I love that sound.
It’s your pickup-truck tires crunching the gravel on the driveway, right outside our garage door. I hear that glad sound in the spring, when craggy trees burst forth with buds, then again when those same trees blush with autumn.
This is the sound of you returning, of coming home to our home, because we need you. And maybe you need us, too.
We wanted to make your room extra-special this year. Do you like your new “Hired Man’s Quarters?” I’m sure you thought the sequined pillows were a bit much, but you never complain.
Thank you for being here, season after season, to help the other man I love, my husband. Both of you are tied for First Place as my two favorite farmers.
Thank you, Dad, for being the answer to one of my father-in-law’s last wishes. Before Paul Lee died in 2009, he had penciled the words on a scrap of paper: “Scott needs a hired man.” He worried that his son wouldn’t be able to farm this ground alone, and he knew he didn’t have long.
His autumn came too soon.
That next fall, when these fields turned copper, you showed up to fill the tractor seat.
How do I thank you for that? And for a thousand other things?
You described your “hired man” work as a win-win. That’s what you said that first harvest, when you sat at our kitchen table after the sun slid down the sky.
You had long-since retired as CEO of a farm cooperative. You had served as board chairman for a major agri-business firm and helping train agricultural leaders in places like Ethiopia.
I remember how you sat at the table that first harvest, combing your fingers through your still-black hair, just like you’d done since I was a toddler on your lap.
You said these words: “After retirement, I didn’t feel I had a purpose. But this? This feels like purpose to me.”
I think you’re right. It has been win-win. And it has been purposeful. So you did “win” something in this, I guess.
I’m glad for that. But I want to thank you anyway.
See. This is me, thanking you.
This is me, the little girl who would climb up on your lap when you came home from work as manager of the Farmer’s Co-op in Marathon, Iowa. This photo is one of my favorites, a tender moment frozen with a Life magazine on the hard-wood floor, your tarnished gold watch around your wrist, maybe a pack of Pall Malls in your shirt pocket.
Of course, I can’t remember this one particular moment by the Christmas tree, drooping under the weight of all those kitschy ornaments. But it feels like I remember it all somehow. It was that joy of climbing up onto your lap when you came home from work every night. It was the joy of Christmas and home and security.
A daughter can’t forget a thing like that — for I am this woman who ended up with your blackish hair, and that tendency to run her hands through it when she questions her purpose in life.
You were a busy man back then. I remember you wearing a double-circle Co-op shirt with “Phil” embroidered in red, right above the breast pocket. It seemed like you were gone for long business trips a lot, now that I think of it.
But I never felt neglected. I always felt loved. They say that a child’s first impressions of God — and sometimes her forever-impressions of God — are shaped by her earthly father. No wonder I always had the idea that God actually liked me. And that God enjoyed Nerf basketball games in a dingy old basement.
I wonder how tired you might have been all those nights when you came down to the basement with brother John and I to play on that tiny basketball hoop duct-taped to the wall. I swear, you never missed a shot.
And you never yawned.
You taught me about the magic of little moments, and how it’s important to play with your kids, to be all there, to teach them how to throw a Frisbee, catch a walleye, shoot a lay-up with the left or right hand. You also taught me that it was okay to miss a basket, or to come across the finish line in last place.
You always made time for us. And see? Here you are.
Remember that first day of planting this spring? I sat right down beside you in the John Deere. It reminded me of long trips to Grandma’s, and how you’d crank up the radio real loud when that “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” song came on the radio.
And there we were — middle-aged mother and senior citizen, sitting side by side, and lined with years.
In the tractor this spring, you told me how Harold fainted in church the Sunday before, right there in the sanctuary of the Methodist church. In my mind’s eye, Harold is still 55, and he looks the way he looked the year I got confirmed on that red patch of carpet. He was in the pews when I held the red carnation in my hands and affirmed my baptismal vows.
“He’s 88 now,” you told me, shaking your head. “I’m 74. And just like that”—you snapped your fingers—“I’ll be 88. If I live that long.”
And in my eyes, I’m still a kid, even though the mirror says different. And Dad, you’re still 45 to me.
You dropped me off that morning by the budding cranberry trees at the edge of the cornfield, and you told me how good it felt to be alive, to drive a tractor, to sing songs, to sit next to a daughter.
You said these words: “I’m happy I exist.”
Months will pass, and the cranberry trees will drop leaves. And with each passing season, a new bud bursts forth, or an old leaf falls. And both seasons are glorious in their own right.
I stepped into the Hired Man’s Quarters a moment ago, to leave you a laundry basket for your farm clothes. The antique dresser bears witness to the passing of seasons: your tray of pills, and your hearing aids. You left behind your hearing aids, Dad, right there beside the HOPE candle. So I hope you can hear me now …
I’m happy you exist, Dad. Can you hear me say that?
Because I can hear you. I can hear how you love us. I can hear it when that gravel crunches under your tires, or when you call out to me across these Lee fields, asking me to ride along with you, or when you sing those old songs in silly falsetto, and when you tell me how good it feels to be alive.
And it is good. It is so good to be alive.
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