Growing up in the South, work was always revered – particularly hard work. Laboring to the point of wanting to maybe eat and then pass out immediately was valued. It showed dedication, loyalty – even respect in some ways. Making work doubly important and necessary even at a young age was the fact that I grew up on a farm. If you can walk, you can work – no matter how young. (I’m pretty sure the child labor laws are exempt for farmers.) And hey, even if you can’t walk – broken leg or whatever – you can still sit on stool and shuck corn or shell peas. When you are actively working a farm, everybody works.
For example, it would not be unusual for me to be in my night clothes (t-shirt and underwear) out in the middle of the highway at 3am helping my Mama and Daddy herd cattle back into the pasture when a fence went down. It’s also not uncommon in The South to drive by a house where 3-4 family members are on the back porch with shot guns aimed at a coyote or pack of wild dogs threatening their pigs or chickens or cattle, and those family members may range in age from 5 years old to 88 years old. When we harvested on the farm, everybody had to help especially with the vegetables we were gonna can or freeze – corn, peas, snap beans, peanuts, etc. That meant shucking corn, silking corn, shelling peas, snapping beans… Sometimes it seemed painful, but other times it wasn’t so bad. You could visit or watched television while doing peas or beans. The peanut picking was quick and easy – and worth it for the boiled peanuts to come! The corn…there was nothing fun about corn. The only thing worse than putting up corncobs and creamed corn was cleaning game or fish. Plucking and gutting birds and scaling and gutting fish are tedious and messy. (Gaming/fishing is a totally different topic, so more on that another day.)
Now, we didn’t just have crops to tend to on the farm. We raised beef cattle, mostly two breeds: Polled Herefords and Limousin. I have entire albums containing pictures of me at 7, 8, 9 years old – tiny li’l thing – leading around a 2000 lb steer, heifer or bull. See, part of running a beef farm is advertising your product to the buyers. It’s important to note here that the buyers fall into several categories. Some buyers want calves or heifers with good pedigrees. Some buyers want sperm from prized bulls known to produce healthy and meaty offspring. Of course, some buyers just want the beef – the meat from the slaughtered cattle. One way to show buyers how good your product is involves taking your best steer, heifer and/or bull to compete in cattle shows. They’re kind of like beauty pageants for bovines. Basically, you spend months getting up early (and then returning after school) to train the animal: get the animal accustomed to wearing a halter, following on lead and standing a certain way when the judge comes by to feel him/her up – a necessary rump and loin pat-down to ensure you aren’t making the animal look better with the various shampoos and hair gels we used. (Oh yes, I styled my bovines’ hair.) Eventually, it’s time for a local show, maybe at the County Fair. Once we had success there, we took the prized cattle on to the State Fair. If they were very impressive, we took them to a national cattle show. My very first heifer was named Sweet Pea. She was one of the good ones – not too difficult to train and very gentle. At the time I was 7 years old, and Sweet Pea won Grand Prize Heifer at the National Limousin Show. I ended up on the front of a magazine with a trophy as tall as I was. That was a highlight, but, of course, the down side of showing cattle was cleaning poop, getting kicked and chasing one that got away from you. That was part of farm life, though even if it wasn’t my favorite.
Most Southerners, but particularly the farmers, have a large backyard garden. Some years we had one that nearly filled the entire backyard. What comes with a garden is weeding; checking each day to pick the vegetables and fruits that are ripe; putting up any of the vegetables that you aren’t gonna eat right away; and best of all, eating fresh fruits and vegetables every day. I loved our meals growing up. Over at Granny and Granddaddy’s house, Monday thru Friday dinners (lunch) were: a meat like fried chicken, ham or fried liver; field peas; tomato gravy – soooo good; rice; greens, which may be mustard, collards or turnip; hand-made, buttermilk biscuits; maybe some kind of corn or beans or some other vegetable side; cornbread – but the flat, corn-pone type of corn bread; a bowl of cucumbers and Vidalia onions in vinegar beside each plate; and of course, freshly sliced tomatoes – just add salt. For dessert, a cobbler or pecan pie or maybe just a big ol’ slice of fresh watermelon (again, just add salt.) The garden duties were definitely worth the sacrifice.
For a time, we also had chickens. Tending chickens is pretty easy as long as you maintain the fencing around and above to keep out the hawks – otherwise, no chickens. In the morning, I would go out and throw some feed around and collect the eggs. I took a hoe – always. That may seem like an odd tool when tending chickens. However, snakes really like chicken eggs. It was not uncommon to find some long snake with a big lump or two halfway down his body. That’s when the hoe comes in to play – sharp edge, long handle – good weapon to chop a snake’s head off and be on your merry way. Fresh eggs are good, too, so I didn’t mind that duty. As a bonus, I spent time with 4-H and the FFA learning to judge chickens and grade chicken eggs – wanna make sure your grocery store isn’t giving you Grade A instead of Grade AA? I’m your girl.
In addition to the hard work of farm life, Southerners – whether farmers or not – value hard work. Thus, while all my family members are quite generous, it was important to them to instill a sense of hard work in each of us. One of my favorite stories occurred when I was about 3 years old. In addition to farming my Granddaddy owned a hardware, furniture and appliance store. We visited there almost every day it was open. Back then Granddaddy had one of those old timey Coca~Cola machines in the back of the hardware. It was the kind where you put in a quarter, opened the door and pulled out a bottled Coke. It was sweet! So…it’s early afternoon, and Mama brings me into the store to visit Granny and Granddaddy. I run over to Granddaddy and ask him if I can have a Coca~Cola. He says I have to earn it. He has me throw some empty boxes out the back door and run around with a duster – not that I actually accomplish any dusting running up and down the aisle. I’m sure I might have hit a couple of items with the duster…probably not more than that. Granddaddy didn’t actually expect me to do much; he just wanted to make a point about working. (Granddaddy’s favorite saying is, “Work in a hurry. Work in a hurry.”) Anyway, once I finish “working,” Granddaddy says I can have a Coke. Before he gets over to get me a quarter, 3-year-old me pushes a stool to the cash register, opens it up, and then… I look up and announce to the entire store – customers and all – “Who all wants a Coca~Cola?” I was ready to get out all the quarters necessary to treat us all! Like I said, generosity runs in the family.
The bottom line is that all across The South and especially in my family, pitching in and working is what we do. The first thing my Grandmama said to me when we heard Daddy had died was, “OK, let’s start cleaning this house. The visitors will start arriving soon… and it’ll help keep your mind off of it.” It did. Ever since then when I’ve received bad news, if I wasn’t working, I found work to do. And when all is well, I make sure to help out wherever I can: with friends, Habitat for Humanity, Team Rubicon, The Mission Continues…
Now, I don’t know how much comes from generations repeating, “Idle hands are the devil’s tools.” I don’t know how much comes from generations of farmers needing all hands working just to survive. What I do know is that we work – some way, some how. Just like Granddaddy always says, “Do you know how to spell ‘luck’? It’s W-O-R-K.”