I learned a lot this summer. I learned to put customer numbers on guest checks to keep track of orders. I learned to use guest checks. I learned that a farm can grow the commons as well as it can grow meat and vegetables. I learned that it helps to clean up and set tables when guests leave, rather than when they arrive. I learned that 15 minutes invested in teaching my child or an employee a new skill, rather than doing everything myself (“because it will just be faster,”) typically generates a 200 percent return on investment within two weeks’ time. I learned that latte art does make coffee taste better, even if poorly executed. I’ve learned that when business is slow, I can make time instead of money, getting ahead on food prep, ordering, bookkeeping, so I have more free time later in the week. I also learned that running barefoot through a dark basement is generally a stupid idea.
My chiropractor says the toe is broken. Kate and Bob say that’s a score for the shoe-wearing club. I’ll allow that it’s a score for the turning-on-lights club.
Either way, it friggen hurts. Especially when Ula has a tendency to step on it at least four times each day. She’s learning a lot about spatial awareness each time I scream in pain.
And its funny how one silly little broken toe can throw off the whole body. My tendency to favor the foot leads me to bump into more things. As I bump into things, I accumulate injuries farther up my body, which seems to lead to further clumsiness until I’m dropping things, smashing my fingers, bending my wrists in awkward directions.
Last Wednesday, after clearing the lunch dishes and managing to close my hand in the cupboard door, I look at Saoirse. “I think it’s time to just quit.”
She gives me a sage nod. “I think that’s an excellent idea. You’re too dangerous.”
Ula looks up from the picture she’s drawing and gazes at the autumn-blue sky out the window. “Can I go to the farm this afternoon?”
It’s a common question. And my knee-jerk reaction is to tell her no, unless you can get someone else to drive you. I’ve got too much to do. But I catch the words before they leave my mouth. How do they manage to come out so reflexively? I just said I needed to quit for the afternoon. Why can’t I drive my kid to the farm?
I pause and consider. I don’t want to drive her to the farm because I want to quit for the afternoon. I don’t want to be told that I need to check on an order, make a phone call, set up a meeting, work on the payroll, fix a computer problem, order supplies. I don’t want to visit my parents because I don’t want more work.
And that’s when I realize something. I see my parents all the time. We’re business partners. But I can’t remember the last time I visited them.
I imagine that when other adult children stop by their parents’ home, someone makes tea or coffee. They sit down. They spend time together talking about this and that, topics wandering from stories about work, to stories about the grandkids, to tales about good books read lately. Maybe Grandma roasts a chicken (heck. Maybe it was a chicken grown on our farm) and they have pie.
A visit to my parents’ is a business meeting. The talk is about new expenditures, sales figures, customer needs, reports about dead livestock and dying livestock, slaughter dates, meat processing dates, cutting instructions.
The good part about being in a family business is that we have lots in common to talk about. The bad part is how, when the pressure of the growing season wears the body and spirit down, the last people you want to hang out with are your business associates, because it always results in more crap dumped on the to-do list.
As I’m pondering these issues, Saoirse hangs her head over the loft railing. “Can I go, too?”
This is what they are proposing: An afternoon at the farm. A visit. It’s radical. Crazy.
Then I realize something. I really miss my mom. But can I go there, exhausted and physically beaten as I am, and find rest?
I look at the eagerness on Saoirse’s and Ula’s faces. For them, the farm is pure joy. They chase after Kate doing chores, they play with kittens, explore the pond and stream, scratch the pigs’ backs, or just hang out on the back porch. The survival of the family business rides on that joy. It’s these pleasures that fill their hearts as children, then later fuel their passion to keep it all alive and thriving for another generation. I need to bring them. And I need to visit my mom. But I also need to figure out how not to work for the afternoon.
We pile into the car and drive down. The kids scatter before I can even turn off the ignition. I walk into the house. There’s no coffee or tea waiting for me. I didn’t expect it. I get myself a glass of water, then find Mom on the porch. I don’t know how to cue her in to the fact that I can’t bear to face more business matters. Finally I find words: “I’m too dangerous to myself. I quit for today.”
She looks at me and nods at the chair next to her. “I’m ahead of you.” I sit down beside her and we both look out at the front pasture, golden in the afternoon light. We start playing with my phone. There’s no wireless reception on the farm, and we’re used to it not working. But today, we figure out we can make it text. We start buzzing Bob, who’s out in the cutting room, and Kate, out in the pastures, with text messages. Just for fun. Then we start sending them to Dad out on the tractor. We know he doesn’t know how to send or receive them, so we amuse ourselves further by making his phone ring and buzz in his pocket while he tries to figure out how to use it. Then we decide to go for a ride on the four wheeler, the aim being to drive the entire perimeter of the farm, every farthest pasture and woodlot, under the aegis that “we need to research the reception of my phone.” We’ll have fun letting everyone know of our progress by annoying them with text messages. The girls want to come. “Nope,” we tell them, “we’re doing work. We need to concentrate.” Mom climbs on the front, and I slide on behind her. We take off, leaving my children in a cloud of dust.
We stop in the old apple orchard, then we climb down to investigate the stream bed. We follow along to see how the water flow is changing and recovering from the hurricanes a few years back. We rumble through the woods, then climb the trails to the upper pastures. Up there, she turns off the machine and we sit quietly looking out across the fields and the surrounding mountain tops.
For that moment, I just drink it in. And I think back over the season of endless hours on my feet: of waiting tables, pulling lattes, selling meat. I think about the number of times Mom and I have bickered in the cafe kitchen. I ponder briefly when Dad will smoke the next side of bacon, when Bob will find more time to slice it. My mind flits for a second over the enormous expenses we’ve incurred for this new cafe and store, the hours spent sweating in front of the oven, the hours spent crunching numbers. I recall briefly the phone calls Mom isn’t mentioning that I’m supposed to make, the sausage processing dates she isn’t reminding me to schedule.
All that stuff, all that business, is for something.
It is for this moment: To see this land, secure for today, loved and tended. To have my mom with me to watch as September paints the first red leaves on the maples.
And my mind goes back to that earlier lesson: that running barefoot through a dark basement was a stupid idea. On the contrary. It was one of the best ideas I’ve had in a long time.