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Irons in the fire: A brighter and clearer picture

Paul Marchant for Progressive Forage Grower Published on 29 March 2016

I have a favorite picture that’s hanging on my office wall. It was taken by my father-in-law in the summer of 1992. It’s a picture of me and my then-2-year-old daughter, Elise. My back is to the camera, and I’m holding Elise, who is facing the camera with her head resting on my shoulder as she looks at the camera with her big, Jersey cow-brown eyes.

I remember the day the picture was taken fairly well. My wife’s parents had come to spend a few days while my mother-in-law helped my wife after the birth of Anna, kid number three. It was just before sundown. I’d spent the day on the mountain, moving cows. Elise, who was a bit out of sorts from all the commotion and confusion a 2-year-old faces with the arrival of a new sibling, was thrilled to see her dad and just wanted me to hold her.

I was happy to oblige. I was worn out from the day’s work, and it rescued both me and my father-in-law from any awkward obligatory conversation about how my day had been. And besides, positive attention from a child under the age of 4 always melts the heart in the best of ways.

I now have another favorite picture on the office wall, opposite the picture of my oldest daughter and her dad. It’s a picture of me and Adele, Elise’s 2-year-old daughter. It was taken by my son this past summer when Elise, her husband, Will, and their two kids were visiting from Wyoming.

It’s identical to the first picture – except that my daughter is replaced by my granddaughter. Besides a generation and 22 years, the pictures are very similar – except the newer picture, aided by newer and better digital technology, is much clearer.

On my desk, beneath the two pictures, I keep a list Elise printed off and gave to me as a gift when she gave me the framed picture of Adele and me for my last birthday. The list is titled “10 Things Learned from my Dad.”

Now, there could be a truckload of things on that list I’d rather not repeat or share. Things such as:

  • How to cuss a cow and what unsavory words fit best in a given situation

  • How to leave the gate open for just five minutes because we’ll be right back through and the horses are clear down at the other end of the field anyway

  • How to lose patience with a young horse while you’re shoeing him

  • How to give up when you’re trying to help a seventh-grader learn algebra

  • How to sour your kids on helping sort cows or process calves because they rarely hear a thank you or an encouraging word

  • How to track mud across the living room floor because it’s too inconvenient to take your boots off out on the porch

  • How to make a lake in the horse pen because you forgot to turn the hose off

  • How to leave dirty dishes on the table or in the sink

  • How to run the pickup into a snowy ditch in January because you took the turn too fast

  • How to always get the last word in during an argument – no matter how hurtful that last word may be

  • How to ruin a good set of reins because you used them to tie your horse up on the corral fence for just a minute

You get the idea. She could have made a really long list like that if she had wanted. But she chose to make a list of mostly positive things – things I wasn’t really aware I taught her.

She came up with some gems that were largely unspoken – but she somehow found them amid the chaos and desert, devoid of goodness, that life lived in an imperfect world sometimes becomes. She remembered things like:

  1.  “No man is an island.” Be considerate of those around you.
  2. Don’t head in for dinner until the job is done.
  3. Being immersed in agriculture is worth any inconvenience associated with it.
  4. Give your employers their money’s worth.
  5. Become educated in as many ways as possible.
  6. Never forget your family or your heritage.
  7. Never treat another person as inferior.
  8. Set a goal to accomplish something, and then do it.
  9. It’s nice to have money, but money can’t buy a good life.
  10.  The life of a cowboy is a tough life, but it’s a good life.

With the exception of number 10, which is something I always quoted to the kids when we were in the middle of some miserable job that rarely reflected the romance of cowboy life, her list consists more of how I try to live and less of things I actually said.

Just like the newer picture is clearer than the older one, experience and hindsight can make things brighter and clearer. Thank goodness for the softening touch of years that can somehow dull the bitter sharpness of harsh words and hard times and brighten the most pleasant memories.

If you’re reading this, I hope you feel the same way.  FG