I think about my parents a lot in August. It’s not that I don’t think about them other times of the year, but I am particularly contemplative in August. My father died August 12, 1998 at age 84 and my mother died August 8, 2011 at age 96. So, August just naturally lends itself to remembering and reflecting.
Everything I know about farming I learned from my parents. From my dad I learned about livestock, machinery and crops. From my mom I learned about chickens, gardening and food preparation. But I would be doing my parents a huge disservice if I limited my comments to those things that I could have just as easily learned from a textbook, or in these days, the internet.
It was my parents that taught me about honesty, integrity, and the value of hard work. And it was also from my parents that I learned about gratitude. How an ungrateful heart is an unhappy heart. That true compassion and willing sacrifice for others stems from gratitude for one’s own blessings.
You won’t find that on Wikipedia.
Our parents didn’t teach my siblings and me about gratitude by setting us down each evening and lecturing us about it. Although, truth be told, I do recall hearing, on more than one occasion, my mother quickly squelching our various complaints with “You know, it could be worse!” And then she proceeded to inform us how, exactly, our situation could indeed be worse.
Mostly, however, they used a more subtle approach – teaching through example. For instance, I learned to appreciate each and every meal set before me by observing my dad savor every mouthful of what he lovingly referred to as “mom’s good cooking”, no matter how hurried or simple the meal had been. It was only later in my life when I learned from my mother that there were many nights during my father’s childhood when he and his siblings went to bed hungry. Without even knowing it, he taught me to be grateful that not once during my childhood or since – not once – did I ever go to bed hungry.
From my mother, I learned to appreciate each and every family member, even when I become irritated and exasperated with them. (Which is roughly as often as they become irritated and exasperated with me. I have never claimed to be a saint.) My mother had a cool head and displayed emotional restraint in even the most trying of times, and it is probably for this reason that I remember so vividly her silent tears as she buried her mother and only sister. After that, since her father had died when she was twelve, her only remaining immediate family member was an older half-brother. So now, even if I have a disagreement with one of my sisters, I am filled with gratitude that I even have a sister with whom I can disagree.
Several days before my mother passed away, we spoke about her impending death. Mom had, with full cognitive function, refused additional medical treatment that could have increased the quantity, but not the quality, of the time she had left.
I asked her, “Are you scared?”
“Oh, no!” she replied happily. “I know God loves me or he wouldn’t have given me such a good life!”
At the time, I just smiled and nodded in complete agreement. It was only later that I thought more about her “good life.”
After her father died, her mother single-handedly used a horse-drawn plow in the fields by day, and a sewing machine by night to feed and clothe her children.
Then the Depression hit. And the Dust Bowl.
When she wed my father in 1934, they had only their meager wedding gifts with which to start a new life. Five years and four sons later, they still lived on a rented farm, saving every spare penny towards a down payment to someday purchase their own place.
“Someday” finally came fifteen years into their marriage, during which time they sent off relatives and friends to World War II and spent a year nursing a bedridden son stricken with polio.
By the time Mom died, she had buried her husband of 64 years, three sons and four grandchildren, some of them through tragic circumstances.
Any one of these heartbreaks could have turned the stoutest of souls bitter.
But it was not her heartbreaks upon which my mom dwelt in her last hours. She chose instead to be grateful for her life’s blessings. And there had been plenty of those as well.
Now, when I think of my parents, I realize that they are still teaching me life lessons, like gratitude. I wish I could tell them that.
But I’m betting they know.
(My parents play a huge role in all three of the books in my farm series.)
Next week: It May Not Be Capistrano, But…