More From The Blacksmith’s Daughter

I enjoy a blog called You Think Too Much, and recently the author did a post called Your Life as a Witty Memoir that I loved.  It made me think about memoir in general and my own memoir specifically, which made me decide to post another piece of it here.

My father was slight-built and tough, all muscle and guts.  He did close-to-impossible things, all on his own:  pulled the sagging-down barn back upright with steel cables and winches; dragged a 25 foot long, eight by eight inch timber into the tiny crawl space under the house and lifted it onto concrete pads he’d  poured in order to shore up the sagging floors; muscled a half ton wood stove off the truck’s back end, into the house, and up on its brick pedestal with no help from anyone.  He rode horses that couldn’t be ridden, birthed calves and colts and puppies, kept a wild coon he’d caught in a wire pen in order to train the hound dogs to hunt for him.  Whatever he wanted to accomplish he lit into with a vengeance, unsatisfied until the thing was either finished or ruined.  He ran our tumbling-down farm with old, rigged-up equipment and he devoted most of his time to it, when he wasn’t teaching or reading.  He devoted his heart to it.

A surgeon performed open heart surgery on my father when he was fifty eight and was amazed that my father was alive with the bad shape his heart was in.  He said my dad was the toughest physical specimen he’d ever seen.  “You ought to be dead,” he told my dad, and I imagine Dad flashing him a delighted, proud grin.

Dad lived another sixteen years after the surgery and although he retired from teaching school, he continued to work like a force of nature, putting half the acres-big lawn into perennial gardens, lugging rocks from God knows where and digging craters to settle them into, dredging any terrain he didn’t approve of into what he did want with the tractor, plowing the drive with the tractor after a blizzard.  I imagine my mother waiting inside through all of this, reading a book or washing the dishes or paying bills with resignation and a teaspoon of annoyance:  either he’ll get these jobs done or kill himself trying and there’s no point trying to stop him.

You can’t get people to be just one thing.  They’re difficult, impossible to pin down; they contain multitudes.  My father was wonderful and terrible, full of joy and rage, infuriating and hilarious, complicated and simple.  His boundaries on matters of the spirit were terrible–he had none–and he could not take no for an answer. And yet, a goofy grin would light up his face for the price of a bad joke or a bouquet of weeds.  The best way I can put it is that he was always himself, the genuine article, for better and worse.  Now that I’m an adult, I wouldn’t mind being a lot like him.

And maybe I am.  On a day almost twenty years ago, my father is frail, walking with a cane, getting out of breath easily, losing weight, always in some kind of pain.  I’ve got first, second, and third degree burns down the back of my leg from knocking a kettle of boiling water onto myself.  It’s been weeks and the pain is still incredible, but I’m sick to death of being immobilized on the couch.  I’ll go crazy if I lie there any longer.  I can’t walk but I can crawl, and that’s what I do.

My parents have come to visit and we’re planting tomatoes.  Dad sits in a ladder-back chair out in the middle of the garden, boring holes in the ground with a spade, leaning forward on the chair’s front legs and in danger of tipping face-first every minute.  I crawl around the edges of the plot, my leg throbbing and wrapped up in white bandages that are swiftly getting grimy but I don’t care, I want to plant tomatoes.

I dump the plants out of their little containers and watch my father’s progress, frowning.  He’s putting the holes too close together; his perspective is off since the strokes.  My mother orbits back and forth between the us, handing my plants to him, bringing him pans of water to dump on them once planted.

“You’re putting them too close together,” I tell him.

“No, I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.”

“I have planted a thousand gardens,” he tells me, instantly aggravated.  “I think I know what I’m doing.”

“They’re way too close together,” I repeat.  I am intensely dissatisfied.  “They’ll never grow.”

“Oh, just let me do this!” he cries, and spades another hole.

“Way too close together,” I mutter to my mom who smiles politely as if in sympathetic agreement but–I have a sudden revelation–she’d like to strangle us both.

I look back at Dad on his kitchen chair tipping so stubborn and precarious over the plants.  Those tomatoes are Way.  Too.  Close.  Together.  My leg throbs and throbs; the wounds ooze.  I realize I have only two choices.  I can crawl into the garden and yank every other plant out of the ground.  Or, I can crawl around the corner of the house and flop back on the cool new grass and dissolve into tears and laughter, thinking My God, we’re both as mad as hatters, which is what I do.

Category: Life 14 comments »

14 Responses to “More From The Blacksmith’s Daughter”

  1. Tawyana

    Once again, I can’t wait for more books!!!!

  2. ellenair

    Tawyana, Thank you so much!

  3. Marilyn Soules


    Have you read The Last Farmer by Stanley Kohn?…also a memoir/biography of his father and the farm of 3 generations in Bay County,MI.

    I think you’d like it!


  4. ellenair

    I haven’t read it, Marilyn. It sounds interesting.

  5. Marilyn Soules

    correction – it is written by Howard Kohn.

    Also, we are visiting Earl’s son in Boulder, CO and he emphatically states that the best bacon in the world is to be found at The West Bay Diner! The good word travels!

  6. Robyn

    Thanks for the link, Ellen. Glad you like my blog. The holidays might be an especially good time to think of your life as a witty memoir.

    Love this excerpt. My father and I also have a running battle over the spacing of tomato plants, only in the opposite direction. The first year my husband and I planted our own garden, my father came up to survey our work and pronounced that our tomato plants were all too close together. I was too stubborn to pull any of the plants up, but of course, he was right. Next year, you could have fit a bus between our tomato plants.

  7. ellenair

    Thanks, again, Marilyn! It is good bacon, for sure. : )

  8. ellenair

    Robyn, I think you’re right, I think the holidays are the ideal time for life framed as a witty memoir. I love your tomato story.

  9. Pamela Grath

    Ellen, you have an enormous gift for life as well as for telling stories. I love you! Happy Thanksgiving!

  10. ellenair

    Wow, Pamela–thank you so much for that beautiful compliment. Happy Thanksgiving and my love to you as well.

  11. Linda Baum

    Fantastic book. It may inspire me to try and quench my thirst to write fiction. I truly fell in love with the people in your book! I really didn’t want it to end.

  12. ellenair

    Linda, Thank you for the wonderful compliment about the book. Best of luck with your writing!

  13. Karen Beymer

    I hated for the book to end. Felt a personal connection with the characters.
    Would love to visit your area and stop by the diner.

  14. ellenair

    Karen, Thank you so much for your kind comments!

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