Growing Up on a Farm

October 2008: A few days before our mother died, the three of us gathered our families on the farm and spent the afternoon taking pictures.

I loved growing up on a farm.

Even though our father was a coal miner by trade, he was a farmer at heart. He used to tease that he was a miner with a farming habit, as the farm spent more money than it earned. He would quickly tell you that the words “hobby” and “farmer” didn’t go together. There were years I watched our father pace the fences, wondering if we’d lose the farm. Only by the sweat of his brow and financial brilliance of our mother did we survive ruined crops, recessions, and whatever else came our way.

My favorite time of year was the fall. I loved going with Daddy out to the fields.  I spent hours watching him operate the combine. Back in the 70’s, there wasn’t room for two people to sit in the cab, even if one was a small girl. So I would wait in the grain truck. For hours, I played among the corn stalks. I read Nancy Drew mysteries. I napped. I’d stay for the whole day if he’d let me, watching and waiting for him.

When he would drive the combine up to the truck and start dumping, I loved jumping into the mounds of freshly harvested grain. (To me that was more fun than jumping into a pile of leaves.) I would walk the grain down, leveling it across the truck so that it was equally distributed. As my feet sank, first I’d feel the scorching heat of the grain that had been exposed to the sun. Then there would be the rush of cooler seeds underneath. In some ways, it was like playing hot potato, except I used my feet rather than my hands.  Once the truck was loaded, we’d drive to the grain elevator with grand hopes. While he parked on the scales, I’d jump out and head into the office and get us a couple of Grape Nehi’s out of the vending machine.

We met other farmers waiting to empty their trucks. They’d talk about prices and the weather. I was an expert on commodity futures by the time I was 10 years old. I knew every farmer in Hopkins County by name. And they knew that I loved a cold Grape Nehi on a hot afternoon. If Daddy was going to be making a return trip within a couple hours, he’d leave me there. I’d hang out in the office and would watch in wonder as they processed each truck. I would have given my whole allowance for a chance to test a load’s moisture content — but my arms weren’t long enough to reach into the backs of the trucks with the tester.

I longed for the time when I would be old enough to truly help around the farm. I watched Mother take over and drive the tractor (or combine) when Daddy headed in so he could go to work at the mines. I watched my siblings do their part with the livestock or driving the tractors or grain trucks.

Although they had fancy registered names, we gave them sweet loving nicknames. Baby, the grand dame of our herd, was my sister’s first heifer.

Over the years we raised a few horses and had a few pigs. But our primary livestock were the polled herefords that each had grand registered names which were dropped in favor of loving nicknames. The matriarchal heifer “Baby” ruled our herd. In the late 70’s, Daddy bought a sire bull that came from John Wayne’s ranch. I’m surprised he didn’t name the gentle giant “Duke,” but “Biggin” seemed appropriate considering he was the size of a Plymouth.

Our cattle knew we loved them. They would hang out with Daddy whenever he was out at the barn and would swing their tails in time to the country music blasting from the tractor’s radio. In the spring, calves were born in the woods across the main meadow. The mother would stand just outside the tree line and bawl until Daddy or my brother Bill would collect her and her newborn calf. One year, two sets of twins were born. Daddy was as proud as any “father” could be. Our little herd was successful and it grew.

When we’d head out on family vacations, the cattle would try and follow us. They’d break down a fence and start walking up Brown Road. Now any other time, we could literally leave the gate open and they’d never walk out. But as soon as we left town, they’d tear a fence down. Finally, my parents suggested that our neighbor park Daddy’s truck in the barn lot, with the radio on and the gate open–as usual. Sure enough the cows stayed by the truck, swinging their tails. They never even glanced at that open gate. They must have missed Conway Twitty more than they missed us.

My great aunt Jo Nell, my grandmother Anna Mae, Mother, and my sister Rita are with my great-grandfather, whom we called Papa Rudd.

Our parents bought the farm in the early 1960’s and for them, it was a dream come true. Both my great grandfathers had large farms on Brown Road. When my great grandfather, Papa Rudd, was in his 80’s, he bought 25 acres as a retirement project and then proceeded to clear it by hand. He was one tough dude who lived an austere life well into his 90’s. When the rest of his farm was sold, my grandmother and great-aunt didn’t sell that parcel. Every time I visit it, I ponder his legacy. Would he recognize himself in me? Am I as strong in character and determination? What would he think about the way I live my life? Would he respect it and call it worthy? I hope so. I think about him a lot and wish I could sit with him on his front porch again. I have so many questions I’d love to ask him. He wouldn’t answer them in the grand detail I’d love to hear, but I think he would try.

Despite Great-Grandfather Rudd’s puritanical personality, I loved him. After all, I was a child. I loved everybody. I would often push my way onto his lap and have a one-sided conversation about butterflies or the fairies I believed lived down by the creek. In some ways, we were pals simply because he was the oldest and I was the youngest. We were, after all the two extremes of our family.

One Sunday, the family was having lunch at my grandparents’ house. Everybody was talking and having a big time. But Papa Rudd and I were bored, so he suggested that we go walk around the yard together. Halfway around the house, he lost his balance. When his 6’4″ frame started falling, it seemed like a mighty oak was tumbling toward the earth in slow motion. I ran to the house and started banging on the metal storm door screaming like a banshee, “Papa!! Papa!! Papa!!” to alert the adults inside. When they got to him, he was already sitting up. He was rattled but amused by my reaction.

By the time I was old enough to help on our farm, Daddy had suffered two heart attacks and he wasn’t renting additional acres to till. Others began working our fields. My chores became more associated with housework than farm work and our little herd was sold. Daddy told me that it was for the best. After all I wasn’t going to be a tomgirl all my life. I needed to learn how to be a lady.

A green-eyed boy from Paris Tennessee swept me off my feet.

Growing up, I assumed I’d marry a farmer and settle down somewhere on Brown Road. After all, nearly my entire family lives there. I expected to raise cattle as pets and take heavy-laden hampers to the fields for impromptu picnics during spring planting and fall harvest. I never imagined that I wouldn’t live my life along the country roads of Hopkins County. But then, I never imagined a green-eyed boy from Paris, Tennessee, would sweep me off my feet and that we’d settle down and build our lives in an adopted town.

I find it ironic that, as much as I loved living on a farm, we’ve lived nearly our entire marriage in town. When we married, we rented a charming cottage among the cornfields of Calloway County. I love it. Every chance I could, I’d fling open the windows and breathe in the fresh country air. My Beloved hated it. In the end, we bought our first house just a couple of blocks from the university. A couple of years ago when we were looking for a larger house, I suggested we look for a farm. But we never found anything that we wanted. I appreciated that my Beloved was willing to look, but I knew he didn’t really want one. In the end, we found the perfect house, in the perfect neighborhood, surrounded by farms. At night, I often open our bedroom window so that I can hear the horses next door and the donkey on the other side of the patch of woods. Sometimes, when the wind is blowing just right, I can smell freshly-cut hay. In the spring, I can smell the tilled earth. It’s enough.

My siblings and I still own our farm. We’ve made decisions about its future.  Some of it will be kept. Other parts will be sold as none of us are farmers. Our parents always told us that it was their dream, that they knew it wasn’t ours. They didn’t expect us to keep it, but they expected us to love and appreciate what it provided us: an idyllic childhood filled with life lessons and memories of love to last a lifetime. Or least a few chapters of a blog.