Behind my family, there lies a dairy farm. Seeded in the soil with the corn and knotted among the hay and baler twine is the incredible sense of physical and mental industry that drives my father awake at 2 AM on milking mornings, that causes my grandmother — at the age of 94 — to still tend a garden and can chow-chow every summer.
But my relationship with our family business of three generations (or is it four?) hasn’t always been clear — or easy. When I was younger, farm chores were allowed to take a backseat to homework and ballet lessons. I conjugated French verbs while milking cows on Thursday afternoons and wrote poetry in the barnyard when herding cattle before church. I got my first part-time job in twelfth grade, and the farm slipped unceremoniously behind me, poured out in the mornings over my cereal like pride that was no longer fully mine. In college, I tasted skim milk for the first time and was dizzied by the amount of choices in the dairy aisle; yet I penned story after story of valleys and pastures whenever writing professors asked me to write what you know.
I wondered what in the world I was doing.
At the end of a particularly grueling undergrad semester, I was talking to my father about the amount of work that was due, and he gave me some advice that surprised me. “Now is your harvest time,” he said.
On a dairy farm, “harvest” means fall days and evenings spent chopping corn, running wagons, and filling silos. In September and October, the combined demands of moisture, weather, and labor can sometimes cause my family to work until well after the sun goes down, only to get up again at 2 AM to milk the cows. Sometimes, my family pulls the original all-nighter.
When I was younger, I never heard my dad complain about these endless days. Somewhere in him, he must have known that it wasn’t worth it. Harvest-time is only a temporary strain, a final push — one that gathers the fruits of your labors and neatly packs up the patience of your months. A graduate school semester in disguise.