Countless gifts from my family tree

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“It’s hard to translate lived experience onto a page. A story told poorly is life made small by words.”

— Mary Karr

A small black-and-white photograph holds my attention each time I see it in my mother’s house. Four generations represented, my oldest sister is the baby sitting on the lap of a great-grandfather gone before I arrived in the world. My father, age 21 and beaming with pride and joy, sits on the right of his beloved grandpa. Leaning in on the left is the grandfather I knew, my dad’s father, dressed in a suit and tie, looking young and bright-eyed.

Last night, in deep dreams, I was a child rushing through the countryside of long ago. Hiding from something unknown, I climbed through loose hay in an old barn, a frantic little kid searching for an ally.

A long hallway finally opened into a dining room, with one empty seat at the table. I climbed into the chair beside a frightening-looking man, part of his face damaged.

I realized with inexplicable joy this was my great-grandfather, the man my father had spoken of so lovingly all his life, a man I’ve forever wanted to know.

How do we ever capture in words what a long-ago life continues to mean? If I fall short, I diminish everything this shy, strong, quiet life represents. He built, in many ways, the boy who would become my beloved father, respected by all who knew him.

Dad’s paternal grandfather, who lived under the same big roof, taught this little boy to farm, to appreciate and respect the land, to glean the best from what a farm is and forever will be to those raised upon it.

In 1913, Herbert was injured in a rip-saw accident that knocked him unconscious for two weeks and nearly killed him, taking out his left eye, crushing his jaw and cheekbone. He was rarely photographed, and I would know little of him if my father hadn’t shared stories of his influence in his life.

Though the serious injury forever changed him, my father came into the world long after the fact, and loved his grandfather just as he was.

They walked the fields as they farmed with horses, and Grandpa Herbert kicked aside arrowheads as if they were field litter. The little boy asked if he could keep the ones he liked, and this began an impressive life-long arrowhead collection found on fertile ground.

His grandpa loved to fish, but my father never developed the patience for it, so the boy would stay and work while his grandpa walked to his favorite fishing spot nearly every day. Sometimes there was a big supper of fish, and if a fellow was lucky, there would be fried fish eggs with breakfast.

Herbert, born in 1871, was the oldest child of the incredibly successful Samuel and Elizabeth, who were community philanthropists, quite active in the church, and large landowners.

They built a lovely homestead that could be seen for miles around. Their three children never reached such potential, but Samuel’s intellect, his drive to build an exemplary and prosperous farm, and even his general appearance all were passed down to my father.

While my father’s sense of humor was nurtured by his other grandfather, and his keen interest in life-long learning sparked by his mother, his old-world farming knowledge and steady work ethic was a gift from his quiet, paternal grandfather.

A somber man, Grandpa Herbert was a man of few words, but he shared stories of his successful father with his grandson as they worked together. When not fishing or farming, Herbert read his Bible.

If nothing else is known of this quietly influential grandfather, it is enough to know it was he who sat outside crying, the day in 1946 when my father got off the school bus.

“What’s wrong, Grandpa?” the young boy asked, never having seen his grandfather shed a tear.

“I lost my best friend today,” was all he could answer, his heart clearly breaking.

His best friend was his daughter-in-law, the other person who was so instrumental in his grandson’s life. She had died at 35, following a tonsillectomy performed in the hospital earlier in the day.

This grandfather, already beloved, became the singular salve to a wounded spirit. My father never stopped missing these two people as he lived his own life story, filled with incredible hard-working drive and admirable success.

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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, in college.

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