August Reflections

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…

The Prairie’s Tree of Life

Most people are well aware that Kansas is nicknamed “The Sunflower State”.  With good reason.  Various varieties of sunflower are found in virtually all parts of the state, growing wild in pastures, and along roadsides and creeks.  Cheery, bright yellow heads follow the movement of the sun for weeks in late summer and early fall, and herald the arrival of a new season filled with cooler, milder temperatures.  

Most non-Kansans would not be aware, however, of the fact that the Cottonwood is the state tree of Kansas.  In this photo, the sunflower may take center-stage, but it is the cottonwood in the background that shades the emerging flower in the heat of a summer afternoon.

It was for this very reason that the Kansas Legislature, in 1937, proclaimed it as the state tree by saying: “The cottonwood tree can rightfully be called ‘the pioneer tree of Kansas.’”

Imagine you are a pioneer, crossing the rolling prairie grasslands of western Kansas to claim a homestead.  How do you choose the location of your new home?  What do you look for?  You look for a mighty cottonwood, rising majestically anywhere from 70 to 100 feet above the prairie landscape, easily visible from miles away.  Not only does the cottonwood supply shade and windbreak in the often-brutal heat of summer, but it signals something even more precious – water.  The cottonwood tree requires adequate moisture in order to grow naturally.  A healthy cottonwood tree has discovered and tapped into a water source that can also be used to supply the needs of a budding farmstead.

The cottonwood tree was a symbol of new life for the pioneer.

The cottonwood tree can grow as much as eight feet per year and reaches full maturity in about forty years.  But it can live as much as 100 years or more after its initial growth spurt.

That’s why I love this giant cottonwood that lives near the creek on our farm. 

It is a fully mature tree, and hasn’t changed in size for the almost-quarter century that we have owned the land.  It’s hard to know exactly when it was a seedling, when it first took root, but my guess is that it was already a large tree when my father was a young boy swimming in the creek with his brothers.  In fact, it could very possibly have already taken root when my great-grandfather first purchased the land in 1900.  There are several young, developing cottonwood trees growing along our creek now, but this tree is the only still-living fully mature cottonwood tree on our farm, and I consider it our family tree.

That is why I felt a tinge of sadness when I discovered the fallen branch one morning during a walk with my dogs.

Danny and I both knew the branch had been dead for some time.  It had not shown any sign of life for several years.  But it was a long, heavy branch and connected to the trunk high up on the tree.  We thought it might be dangerous to remove the branch, so we agreed to let nature take its course.  It would fall when it was ready to go.

But the tree itself still survives.  And good will come out of the fallen branch.  The jagged remains left on the trunk will make an excellent nesting area for the native birds.

And the branch itself will benefit us.  Danny cut it into firewood that will supply much-appreciated warmth when the harsh north winds howl this coming winter.

Turns out that our “pioneer tree”, our “family tree”, is also our “giving tree.”

(Cottonwood tree leaves turn a shimmery, golden yellow in late fall. Check out the October chapter in my second book, Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next week: August Reflections