Wednesday, 10 July 2013 | 48 comments

Let it begin with me

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.

 

§ 48 responses to Let it begin with me

  • Gorgeous, Sarah. Absolutely beautiful. Please tell me you’ll write a book one day…I can’t wait to luxuriate in pages and pages of your words. What a beautiful way to remember your grandfather, I’m sorry for your family’s loss, but it sounds like he gave you all so much. Much love to you.

  • That was beautifully put and I am truly sorry for your loss. Wishing you and your family nothing but the best.

  • Alita

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful story with us Sarah. Your words have a healing quality to them.
    Both powerful and gentle, which I very much appreciate. Love to you and your family.

  • I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing some of your grandfather’s story with us.

  • I’m so, so sorry, Sarah. This is a beautiful tribute to your Grandpa. The love you and your family have for him is obvious in your words. Sending you hugs…

  • That was beautifully said. I’m sorry for your loss. I think most stories are worth the telling, it’s just that there are few storytellers and so many stories. I think with a family history like that you would very much appreciate Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. It tells the story of a couple who choose to farm in post-World War America. It’s just a lovely book in general, but with that in your family background it might particularly poignant.

  • Rachel

    Smiling through my tears. Love you!

  • Such beautiful words Sarah and what a lovely way to honour your Grandfather. You really do have a gift for telling a story. I’m sorry for your loss.

  • Sarah, the best that we can do in the wake of losing a grandparent is to honour their life and memory and nourish the gifts they’ve given us. Seems like you’re doing just fine on both counts. I’m sorry.

  • It’s a strange feeling losing a family member that has lived and loved so well. There’s a kind of aching silence, a loss of connection to a past and a way of living, the sadness of the stories you will never hear again or will remain untold. Your grandfather sounds like a remarkable man.

  • Once again you write of a most profound and personal emotional experience with such eloquence. Please accept my sincerest sympathy.

  • Sirena

    My mother sang us this song all of our lives and I sing it to our three month old son now at bedtime. I love it, I love it, and I love that as long as we pass these stories on and retell them, they never die. We have to keep doing that with all of the good things, to preserve the things that matter in a world that moves faster every day.

  • uncatim

    Yeah. It is worth telling. Thank you.
    Peace to you & your family.

  • Kathleen Matthews

    Wow! Your grandfather sounds amazing! I want to second the motion and submit a request for you to write more about his life, your grandmother, those 17 kids, and the intangibles that indeed makes your family extraordinary!

  • What a beautiful and poignant story. Heartfelt. Authentic. As always, you told it so well.

    I can only imagine your loss, as my one grandfather is still mercifully around. But I have a hunch it is a deep and difficult loss indeed. Thank you for sharing — you took a painful experience and made it art.

  • Lovely words….you are a gifted writer. My condolences on the passing of your grandfather: he sounds like a remarkable man.

  • Tears in my eyes. What a beautiful story. I would love to read more about him and your family. Truly touching. Thank you for sharing with us all.

  • Lovely post. Isn’t that the St. Francis prayer? i get goose bumps and teary eyed when we sing it at the end of Mass sometimes. The melody is easy even for the singing challenged like me. Your grandparents sound like great people. yYou are lucky. Im sorry for your loss. P.S Im the one who emailed you about trying to buy property outside the warreton/culpeper area. lots of problems — septic and well are shot, cant get a conventional loan, offered lower cash price sellers rejected, have now applied at Farm Credit of the Virginias and things look good. Will let you know how things turn out

  • hello. . just wanted to say thank you so much for sharing this beautiful beautiful tribute to your grandfather. . I’m so sorry for your loss . . tears are in my eyes. . but like you said, Let it begin (again) with you. I really loved reading this. .

  • Kate

    What an amazing story (seventeen kids!) and you told it so beautifully. I am sorry for the loss of your grandfather, who sounds like a force of nature indeed. Really like the image of the whole family singing that song a capella for him. I grew up singing it as a kid and I love its message. Thanks for sharing it!

  • Such a beautiful and powerful tribute. Thank you for sharing. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  • What a wonderful story. I can totally understand how a man, seemingly so simple, would produce a family full of successful people. I am guessing, with very little knowledge, that your grandfather loved you all, and his life, very much. That is what makes people successful.

  • My grandfather always said “A life worth mourning is a life worth celebrating” and it seems by telling your grandfather’s story you are sharing a celebration of his life. What a moving remembrance.

  • robin

    such a beautiful way to pay respects. so sorry for your loss, and thank you for sharing.

  • Hilary

    I’m sorry to hear you lost your grandfather, it sounds like he had a rich and full life and gave you all so much. Thanks for sharing your story, your words are always very touching and genuine.

