My latest post for this blog was supposed to drop last Friday, but in the whir and blur of a few busy weeks, I’d lost track of my place in the schedule, and so had to beg a favor from Isobel to swap spots with me (thank you, Isobel, I owe you one). The reason I couldn’t post was because, when I’d normally be publishing, I was down in Texas and completely filthy. As I recall, I was sweating up a storm, with gloves on my hands, scratches on my arms, a big bruise of unknown origin on my leg and a new fire ant bite. I had a pitchfork in hand and was tending a big fire, burning up piles of dried yaupon and cedar. Heaven for a pyro like me, but its purpose was to clean up some of the many such piles of scrub we’d cleaned out from around what we call the “lower pond,” one of our favorite fishing spots from as long ago as I can remember. My eyes were squinted and watering from the wood smoke, which made it harder to watch for snakes, and every time I’d launch another 10-foot-long dried sapling into the burning pile, I’d singe another few hairs off my forearms. It was just another day on the Kunze farm.
I am a farm girl by both ancestry and occasional practice. Our family’s farm is a loamy 600-ish acres in Warda, Texas. I’d bet money you’ve never heard of Warda but, if you ever travel Highway 77 between Giddings and La Grange, you’ll roll right by a big old chunk of my family history and a place that holds claim to a bunch of the most indelible memories of my childhood. This is my Mom’s side of the family, the Kunzes, and the family has farmed this piece of land for 139 years, according to the Family Land Heritage certificate that hangs in the “new” farmhouse my great-grandparents John and Hermina built in 1950. The day-to-day workers now are my two great-uncles, George and Otto, my grandfather’s older brothers. George will be 88 years old this year. I believe Otto will be 84. You just try to tell me an honest day’s work doesn’t keep you going.
My husband and I returned home yesterday; tired, overfed, still a little dirty under the fingernails, and I started my usual process of re-acclimating to city life. Sitting out on the deck with my book, I started thinking about all the lessons I’ve learned in all our trips to the farm since I was a little girl, and how it and the people there probably had quite a hand, directly or indirectly, in shaping the person I am today.
For example, I learned a little about love from my great Uncle Hemie, now 88 years old and in failing health. We visited once when I was a little girl, and I’d gotten a straw hat with bright pink piping around the brim and hatband. It probably cost a few dollars at a convenience store somewhere, but I loved it. Wearing that hat, I’d stood on my tiptoes to look down into one of the big underground silos near the cow paddocks. They used to store silage, but by that time just collected rainwater. They were deep, especially to a little girl. You could look down, down, down into them and that black water was miles away. Well, my straw hat came off and landed down in the water, floating irretrievably out of reach. I ran back to the farmhouse sobbing at the loss, and my Mom and great aunts tried to console me, telling me we’d get me a new hat next time we went to town. My Uncle Hemie left quietly, and came back some time later with my hat. He’d gotten his fishing pole and stood at the lip of that silo for however long it took to snag it, just to save a little girl some tears. I now look for simple small ways to show care for people and their feelings, because I know they often mean more than the grandest gestures. And Uncle Hemie is still one of my heroes.
I learned a valuable lesson about context during one trip, when one of my Mom’s cousins had been sharpening a knife, preparing to clean some fish. He finished and showed me the blade, saying “you want to feel how sharp it is?” I was pretty young, didn’t know, and he didn’t think to tell me, that I should’ve run my finger across the blade perpendicularly, not along it. Got a nice clean cut that bled a lot, but you can bet I now know how to gauge the sharpness of a knife. In a larger sense, I’ve gotten much better at asking good questions to gain appropriate context.
The farm has taught me many lessons about caution, too many to recount here. Now that I think of it, a good number of these lessons came attached to the goal of not getting bit by snakes. There was one time I was collecting eggs from the chicken coop with Irene, one of the caretakers who lived in the old farmhouse–where my grandfather was born–with her husband, Gussie. I had my basket and was reaching into the nesting boxes with abandon, happily pulling out egg after egg, some of them still warm. Irene stopped me with a hand on my arm, saying, “Be careful, honey, you don’t want to pull out a snake.” I learned to look in the boxes first.
I probably owe a lot of my pragmatism about the cycle of life to times on the farm. I’ve seen more fish pulled live from buckets and cleaned on the old sunbleached wooden cleaning table in the farmhouse yard than I can count. I’ve seen a hog get put into a truck and returned in pieces a day later, stacked up on tables in the garage and processed into some of the best farm sausage you can imagine. I remember there was once a cow who I think had had trouble giving birth and couldn’t keep her feet. The men worked to get her up “just one more time” and we all went off for lunch. Afterwards, I decided to go check on her. She was down again. I ran back to the farmhouse, breathlessly reporting to Uncle George that, “the cow’s down again.” He looked at me, nodded his head a bit, and went off to get his shotgun. We weren’t allowed to watch him shoot her, but we saw the buzzards working on her body down across the highway in what we call “the bottom” after a while.
I’ve certainly also learned a ton about respecting my elders, having a good work ethic, being tough and stubborn in the face of difficulty and/or physical injury, but the lessons I’ve learned haven’t all been so serious. I fully recognize the value of a good siesta after lunch, when your belly’s full and the Texas sun’s way too hot to get any work done. I know riding in the back of a pickup truck over bumpy two-track roads with nothing to hold you in but your own balance skills is a risk you should take at every opportunity. I’ve seen the entire quality spectrum of farm dogs, from dumb as a rock to Zen master to smarter than most people. I learned that if you ask nicely and are cute, your great Aunt Doris will make you a hamburger for breakfast, even against the protestations of your mother. I’ve learned you should take full advantage of antiquated gender roles when the original plumbing breaks and the basement’s filling with what was formerly in the toilet. I know the importance of ice cold Dr. Pepper and cheap beer. I’ve learned if you’re in a fishing spot, and a fish has been playing with your line for longer than you’d like, you shouldn’t get frustrated and move or your brother will catch your four-pound bass. That lesson stung. Still does.
Mostly though, our visits to the farm have reinforced for me the value of family. I count myself so lucky for all the times we gather from our far-flung tasks all around the farm, wash up, pile 25 or more of us into that small farmhouse for meals, with the old Corelle plates and mismatched silverware on the dining room and kitchen tables. Someone shouts, “To the table, Mabel!,” and we gather into a big circle that usually extends into multiple rooms, holding hands to ask the blessing and return thanks before digging into a meal that the day’s hard work so far has made taste like a feast for royalty. And then we nap. And do it all over again.