Everyone thinks his or her family is special or original (whether they think that’s a good thing or a bad thing is another matter). This makes it difficult to discern, I think, when a family story is worth telling.
On face, it’s a story of a young man of unusual perception and sense of adventure. During high school, my grandfather, an Indiana farmer’s son, worked his way over to Europe on a cattle boat (he had been too young to have been drafted during World War II). He came back and graduated, valedictorian of his class, in 1947.
We can only speculate that young Grandpa wanted to see the world a little more. He enlisted in the army in 1951, working in Berlin as military police. Many years later, going through boxes of old letters, we’d find beautiful sketches he’d made of the view from his balcony and sent home to Grandma. He would marry her, a pretty, local girl, in 1955.
I’ve asked several people, over the years, why Grandpa decided, out of everything, to become a farmer. There is little doubt that he could have gotten into a university or pursued a more white collar job. He was a rare breed, extraordinarily well-read and self-taught for a farmer’s kid. In “Grandpa’s workshop”, the room in the basement where many of his tools were kept, the built in shelves were equally as full of books as of rasps, adzes and saws.
But he did become a farmer, joining his father while he lived, and then continuing to farm with Grandma until he retired in 1993. The story of the intervening years is relatively uneventful—minus those seventeen kids (Six sons! Eleven daughters!) I told you about. The narrative is, perhaps, predictable.
There are a lot of stories about weather. Worries about too much rain, worries about not enough rain, devastation by hail, devastation by drought. The chicken coop catching on fire. 4H. Feet rolled over by tractors. Hand-me-down prom dresses. Getting paid a nickel for every rat exterminated.
By all accounts, a large farming family from a middle America town should not be as successful as this one has been. But somehow, a wooden-shingled, rusty house in the middle of acres of corn and soy has pushed out nurses, engineers, teachers, social workers, and CEOs, among a bunch of other productive human beings whose scope of vocation doesn’t fit neatly into one category: mothers, activists, foster parents.
There is no reason, demographically and socially speaking, that these kids should have been so mobile and so empowered. Economists attribute these anomalies to “intangibles”, unquantifiable elements that make certain people “succeed” and others not.
Maybe it’s those intangibles that make this story worth telling.
Six sons, eleven daughters. I’m sure Grandpa never considered it during his life, but few people are granted the exact amount of sons needed to be pallbearers. We watched them, last month, lift a coffin from church to hearse, from hearse to cemetery.
A priest said the words; a military representative played taps and folded the flag.
It was finished, but we lingered. Someone began to sing, a cappella, not particularly beautifully (we’re not much known for musical talent), a song that we had kept close, sung through Grandpa’s sickness and death.
Maybe you’ve heard this song. It can’t even be called a hymn—it’s a folk song that’s been recorded by the likes of Nat King Cole, Vince Gill, Johnny Mathis, Bing Crosby, Placido Domingo, Mary Tyler Moore. It was, coincidentally, written the year Grandma and Grandpa got married. We all joined:
Let peace begin with me,
Let this be the moment now;
With every step I take,
Let this be my solemn vow:
To take each moment and live each moment
In peace eternally.
Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me.
I think about my own life—split between country and city—and know that this is part of the legacy my grandfather left me: hard work, a thirst for knowledge, but a grounding in dirt.
We lost a guiding force of nature: prudent, earthy, loyal, witty, smart. The saddest thing about loss, of course, is just that: not the living without someone—of course, we can carry on—but knowing what life was like with them, and knowing it is gone.
Let it begin (again) with me.