It never occurred to me until I had grown up and left the farm for good what an isolated existence we sometimes lived out there on the prairie.
We weren’t alone, of course. We were families, almost all of us out there on the farms. In my case, family meant two parents and five children – three boys and two girls. They say if you have your health, you have everything. That’s true of family, too. Isolated, maybe, but almost never completely alone.
Still, as anyone knows who has stayed home for a stretch with young kids, sometimes a person longs for grown-up conversation. That doesn’t mean a person doesn’t love crawling around on the carpet gurgling and goo-gooing with an infant. It just means that once in a while, it wouldn’t be so bad to talk to another adult about normal, adult stuff.
For no immediate reason at all – maybe it’s just the year or more of people working from home and trying to maintain safe physical distances from people who aren’t in their pandemic pool or pod – I was thinking about social distancing in the world of farming and how it must have affected my folks sometimes. People are relaxing some of their more stringent distancing efforts, but there are still a fair number of us who are aware of who’s around us during the course of our days. In my childhood, it was pretty easy for my folks to be aware of the people around them. Except for a short while after Sunday mass in town or a trip to the elevator or the co-op, the people around my mom and my dad were youngsters who called them Momma and Daddy. And that was in normal times, forget about during pandemics.
My mom never seemed to mind being without adult company during her days on the farm. She had plenty of work to do, cooking and keeping an eye on the five of us and hanging wet overalls and shirts on the clothesline north of the house. When she did have a break, she often sat at the piano in the living room and played. She could play anything she heard anywhere. Sometimes she sang softly, but most times she let the black-and-white keys carry her thoughts. In those times, she seemed completely at ease and content with life.
That version of my mom, the one who played for nobody’s pleasure but her own, contrasts with the older woman who, while a life-long teetotaler, worked for a while at a piano bar in Chamberlain. The customers loved her. She took all requests and turned them into recognizable music. She didn’t think some of those people should be drinking as much as they did, but she played for their enjoyment, and when the night was over, the tip jar on the piano was stuffed with bills. Family legend has it professional wrestler Gorgeous George tipped her handsomely after she favored him with a rendition of whatever song he requested.
Anyway, that woman wasn’t the mother I really knew, not the one who was satisfied with only her family and her piano around.
My dad was pretty outgoing, and as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate how he must have missed regular interaction with neighbors and friends. I know he loved farming. You could see it in everything he did. It was a lot more to him than just a way to make a living, although he was awfully good at that part of things. You can ask anybody who knew him.
I realize on reflection what the infrequent, seemingly insignificant meetings with other people during a work day meant to him. I used to be impatient when I’d ride to town with him to pick up a belt for the combine or grease for the cultivator and I’d have to hang around while he talked with the guys at the co-op. “Get the thing and let’s go,’’ I’d be thinking. He’d be enjoying the company. He and Ab the elevator manager used to take longer than I thought was necessary to weigh and dump a truckload of wheat. They liked to talk about goose hunts they planned to have in the fall when the work was all done.
I think Dad even felt a sense of social connection whenever he’d lift a hand from the steering wheel as we met a neighbor on the township road. It didn’t take much, I guess, to get him through the isolated times.
Terry is a well-known regional columnist who lives in Chamberlain, S.D.