The farm where my siblings and I grew up is still one of the most important places in our bountiful lives, yet we owned it for less than 30 years.
Perhaps that just shows that developing a sense of place has less to do with the length of time a person is associated with some location than with the strength of the experiences, emotions and memories connected to it. My first memories involve the farm. Through 76 years of memories, those involving that place remain crystal clear.
In that, I suppose my family is like other farm families in South Dakota. The land shapes the people who grow up on it. That isn’t easy to forget. Our place was just west of the Missouri River. Settlement reached much of that land in the early 20th century. The farms and the families that grew up on them, then, aren’t very old. My folks moved to our place in, like, 1940. We sold out after Dad died in 1968, fewer than 30 years later. My big brother, Jim, the eldest of us kids, was just 28 when we left the place. That isn’t very old, but it was a lifetime, long enough that he became the head of the family then. He’s held that spot for half a century.
Jim turned 80 this past week. That’s getting on in life. Eighty is serious stuff. It’s a significant benchmark. Look, the oldest age classification in the state’s COVID-19 reports is “80-plus years.’’ Anyone who makes it to 80 is accomplishing something, you know? Think of the people you’ve known who never reached their 80th birthday. There are a lot of them, aren’t there? Now think of people you know who are 80 or older. Not nearly as many, and most of them seem ancient, right?
Yet I never think of Jim as being old. He’s just my brother. There’s never been a time in my life when Jim wasn’t there, wasn’t my big brother. I’m not sure how I’d function if he weren’t around.
We don’t get together all that often. We trade emails every few days, and we connect at family events such as our annual summer reunion, a college basketball weekend or a family wedding or funeral. When we talk, it’s usually about sports or some bit of gossip one of us heard at coffee. Our conversations aren’t deep, but somehow we trade some sense of who we are becoming and what matters in our lives.
It’s always been that way, as far as I can remember. We communicate quite a lot without actually putting many specific things into words. We probably learned that from our dad and his farm neighbors. They could exchange a couple of words at the co-op or the grain elevator and it would be like they’d had an hour-long give-and-take. It was the moments together that mattered, not the length or depth of the conversation. I picked up on that pretty early without really recognizing what I was seeing.
Anyway, that’s the example our dad set, and that’s how we’ve handled our relationship – occasional brief meetings, light-hearted exchanges with maybe a smidgeon of deeper information passed along almost as an afterthought.
When I traveled for the newspaper and Jim worked at the stockyards in Sioux Falls, I sometimes rolled out of bed early and met him for breakfast at the Stockyards Café. The place was always crowded and noisy, Jim always bought, and in the spaces between loud exchanges with other buyers, sellers and truckers, we’d discuss one or two of the family’s current events. Then I’d say I had to hit the road, or he’d say he had to go look over some calves at one of the pens and we’d part ways outside the café door.
It doesn’t sound like much, but I remember those breakfasts almost as well as I remember working together on the silage pile or the hay stacks or in the wheat field or around the branding chutes. And I remember those times like yesterday afternoon. They couldn’t have all happened in less than 30 years, could they?
And my big brother can’t be 80, can he?