  • I’m sorry to hear that you lost your grandfather. But very glad you shared his story, and your story here.

  • Sarah–this is so, so beautiful, and honors what sounds like a glorious life. I fought back tears at the end–for every ounce of success your grandfather had with the land, you have with the pen. Keep on keepin’ on, girlfriend; I look forward to all of your posts!

  • What a lovely tribute to you grandpa and your family. Peace be with you and your loved ones.

  • I am just discovering your wonderful blog, and enjoying the images I’m left with after reading this post.

    The way you describe the 17 grandchildren growing out of their surroundings makes it seem both magical and yet thoroughly practical and real. I keep thinking about the rusty house, the corn and soybean fields, inhabited by interesting young souls, each churning out their individual paths. There’s some wonderful cooking metaphors in there. Thank you, Sarah.

  • Stunning <3

  • Len

    Mi más sentido pésame, Sarah. Hubo en mi vida un hombre muy parecido a tu abuelo. Lo perdí muy joven. Me alegra saber que tú pudiste y supiste disfrutar de algo tan especial durante más tiempo.

    Un abrazo.

  • That was a beautiful post – it made me think of my own grandfather who has a similar, if not quite so BIG story. (There were 7 children – 5 girls, 2 boys.) I’ve thought a lot about those intangible anomalies, since I’m one of them, and I’ve decided that they can sometimes be attributed to the love and sheer determination of someone that their children and grandchildren will have a good life, maybe even a better life.

  • I’m so sorry for yours & your family’s loss. Living without such a large presence & part of your family, it takes so long to adjust to a life that, as you say, continues on but is so changed. Have you read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? I finished it yesterday and there are themes in it of family traits, characteristics and how they’re passed on through the generations. It’s a beautiful book, think you’d enjoy it x

  • Paul

    Absolutely beautiful. Couldn’t be more proud of your words and this tribute to Grandpa.

  • Miabella

    You did your Grandpa proud, Sarah. You are a gifted writer.

    I find farm boys to be very smart, curious, creative and resourceful…and the original MacGyvers. He must have taught by example. And white collar jobs ain’t all that. LOL My jobs never grounded me like bare feet on the grass or hands in the dirt.

    Thank you for writing this post. My grandfather was my favorite person growing up. Coincidentally, I visited his grave site yesterday with my mom and grandmother. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone 15 years, as he still crosses my mind almost every day.

    Losing a loved one sucks. May you and yours find peace with losing him.

  • Andrea

    Beautiful. Sorry for your loss.

  • Wow, no words. Because you’ve written them all. Except I am so sorry for your loss. He sounds like a wonderful man and now you’ve spread his story to all of us. I was particularly struck by the image of 6 sons as the exact number you’d need for pallbearers.

  • Berta

    A beautiful tribute. What is it about the land that pulls us in, generation after generation? Even in this hot humid weather I feel disconnected without time in the garden.

    Berta

  • this is poetry.
    good to hear your voice today, sarah.
    with tenderness, thank you.

  • I found my way here via A Practical Wedding, and I have to say, I’m excited to follow along with your writing.

    This post his me with an “oof!” because my own grandpa and I were very close. He passed away when I was 14, but like your grandpa, mine was a man of learning and a man of nature. My mom has described herself and me as “country girls born in the city” since we have both always lived in urban environments, but find pleasure and sanctuary in the great outdoors. And finally, the song you quoted is one that speaks to my personal core values. I still remember a candlelight service held in my grandparents’ church on the first anniversary of 9/11 where the whole congregation sang it a capella. I just got goosebumps even typing about it.

    Thanks for sharing :-)

  • sarah

    i think everyone has said already what this made me feel. so, just, a thank you

  • i am so glad you’re here.

  • Irene

    How Beautiful…I was born in the 70s and knew this family growing up quite well. Many nights were spent with kids playing, swimming, and even driving around in a blue suburban to visit older kids who were in college….(Aunt Pat always had our favorite snacks ready to go)

    Most of what I remember of Uncle Paul was his love for a bowl of popcorn with garlic salt on it….I made sure my hands always made it to the bowl.

    Love to ya’ll and may you keep sowing the seeds and reaping the harvest that Uncle Paul and Aunt Pat planted. Love Irene (govert) Smith

  • Nancy Govert

    Sweet! Sweet memories! A fun time was always had by ALL! It truly is a celebration of LIFE !!!!!!!!! Love You!
    Nancy Govert

  • Sydney

    I’ve enjoyed reading your blog for a bit now, but only recently came upon this post. Thank you for these words – many thanks.

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