Some things seem beyond reach… But only because we’ve forgotten how to stretch ourselves.
My friend Nancy and I have brought Saoirse and Ula to a nearby art museum for an exhibit of Maxfield Parrish’s paintings. Saoirse is wandering the gallery with a notebook, gazing at the pictures and writing down story ideas. Ula has parked herself in front of the floor-to-ceiling Interlude, her colored pencils spread out before her as she tries to capture the enormous painting on an 8 1/2 X 11 sheet of paper. Nancy is working her way methodically through the exhibit, taking in the images and the text. I breeze past Daybreak and the other whimsical scenes of young girls. But I am stopped by a landscape painting, Dusk. I cannot move.
It is of a farmhouse, sitting on top of a hill with the wilds of wintery New England outside it. But the lights of the farmhouse are on. Winter is held at bay in the peace and warmth of that indoor glow.
I’ve seen scenes like that countless times in my life…wandering outside Sap Bush Hollow as a child at night, after chores were done. I’d occasionally slip down to the stream just to look back at the house, to see the golden light bounce off the snowy carpet. The blanket of snow would mask all the accoutrements and mess of farming, making it all seem so blissfully serene in winter.
It all looks so good from the outside, I think. I glance at the text on the wall beside the canvas. In the second half of his career, Parrish abandoned paintings of fairy tale women in exotic locations in favor of landscapes. He is quoted:
“I’m done with girls on rocks. I have painted them for thirteen years and I could paint them and sell them for thirteen more. …There are always pretty girls on every city street, but a man can’t step out of the subway and watch the clouds playing with the top of Mt. Ascutney. It’s the unattainable that appeals.”
My mouth twists in wry recognition of his words. It’s the unattainable that appeals. I look at the painting again. It could be my life there, with that cozy warmth. It all looks so nice from the outside. I imagine a woman with her knitting beside the fire; a man strumming a guitar, or oiling winter boots. I imagine children playing quietly on the floor. The day’s work is cut short by the waning light, and the night unfolds for pleasures of the hearth.
I want that. But on this rainy late summer afternoon, Parrish’s words are a knife in my gut. It is unattainable. There are realities to be reckoned with. Weeds up to my ears. Bills. Schedules. Schooling. Marketing. Family. Especially family.
One reason I’ve taken the day off is to escape the reality of my family. I’m fed up with them. I’ve been working on our farm transition plan, putting together figures for the new store and cafe, talking to plumbers and heating technicians and carpenters and tenants. I’ve been crunching numbers and researching equipment and examining Sap Bush Hollow’s past and potential sales figures. I’ve been bringing all the data to Mom and Dad, showing them how we can make things work:- How we can keep employees, balance the books, enjoy time off…maybe even enjoy a scene like the one on the wall before me.
But they haven’t been smiling. They don’t seem happy.
And I’m annoyed. Dad’s surgery went well. He is no longer wincing in agony. But afterward I received constant phone calls from mom. “He’s restless.” “He’s down.” She’s worried. She’s complaining. He’s annoying me with his down trodden spirits. She’s annoying me with her grievances. They’re both annoying me with their failure to jump up and down with excitement as Bob and I begin stepping into our roles as the next farmers at Sap Bush Hollow. I want them to be happy. I want them to bask in a sense of achievement. I want them to share in our excitement about the future. And they’re not. And they don’t.
In response, I want to dismiss them; to conclude that happiness is their own internal struggle, to absolve myself from responsibility for their dark moods. But I cannot. From the corner of my eye, as I juggle kids and eye therapy and homeschooling and business and cooking and canning and transition planning, I’m watching closely. Because they are showing me my own future. And I don’t want it if it’s that unhappy.
I say prayers asking for elders, begging them to show up on the back porch. I want them to whisper to Mom and Dad about spiritual riches, about the beauty of watching ourselves age and become part of something bigger than ourselves; about the delights of new adventures, the thrills of rediscovering each other, the wisdom and generosity of spirit that is needed from them.
No elders appear.
So I try to distract Dad. We need a list of all farm assets to do the LLC paperwork for the transition. I simply don’t have time to run around behind him and write everything down. Since he’s barred from chores because of his surgery, I ask him to do it. When he doesn’t do it, I ask him to go have coffee with me, saying that we can sit down and go over it. He cancels our date. Later the next week, I tell him again. It has to get done. I try to keep the frustration from my tone. It’s hard.
