I was born on a farm much like Green Acres…no really, my dad was a boat-racing, airplane pilot, motorcyclist, one-man radio station, electrical engineer-type man who wearied of people’s wicked ways. He wanted to live in the middle of 100 acres instead of citified Arizona, even if he could sit around a campfire at times. Brilliant and adventuresome, he bought 40 acres and started farming in the middle of a fine Mennonite community. How’s that for change?
At the same time, he and Mom started our little family. We were not Mennonite. We were not farmers either. We were…well…nothing normal for that area. Daddy and the County Extension Agent called each other by first name very early on. Yes, he did come that regularly to identify bugs, beetles and molds of various types, giving advice about how to rid the crops from all such common ailments. We raised row crops: pole beans, strawberries, blackcaps, raspberries and such. We moved irrigation pipe together, all five of us. We hoed weeds from the row crops together. We did everything together. One year we raised only pumpkins, which was an epic failure.
Ours was not a plush life, but farm life provided a great environment for children. We raised milk cows for fresh milk, butter, cream, cottage cheese and the odd steer or two for beef to eat, from itty bitty piglets up to big hogs for pork, chickens for eggs and um…well…chicken dinner, rabbits for 4-H, selling the pelts and again…rabbit for dinner. (It really does taste like chicken.)
Our orchard lavished on us many types of apples, pears, cherries, plums, apricots and all good things. Fresh fruits and vegetables abounded! A forty-acre plot is officially not enough room to own a horse, however. Father told me this every year, literally. It became a birthday tradition after I made my wish and blew out the candles. Daddy knew the secret of what I wished for each year. I did, however, learn to drive a tractor as a child and the old farm truck way before I got my learner’s permit. I could barely reach the pedals without standing up. I had to stand with all my weight on the brake pedal to get that old truck to stop.
Backing up a bit in time, I find it interesting that my Dad proposed marriage to Mom by telegraph. “Let’s quit crossing the continent and get married. I will wire fare back immediately if you say yes. Please answer by Western Union today. Hal 751 AM.” I have the original crumbling paper.
After much conversation and a bit of interluding time, she came out west from New York. Though not much like the air-headed blond wife in Green Acres, Mom had always lived the city life. Never having seen a farm, Mom came. Her mother, aunts and sister cautioned her against Indians who might scalp her. Honestly! Mom learned a lot during those 26 farm years. She was and remains the best mom I could ever have dreamed up.
When she first developed Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), I read 18 books on the subject, attended conferences and took notes. All the books said that gardening helped AD patients. Excitedly I prepared a beautiful container garden on our back deck, since Mom had agreed to live with us. At first I couldn’t understand why she neglected that garden. The containers sat high enough so that she did not have to bend down. Finally, I figured it out. She already had her fill of farming. Next year, I put the garden in the ground for myself and found I’m actually a pretty good gardener. Surprise, surprise!
I had to laugh at God’s goodness last month. As I sat up near midnight, in the midst of the worst parts of the stomach flu, Mom came out. “Oh, dear,” she said, “what can I do for you? You need a glass of water to wash out your mouth after you throw up.” At 94, with Alzheimer’s Disease, God continues to bless me and care for me through the best Mom ever.
But I digress…again, we were not Mennonite. When the doctor told my dad that his kidneys had failed and that he had only a short time to live, life got harder and starker than ever before. The doctor came out to the farmhouse. From age 12-15, I watched and helped as he often drained gallons of excess fluid from my dad’s abdominal cavity. Daddy’s hospital bed took the place of our living room pool table for those years. (Yes, Daddy put a pool table in our living room and we all got quite good at playing pool.) He did not die a pleasant death, as is true in most cases. Daddy lived four more years. During that time, I began to wonder what happens to people when they die. I’d seen a lot of farm animals die, but at the Mennonite daily vacation Bible school, they had talked about something…what was it? I never really got the message, though I piled into the car each summer when it came around with the attitude that “whomsoever will may come.”
The year before Daddy died, a group of Mennonite farmers saw that our crop of wheat needed harvesting…no beans that year…we could only manage wheat. Someone called the local newspaper. It made the front page of our town of about 550 souls. Combines lined up all across our fields and neighbors with last names like Nofziger, Roth, Kropf, Cate, Schmucker, Steckley, Krabill and Good harvested our crop in one fell swoop. The newspaper called it a “Neighborly Mission.” I remember Daddy sitting in the window, thin, weak, frail, and for the first time I’d ever seen…crying. He wiped his face and muttered something like, “After all the jokes I’ve made about those people, and all the times I cursed and called them foolish for their beliefs, now look out there. Look what they’re doing for us. I don’t deserve this. I don’t deserve this.”
I asked everyone at high school what happened to a person after they died, but no one knew…no one until Diana Waters opened her Bible and explained to me about God sending His Son. (How I wish I could find her today to thank her.) She showed me Bible verses that explained how Jesus died as the perfect payment for my sins. All I had to do was confess my need and accept that payment. I came home one night and told both Mom and Dad, “I got saved tonight!” Almost in unison came their questioning reply, “saved from what?” They concluded I was going through a “phase,” which would pass. It never has. I tried to explain it to my dad because I knew he was near the end of his life. He made fun of me and ran rings around me with his superior logic. At times, his dying hurt so badly that he cursed, using my new Lord’s beloved name in anger. After no success at explaining this new life in Christ, I slunk away in cowardess and prayed for him instead. I do remember that in the last couple of weeks before Daddy died, he cried out the name of Jesus, but it sounded somehow different. I wondered at the change in the tone of his voice as he seemed to plead for help with a real person when he called the name, “Jesus, oh Jesus!” But I had stopped talking to him about my Lord. I feared to ask if he had found the same forgiveness I had. He faded faster and faster.
Long before neighborhood farmers brought in our last crop, the Baptist pastor had been visiting my dad once a week. I always heard the two men talking about farming, or the news when I passed by them. When I wasn’t there, Pastor Joe had been talking to my dad about how Jesus died on the cross to forgive his sins, too. I only learned of my Father’s decision at his funeral. Between his death and funeral, I walked, heart-broken, to the back of our forty acres, weeping, confessing my dreadful weakness and fear that had kept me from continuing to explain Jesus’ work to my dad. I promised God that I would never again shrink from explaining to anyone how to find eternal life…sure and certain that my silence had kept my father from eternity in heaven. God, of course, had gotten through to my Dad, no thanks to me. God continues faithful though sadly, I have not kept my end of the bargain too many times.
Nowadays God delights me with thoughts of sharing eternity with my father, as a close friend in newness of life in Christ. God used one small act of kindness, the harvesting of a crop, as a pivotal point in one man’s life. When you get the chance, love people, in word and deed! You never know what God will do with it.
“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?” (James 2:14, NIV).