying, with the help of a neighbor who had the equipment we had yet to acquire. Happy was the day he set the job aside and claimed the luxury of farming full time. Gladder yet the milestone of bidding the mortgage farewell.
Twenty years later he passed it along. Ten acres gifted to each of us, the rest sold to his first born, the one taking the reins and tending the farm. In six quick years, in 1984, he was gone. His heart gave out and his departure was abrupt, yet he left with the satisfaction that his dream lived on.
The youngest divested first. His life led him to love and a different farm hundreds of miles away, so in the practicality we were raised with, he found a buyer and released his claim.
In the meantime, the eldest farmed on. He added to the barn that Dad built and expanded the herd. The house burned to the ground so he built another on the other side of the yard. He built a sugar house and stretched tubing from tree to tree, harvesting the gift that beckoned. When the operational obligations of running the farm refused to come within shouting distance of income for months on end, he sold the herd, hit the road and took to helping others. Because farming’s in his blood, it was only a matter of time before a new herd arrived and a down-scaled enterprise began. A divorce settlement carved off the prime parcel of orchard and meadow, and a new marriage – to a woman who already had a farm – expanded the complicating, promising possibilities. Eventually the sugar house needed too much work to be reasonable, and for a time he sold the sap to a neighboring farmer, and later sold the trees and the land from which they grew. In time, the wife’s farm was deemed to better meet their needs, and so the house, barn and land that remained were sold to a family in search of a home.
And so, at the end of the day, I hold the final piece. A rectangle of land my mother disparaged for the slope, scrub brush and swamp; a parcel I love for the clearing, cellar hole and spring. I’ve known for years we’ll never build on it, but still we’ve held on, paid our taxes and occasionally visited. Why? Because we could, and our taxes supported our nieces’ education. Because of our embrace of a sacred gift. Because it’s a piece of home. Part of my Dad. A reminder of where I come from. And yet, to everything there is a season, and now, it seems the time has come to let it go.
Today I wait, knowing the deal is done and the check is in the mail, while grief tinged with wisps of guilt hovers close. I hope my Dad would approve that we’re tending to business, while being stunned at the price today’s market assigned. I pray he knows the value of the gifts he gave, ones that have burrowed deeper than the land ever could. The priority of family. The importance of hard work. The value of a job well done. The character demonstrated in callous crusted hands with dirt under the fingernails. Our responsibility to respect, protect and delight in the land. The gift of laughter and the grace of greeting strangers as friends. A willingness to dance, and always, the absolutely essential work of pursuing our dreams.