When I was little, my father came home from work every day and asked us, “What did you accomplish today?”
He never asked how our days went or what we did with our friends. He didn’t ask about games played or fights won. It was always the exact same phrase: What was accomplished?
Sometimes he said it with impatience as he looked at all the toys scattered around the house. How could three children have so many things? Other times, he’d say it low, the hiss of a pressure valve. It was always with some thread of affection, some underpinning of exasperation. What goals had we reached? What mountains conquered, these feral, spoiled children of his?
When running a new hill for the first time, I always tuck my chin. The visor of my favorite running cap creates a blinder so I only see four feet in front of me. No matter how steep the hill, regardless of how tired I feel or how much I wish it would all just stop, the hill is only four feet long.
After I run those four, I run the next four. I only have to exist within the span of the four feet I’m running within. Eventually, the road levels out and my heart beat smooths. My vision opens wide and only then do I lift my head to the horizon.
My father was the eleventh of twelve born into a farm family in Northeast Ohio in the 1950s. His four eldest siblings didn’t live with them. They were taken by the state for abuse and neglect. Dad wanted to play basketball in school, but our grandfather told him when he was very young that he was born to work the farm and nothing else.
They never talked about trade schools or college. He didn’t try out for sports. He woke up early and fed the animals. He came home from school and worked until dark. Some kids, my Dad says, are just built for hay fields and pulling motors out of Chevys. He can diagnose a busted engine by sound.
When I was in high school, I ran track and cross country but my father never came to watch me run. He didn’t stand on the sidelines and cheer me on. I used to get mad because other fathers came. But when would he have had time? There was so much work to get done.
If I’ve run a hill before, I never tuck my chin. I make myself look at the top. If I’ve done it once, I know I can do it again. I know the watery mirage at the apex because I’ve planted my feet in her face before. It doesn’t matter if it’s hot or my head is pounding or my legs are tired.
Nothing matters on the road. Not work, not the fight with my husband or my daughter’s schooling. The dishes, the laundry, my weight – they vanish like that mirage. All my daily insurmountable failures? Have I done enough today to make myself lovable? This is the sadness that I carry with me everywhere I go because the answer will always be no. But it’s ok. No matter how fast I go, I outrun everything on the road.
Happiness is a choice, my doctor says, but what he really means is Lexapro is a choice.
On the road, I decide to keep moving my feet or not. I decide if the hill wins. In my family, we do not give up. We do not fail. We accomplish. That is the gift my father gave me.
Hay season is always impossibly hot. Ticks are relentless. When throwing hay bales, you have to protect your hands from twine splinters. Wear long jeans and gloves. Try not to overheat. Wear a cap. Stay hydrated, if you can, and protect yourself from the sun.
My father does it every year, three times a season if he can. He has skin cancer. He’s had two heart attacks and a defibrillator implanted in his chest. His heart operates at less than 25% capacity now and nothing can fix it. Not medicine, not diet, not exercise. The damage is done.
My father was born to work that farm. That was the gift his father gave to him. He was told that if he fails, the animals won’t get fed. If they aren’t fed, they’ll die. The farm will die. His entire legacy is sewn into those hay fields.
When my brother, sister and I stand in that field, we become a portrait of a family who holds every trauma tightly like splinters of hay wrapped in twine. Love, neglect, pride, anger – these words live in our guts, in the valves of our broken hearts, in the seeds of orchard grass. All individual leaves folded in the bud.
“Why keep doing this?” I asked my father once. “Someone younger should do it.”
We loaded hay onto the trailer, exhausted and hot. We had at least another twenty rows of square bales to pick up and stack before unloading them in the barn. My father is precise when he stacks hay: stack them flat, twine up. Don’t be an idiot about it. Stack rows in a crisscross but not too tight. Let the hay breathe. Build the footprint, plumb the corners and work in.
He handed me a bottle of water. “Focus on the row we’re in,” he barked over the drum of the tractor engine. He looked out over the entire field. How many times had he baled and collected it through out his life? “Bend down,” he said. “Pick up the next bale and toss it. Just get it done.”