About two and a half years ago, my brother and I had ‘The Talk’ with our parents. They had remained on the farm a few years longer than most of the family thought advisable. Hinting that they move into town wasn’t working.
It was Easter, time for a visit from both of their kids. I flew to Chicago, where my brother picked me up and we then had 12 hours in a car together to strategize how the conversation might go.
You already know what this is like. Maybe you’re retired and thinking about the next steps. Maybe you’re not there yet, but you wonder when the day will come – the day you’ll move off the place because the family says it’s too hard for you to keep it up.
Maybe you are one of the kids, wanting to take more responsibility and ownership of the family business but finding the conversation too hard to broach. Or maybe you’re like my brother and me – gone from the place where we grew up, still loving the land and the home place and all it represents, but not nearby to help when the yard needs snow moved or when Dad needs an extra pair of hands repairing the tractor. You’re not around when the driveway is blocked, when the winter is cold enough that town friends think under 10 miles is too far to drive for a visit.
Maybe you’re the son or daughter who fears that all it takes is one fall on an icy path and the family is changed forever. If you’re not in that situation yet, you know somebody who is.
My parents were (and are) thankfully, still relatively healthy. We were proud of them for keeping the place neat and tidy, the lawn mowed, the buildings painted and the house kept up. But it’s a lot of work, and 80-plus-year-old joints don’t work quite like they once did.
There was some resistance when we sat down. They admitted how hard it was to keep up on their own, but (understandably) how were they to say goodbye to a farmstead that’s been in the family for a century and a half? How were they to leave the place they lived on for most of their lives – and for their entire married life? How could they get the family to understand that this constitutes heartbreak?
“We want you to move into town while you have a choice in the matter,” we told them. “We want you to move before it’s an emergency and has to be done in a rush.”
It’s bad enough to sell and move when there’s only a house and contents involved. Multiply that by 10 or 20 and you have a farmstead, equipment and outbuildings. The thought of tackling it all was daunting for us.
We were fortunate. My brother has a gift for being simultaneously firm and diplomatic. During our conversation, he reminded Mom and Dad how much we care for and about them and the home place. How we wanted them to have a say in the matter, but how we felt strongly that it’s time for a change that protects their health and their quality of life.
Something good happened that Easter. Maybe because we are not politicians or lawyers, we didn’t reach a stubborn impasse. We didn’t make any decisions that weekend, but we agreed to think, to keep the conversation going.
The next couple of years were no cakewalk, but the discussions and the work were worth it. I’ll continue the story in a future column. Meanwhile, if you are going through this transition or have thoughts about someone you know who’s been through it, I’d like to hear from you. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll share your stories in this space.
Fast-forward to 2019: Mom and Dad are in a spacious house on the edge of town, where the view from the dining table faces southward onto a cornfield. They are fortunate in that they didn’t wait until one of them was disabled or gone before the move. It’s a place they can keep up themselves and grow older in. They have neighbors to socialize with and call on for help.
They wistfully remember life in the country, and Dad is the embodiment of “You can take the boy off the farm but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.” But surrounded by familiar furniture and the same household belongings, close to friends and church, they don’t regret the move.
Life is easier.
Certainly my brother and I breathe easier.
The home place has new owners, a young couple with jobs in town. They have energy and vision, remodeling the farmhouse and populating the place with children, horses, chickens, cats, rabbits and dogs. The cropland is still Mom and Dad’s, farmed by renters who are like family to us.
Moving off the place involved work and heartache. But looking into a future where it might have lain empty was, for us, a greater heartache that we wanted to avoid. We are glad there’s new life at the old home, another Easter of sorts.