It’s all ugly. Like Parrish said, it’s unattainable.
Carrying that thought in my head, we leave the Maxfield Parrish exhibit and head for home. The next day, I’m standing in the kitchen at the farm. Dad gets up from his chair and slaps a stack of paper on the counter. “Here’s your list,” he says. He walks away.
I take it home and sit down in front of my computer. I open up a spreadsheet and begin to type up his notes. Dad has terrible handwriting. But I can tell from what’s on the paper that he has been mindful of this, carefully printing each word so that I am able to read it. This must have taken him hours. Days. Before I type, I begin to read.
Tractor, New Holland. With Front End Loader. Estimated value: $20,000.
2 wagons. $700
Wood splitter, 3 point hitch. $400.
I scan through further and come to the livestock handling equipment.
Tall cattle panels (brown), 14, at $75 each.
Moveable head gate. $300.
2 farrowing huts, metal. $600.
And a shiver goes down my spine. My fingers become cold on the keyboard. It all seemed so simple. Just a friggen list of what’s there. But its not simple. It’s five pages long, filled with little niggling things —bell waterers, handling chutes, heat lamps, fence chargers, poultry netting, sheep fencing, shovels, rakes, pitchforks, hay forks, pick axes.. And suddenly I see Dad and Mom, sitting in their own living room on a winter’s night, pouring over supply catalogs and Penny Saver ads, making phone calls to other farmers who are going out of business, finding each little bit of equipment: Each tool, each feeder, each water trough. I see them discussing every purchase, trying to keep the farm solvent; trying to maximize the return for their investment in a business that sees far more exits than entries.
Anyone could walk on the farm and look around and see stuff: Unidentifiable heaps of objects. Garage cubbies filled with entropy — staple guns, wire cutters, 12 volt batteries. To the uneducated eye, it is junk. It is aesthetically unappealing. But this is what makes a farm. And here, Dad had carefully etched out all of it. This has been his and Mom’s life —the careful acquisitions to build a farm…. To build the structure that holds up the snow in the pretty picture that Maxfield Parrish describes as unattainable.
I begin to cry. In this list I recognize so much hard work, seeking out all the little this and thats, things I never even realized we needed. And along I come, the next generation, expecting it to be handed over smoothly, so engulfed in my own plans and burdens that I don’t recognize the pain of making an accounting of one’s own life.
Suddenly I hate this. I don’t want to do this to my parents. I don’t want to take this all away from them. It isn’t fair.
But if I don’t take it away, then someday it goes away for good.
I push the papers aside and walk out onto my deck, gazing out at the fields and hills guarding our hamlet of West Fulton. I think of all the history that has come before my family. West Fulton was once a place. It had mills, a school, two hotels, thriving farms, a creamery, stores, a performance stage. As railroads came, and highways came, and industrial agriculture came, bit by bit, West Fulton withered. By my reckoning, there has not been a farm transition, or any kind of intergenerational business transfer in this hamlet for about 65 years. Stores went out of business. Hotels burned. Farmers died. That was that. That’s the simplified history of my community. My prayers for elders will go unanswered. They checked out a long time ago.
I watch the light play over the mountains as the August sun slips lower in the sky. I see a few trees have donned their first red leaves. And as the light shifts, so do my spirits. I realize there is something magnificent sitting on my desk. It is a list of items to operate a business that is capable of, that is worthy of transition. The first one in 65 years.
And with that transition comes pain and sadness. But with it also comes hope that has not been known in this hamlet in a very long time. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, I think we will soon have other businesses worthy of transition. And once again, we will have elders to guide us.
A few days later, Dad has a great check-up with his doctor. He is given clearance to return to the tractor, to go back to doing chores. His energy has revived. He is talking again about expanding the sheep flock. Mom rolls her eyes. She picks up the phone and starts making plans for their next vacation… yet another dynamic in the farm transition to resolve.
It is not all perfect. But we are moving forward. There will be more nights when there is pain and sorrow. But there will also be nights like the elusive one in Parrish’s painting. And in those moments I will marvel at the work of my parents. They have taken the unattainable and made it attainable for me, for my children, for our community.