Maybe this is nostalgia, or maybe it has something to say about the work a writer does. I’ll leave that up to you.
I was a boy who didn’t understand the things my father loved. I had my sights set in a different direction. Each spring, before I graduated from the eighth grade, and my parents made the decision to move back to our downstate farm from Oak Forest, IL, where we’d been living the past six years, we’d often make the five-hour drive south after school was done on a Friday, so we could spend that night, and the next day, and Sunday morning on those eighty acres my parents still thought of as home.
On warm evenings, we’d drive with the windows down, and as we made our way into the country, I’d smell the clay soil being worked in the fields. I’d see the dust rolling up behind tractors that were pulling harrows or disks.
“They’re working that ground,” my father would say. Then for a good while, my mother and I would fall silent, letting him dream of summer when we’d be back for three months, and he could be what he was meant to be, a farmer, climbing on a tractor once more to help the tenant farmer with the wheat harvest, with cultivating beans and corn, with baling hay and straw. “Smell that dirt,” my father would finally say. “That’s home.”
Years later, after he was dead, my mother told me it was his idea for us to move to Oak Forest. She’d lost her teaching position downstate, and he insisted that we couldn’t do without her salary, so she took a job teaching third grade in that Chicago suburb, in spite, as she eventually told me, of her lesser insistence that they would do just fine. “Maybe he just wanted an adventure,” she said. “I don’t know.”
I still can’t make sense of it. That adventure cost him six years of what he loved the most. My father was most happy when he was working his farm. He was willing to swap that for a life of sitting around a one-bedroom apartment, watching quiz shows on television, loafing at an uptown diner, going to my basketball games and band concerts—a man separated from his passion and his land.
What a happy thing it is when our passions and the places we occupy match. To do the thing we love in a place we love? What more could we want?
Those spring evenings on the farm, we sometimes got there early enough to mow the yard, a chore we accomplished with two mowers, one manned by my father and one by me. Often, it was dusk when we finished, the last few swaths taking some guesswork. Then in a deep quiet, after the roar of the mowers, we let the world come back to us a little at a time: the call of a whippoorwill in our woods, the whistle from a distant train, my mother pumping water from our well, peepers trilling at our pond. Oak Forest seemed far, far away. We smelled the cut grass. We let the night settle around us, and without a word we knew, my father and I, that this was good work that we’d done in this place where we belonged.
“We’ll sleep good tonight,” he said, and I agreed, letting his pride become my own. Yes, we would I told him. We surely would.