Since 2011, January and February have become bittersweet months for me. Although the turn in the calendar page signifies a fresh beginning with the new year, it is also a reminder to me that another year has passed without my father in my life.
One of my favorite memories I have of my dad are the many, many car rides we would take as a family on Sundays after church. Ever since I can remember, Dad never took the direct route home. Instead, we would take “the long way home,” which usually entailed in fierce objections from my sister, brother and I, as we would grumble and groan from our assigned spots in the back seat. Looking back, I realize that those travels held many teachable moments for me that I would apply to life as an adult...especially here on the dairy farm.
There is a hierarchy. Everyone does their time in the back seat. And I hated the back seat! I sat behind my father, my sister sat on the opposite side, and when my brother was born, he had to sit in the middle (mostly as barrier between the squabbles between my sister and I). But it was from this seat that I learned how to navigate around our town. I refined my skills of patience, self- control and respecting authority. Dad often would quiz us on what we learned in school that week. It was the one day where we had his undivided attention and he had a captive audience for telling stories from his own childhood. So, we did our time, dodged Dad’s swift backhand when we were disorderly, giggled at Mom’s attempts to read road maps and learned to co- exist with one another in close quarters.
Same goes in the barn. You have to start in the “back seat,” feeding bottle babies, cleaning calf huts out with a pitch fork and basically being the grunt of the operation. These may be menial tasks, but they are chores that must be mastered before you can be promoted to the more glamorous jobs on the farm. It is in these tasks, that we learn the fundamentals of the industry, watching the “driver” and “co-pilot” work together. There are many times that I am doing the grunt work right along with Emma and Maggie, because I have not put in the 42 years of calf-feeding and manure slinging that my husband has. And he reminds me of this on a very regular basis!
Being co-pilot is a daunting responsibility. And as long as Mom is in the car, you will never be co- pilot...don’t even bother to ask otherwise. You have to maintain peace between the driver and the back seat, take orders from behind the wheel and be prepared to step in and take charge when necessary. It wasn’t until I started college at the University of Cincinnati that I began to assume the role of co-pilot. Dad worked for the Post Office in Cincinnati and whenever the weather became unpredictable, we would ride to the city together. In the mornings, my job was to hold his coffee and scan the newspaper for good stories. On our way home, we discussed our respective days. After I graduated from college and began working for an ad agency downtown, we continued to carpool, and I looked forward to those moments when I had Dad all to myself.
On the farm, there’s usually a power struggle from the back seat ranks to assume the role of co-pilot. But quite honestly, it’s hard to find someone who is willing to take orders from the boss, be ready to step in and pick up the slack at a moment’s notice and still assume the “backseat” responsibilities in a pinch. When the driver is out of commission, everything falls in the lap of the co-pilot. You get all the workload that the boss does, and none of the glory. And, you must patiently wait until it’s your turn to get behind the wheel.
Getting behind the wheel isn’t as cool as you think it is. I don’t like to drive. And, I will gladly surrender the wheel to sit in the passenger seat. Before I could get my driver’s license, I had to demonstrate to my Dad that I could successfully change a tire, check the fluid levels and hook up my battery charger cables...I was determined to prove that girls can do anything a boy can do. Dad chuckled over my eagerness to drive my own car, and once I was able to fire up the Plymouth Valiant and drive to school, I choose to continue riding the school bus. The first time I drove by myself, I was scared to death and couldn’t remember anything that I had learned in driving class. The whole saying about the grass being greener on the other side of the fence rang true in this situation.
Same goes on the home front. The dream to “be in charge” is a common struggle for many that grow up on a family farm. Sometimes, the co-pilot focuses too much on the desire to be in charge, so they can do things “better,” “more efficient” and “smarter,” that they dismiss the importance of listening and learning from the years of wisdom that the “driver” has put in. Suddenly, the co-pilot is in the driver’s seat. First time they get into a jam, they look around for guidance...and no one is there to help them out.
Being a good driver means knowing when it’s time to get out from behind the wheel. In 2008, Dad was diagnosed with cancer. Suddenly, our roles in the car were switched around. My brother, sister and I were married, with families and responsibilities of our own. We would take turns going with Mom and Dad to doctor appointments, and Dad insisted on driving (which meant one of us was in the backseat, again). As the cancer progressed, Dad’s ability to drive declined. He no longer was going to work, which meant that I was flying solo on my drive to and from work. Soon, I found myself calling Dad during my morning drive, and he would talk me into the office every day. It wasn’t until he passed away that my siblings and I realized we were ALL calling Dad every morning on our commutes, and it was a good thing we weren’t all on the road at the same time.
Those phone calls were the reassurance that I needed to convince me that I had the ability to take the wheel on my own. Dad always knew his limits, and as much as it pained him to move over to the co-pilot seat, he did so because it was the safe and right thing to do. My Dad knew he had done his best in raising the three of us and it was time for him to let go of the reins, even though he wasn’t ready to do so. Did he have a running commentary on the skills of whoever was chauffeuring him around? Absolutely. Did we drive the way he thought we should? Of course not. But we survived the car rides. It was the ONLY time I didn’t get smacked for back-talking Dad, when I said, “Shut-up! I can’t see where I’m going if I have to listen to you telling me how to drive!” Yes, that was one of my finer blonde moments. Letting go of being in charge is tough. Especially if you’ve spent most of your life behind the wheel and it’s not your choice to get out of the driver’s seat. But if the driver has trained his co-pilot appropriately, and the backseat riders respect their role in the journey, the transition can be one that is a moment of pride for the old driver.
Whenever Don and I make the 40-minute trek to my hometown on Sundays for church, I feel the presence of my Dad. My husband will ask, “So, Maggie, what did you learn in school this week?” followed by an in-depth conversation on her FFA record books and the latest DHI test results. I find myself turning into my mother as I spin around to bring peace to the dueling sisters, and I secretly smile when I realize that my son, Carson, is sitting between the two of them, just as my brother was many years ago. I fulfill my role as co- pilot, answering text messages for Don, fielding phone calls and logging into to see what our current somatic cell count is.
It’s funny how life has a habit of coming full circle.