Learning or Earning

In my family, developing a good work ethic started very early. On both sides, that was considered a very strong quality. My father came from a farming family in Kansas and my mother’s family came over on a ship from Italy craving to be Americans. My Dad’s family owned 300 acres and grew crops as well as had cattle, pigs, chickens, horses, cats and dogs.  Shangri-la to the animal loving tomboy I was! My maternal grandparents lived in a row home and had a postage stamp of a back yard where my grandfather had every type of vegetable and fruit growing. He even had a fig tree. It was fun going to visit both sides, with all the animals and family reunions out west and the exotic fruit that my mom’s dad grew and used to make homemade wine in the basement. My grandmother would yell at him, telling him the fumes were making the dogs drunk. Either way, it all spelled out fun to me.


Whether it was gathering eggs, helping milk the cows, carrying buckets of grain to the mamas and their new baby calves or, on the east coast, going in that little garden with my Pop and helping him pull weeds, pick vegetables and eating the best food I ever had eaten.  At my Nanny’s apron strings I learned how to cook. We made her Italian food of course, from my Grandma Karr was a great country cook. We loved going fishing for catfish, cleaning and cooking them and, even though it was fun to my brother and I, it all revolved around work.

In fact I learned how to drive a straight shift truck picking hay up one summer. My cousin Linda and I took turns and we learned how to release the clutch real easy and shift, while we accelerated just enough to not make it jerk forward. My brother, that was 4 years younger than myself and the youngest of the cousins that were all helping pick up hay, would be perched on top.  As the men threw the hay up he would try to line it up so they could get the maximum amount of hay loaded on the truck before we took it to the barn. Of course, while my cousin and I took turns learning the precise amount of pressure you would use with your left foot and equally pressing down with the right foot for accurate acceleration my poor brother was the one that would suffer from our learning curve.  He would get thrown to the ground when we let the clutch out too fast. One time after he just got put back up on the truck and we miscalculated again, the truck lunged forward and before he hit the ground we heard him yell “oh no, not again!”

So, I guess you could say work was a part of my life as far back as I can remember, and if I could’ve, I would have changed my own diaper. But thinking back, I remember being a hard worker was something to be proud of, the measure of the type of person you were. . There are certain sayings,  you could call country sayings or southern sayings, and anyone that has been raised either way will understand. If someone calls you “sorry, just plain sorry” that meant you were lazy, and the term “no count” meant untrustworthy or someone that would stab you for 5 bucks.  My rebellious stage hadn’t kicked in yet, so I wanted to do well in the adults eyes.  There was nothing worse than for a parent or any adult to call you “sorry, just plain sorry.”

I was a tomboy for many reasons. From the time I was old enough to play with other kids in my neighborhood, they were all boys, so if I wanted to be included in the reindeer games I better play the reindeer games well, if not better than the boys. Plus, and this is one of my favorite reasons, my Dad taught me how to ride horses at the age of 3, something I still do to this day. He taught me the great responsibility that came with riding a horse, the proper care, being able to read the signs of the horse’s mood. He taught me if a horse had his ears pricked up facing forward, he was engaged, listening, and pretty much happy. If a horse had his ears pinned back, you better watch out because this meant the horse was mad, and there was a good chance of a kick or a buck if you were riding. Too bad people don’t give those signs.

I loved horses, as I love them today, and every birthday and Christmas I always asked for a horse. At the time, we lived in the city and not being able to keep a horse in our backyard didn’t occur to me. But when I was eleven and a half we moved to the country. We got a place with about five acres so I started thinking my wish may come true. On my 12th birthday I got a mare and her filly. I felt like I was the luckiest kid alive. Of course, I had to work to accommodate this phenomenal gift. I helped put up the fence, I helped build the barn, I fed them every morning and made sure they had fresh water, and that didn’t just mean on sunny days, that included cold days where the water was frozen, and when the snow was 2 feet on the ground. I didn’t care, I loved my horses.


Behind us, a doctor owned about 60 acres that my other friends with horses and I ruled. We rode through those fields, woods, and creeks. Those days of riding, having long talks, solving the problems of the world were so fun, and in those days, so normal. We even taught our very western horses to jump over fallen logs and bales of hay when we would ride bare-back. I’m so glad that those formative years of riding and growing up were that way as opposed to boarding at a stable. I board at great stables now but I have been to some where there is a large majority that are young girls and the movie MEAN GIRLS pales in comparison to the way these girls treat each other and compete.  Even worse than them are their moms! I have found that if there is a petty trainer that makes it rampant, but if you have someone that is no nonsense they won’t put up with it.

We eventually had built a beautiful white four board fence around our pastures.   But,that took over a year to be built all around and until then we had electric fencing. Between fence and barn building, we had put in a garden that was huge and was part of my chores. Well this was the spring of my 14th year when I was out of the tomboy stage, and started looking at boys in a much different way; I was in full blown rebellion. One morning the all too familiar call from my Mom that the filly had gotten out and I better hurry and catch her before the school bus came. Her car was in the shop or something and my mind was wandering as I was walking down the road with the halter and lead rope. I caught her pretty easy and I took our time getting back. I stopped and picked some flowers and got us out of sight when the school bus drove by. As I sauntered up the driveway about 15 minutes later my Mom came running out the door saying I missed the bus. I informed her I wasn’t going to school that day. Well, before I had that filly put up in the pasture and walked in the house, she was hanging the kitchen phone on the wall, that we all had, up. I knew this was trouble.

It seemed like it was a matter of minutes but about 30 minutes later my Dad’s truck came up the driveway. I guess he saw me peeking out the blinds because he motioned for me to come out as he was unloading something from the truck. He wasn’t yelling, in fact he was eerily calm. He said he understood I wasn’t going to school, and I started pleading my case, I missed the bus, by the time I would get there I would have already missed my first 2 classes. He just kept nodding saying he understood, and he wasn’t a big fan of school either and he said that since I was going to take the day off, I would have to work. Then, I really pushed him and told him I was going to go for a ride and asked him if he wanted to go riding too. He said that sure sounded good but he had to get back to work and after I finished my chores maybe we could ride that evening.

He then unloaded the shiny, new tiller. It looked like a cross between a lawnmower and a small tractor. He then showed me how to start it, and it was very much like a mower and he showed me how I could turn over the ground between the rows in the garden instead of my trusty, well used hoe. He then advised me he wanted me to till the garden. The whole garden? He said I would be amazed how fast this would go, and I could take breaks, but I just needed to have it done by the time he got home. I then suggested if he would like to take me to school right then I could get started on the garden when I got home. He laughed and shook his head and told me how I had pointed out that I had already missed several classes. He then told me, in this house if I wasn’t learning, I would be earning. I can tell you this, I did not like the sound of that! He started the tiller and got me started down a row.

The tiller was shiny and new and it was loud. It shook violently down the rows as I used all my might to just keep it straight on the row. If I didn’t, it would take out our vegetables that were already coming up. I think I even took a few out on purpose just being a brat, but I had bigger problems in front of me, I couldn’t start this thing, so that means, I couldn’t stop it. After my second hour my Mom came out and told me to take a break, I told her I couldn’t because I couldn’t get it started again, and I was only halfway done. She brought me water, I kept tilling and about an hour later my brother came walking up the drive asking me what happened? His bus was about 45 minutes earlier than mine so he didn’t know the whole story. When I asked him to take the tiller for a couple rows so I could take a break, he informed me, no way, he had gone to school. By the fourth hour I only had a row left, my Mom kept bringing me water begging me to stop and at this point, it had become a quest. I cussed that tiller, I cussed my brother for not helping, I cussed that filly for getting out, I cussed my father for outsmarting me, and at first, I cussed my M=mother too for ratting me out.  But, her trips back and forth with water, and cold towels gained her some mercy from me.  When I finished that last row, turned that “devil’s tool” off, and let it fall on it’s side, I gave it a few swift kicks.

I got in and collapsed on the sofa, my hands blistered, my arms numbs from the shaking, the ringing in my ears from hearing that loud motor for so many hours. I fell into a deep sleep. I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming but I heard my Father ask my Mom if I didn’t take a break, and then I heard him say, “I’ll be damned.” The next thing I knew was he was waking me up to eat, I just wanted to sleep but he made me. I could barely hold my fork, I only ate a little and as I was heading up the steps to my room, like any good farmer, I was going to bed at 7, he told me the garden looked good.

The next morning, I was up an hour early, first at the bus stop, and I practically kissed the floor of the school. I think I studied a little harder that day because he had made it clear to me that there was nothing wrong with physical work, and he thought I did a good job of it, but I was going to be able to make a choice, to use brawn or my brain. For the rest of that school year, which was only a few more weeks, I decided to really use my brain.

He and I never talked about that again, though he told family members about the day. I wish we had talked about that because it was such a vibrant memory I have of him, and he got his point across without using too many words. I think from both sets of my grandparents and my parents, I learned the best gift you can give to a child wasn’t the horses that I loved dearly, but was a good work ethic. Even these days when I walk through a hardware store, and I see the “devil’s tool,” I have to smile.



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