Starting the Day

My father taught me how to eat breakfast
those mornings when it was my turn to help
him milk the cows. I loved rising up from

the darkness and coming quietly down
the stairs while the others were still sleeping.
I’d take a bowl from the cupboard, a spoon

from the drawer, and slip into the pantry
where he was already eating spoonfuls
of cornflakes covered with mashed strawberries

from our own strawberry fields forever.
Didn’t talk much—except to mention how
good the strawberries tasted or the way

those clouds hung over the hay barn roof.
Simple—that’s how we started up the day.

~Joyce Sutphen, “Breakfast” from First Words, Red Dragonfly.

By the time I was four years old, my family owned several Guernsey and Jersey dairy cows who my father milked by hand twice a day. My mother pasteurized the milk on our wood stove and we grew up drinking the best milk on earth, as well as enjoying home-made butter and ice cream.

One of my fondest memories is getting up early with my dad, before he needed to be at school teaching FFA agriculture students (Future Farmers of America). I would eat breakfast with him and then walk out into the foggy fall mornings with our dog to bring in the cows for milking. He would boost me up on top of a very bony-backed chestnut and white patchwork cow while he washed her udder and set to work milking.

I would sometimes sing songs from up there on my perch and my dad would whistle since he didn’t sing.

I can still hear the rhythmic sound of the milk squirting into the stainless steel bucket – the high-pitched metallic whoosh initially and then a more gurgling low wet sound as the bucket filled up. I can see my dad’s capped forehead resting against the flank of the cow as he leaned into the muscular work of squeezing the udder teats, each in turn. I can hear the cow’s chewing her breakfast of alfalfa and grain as I balanced on her prominent spine feeling her smooth hair over her ribs. The barn cats circulated around us, mewing, attracted by the warm milky fragrance in the air.

Those were preciously simple starts to the day for me and my father, whose thoughts he didn’t articulate nor I could ever quite discern. But I did know I wasn’t only his daughter on mornings like that – I was one of his future farmers of America he dedicated his life to teaching.

Dad, even without you saying much, those were mornings when my every sense was awakened. I’ve never forgotten that- the best start to the day.

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We Stand Grounded

My father will not
climb into the trees
today.

He is eighty-four
and tells me
that he was never

fond of heights,
that he hated
putting up the pipes

to fill the silo,
that he did not enjoy
climbing to the top

of the barn
to fix the pulley
on the hay-sling.

I have no desire
to be in the air,
he says.

And I always thought
he loved walking
the rim of the silo,

waving his hat
in circles overhead,
shouting down to
where we stood
grounded and gazing
up at him.

~Joyce Sutphen “Grounded” from First Words

As much as I loved it, riding on my father’s shoulders when I was small was more than high enough for me: he was a tall man and I felt I could reach the sky when I was up there. He would dip me down and swoop around and I felt I was flying with my tummy tickling the whole time. It was sheer delight but only because my dad was attached to the ground and I was held tightly by him. I was safe because he was.

When I was five, it took me months to be brave enough to climb the steps to go down the slide on my kindergarten playground – I lied to my parents that I had done it way before I actually did and they were so proud for me. This meant when I actually screwed up the courage and did it months later, there was no one I could brag to – I had ruined my own achievement with my previous deceptive bravado.

Climbing ladders into the hay loft to fetch hay bales still requires bravery that I sorely lack. Going up the steps doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact I must eventually come down…somehow… and it is the descent that seems far more terrifying.

When our barn needed a major repair of new roof and walls, the workers used ladders but also a hydraulic lift – something the turn of the century carpenters didn’t have access to. When I look at the hay sling/hook pulley hanging high from the peak of the barn, I realize someone over 100 years ago had to climb up to put it up there, so there it remains even though its working days are long past.

As much as possible, I now stay grounded, firmly attached to the soil, convinced it is where I belong. I’ll look and act as if I’m brave when I dare to climb up high, but only because I know Whose shoulders bear me up when I’m going beyond my comfort zone.

I’m safe because He is and always will be.

If you prefer to keep your feet on the ground, you will enjoy this new book from Barnstorming, available to order here:

You Are My Sunshine

My father climbs into the silo.
He has come, rung by rung,
up the wooden trail that scales
that tall belly of cement.

It’s winter, twenty below zero,
He can hear the wind overhead.
The silage beneath his boots
is so frozen it has no smell.

My father takes up a pick-ax
and chops away a layer of silage.
He works neatly, counter-clockwise
under a yellow light,

then lifts the chunks with a pitchfork
and throws them down the chute.
They break as they fall
and rattle far below.

His breath comes out in clouds,
his fingers begin to ache, but
he skims off another layer
where the frost is forming

and begins to sing, “You are my
sunshine, my only sunshine.”
~Joyce Sutphen, “Silo Solo” from First Words

Farmers gotta be tough. There is no taking a day off from chores. The critters need to eat and their beds cleaned even during the coldest and hottest days. Farmers rise before the sun and go to bed long after the sun sets.

I come from a long line of farmers on both sides – my mother was the daughter of wheat farmers and my father was the son of subsistence stump farmers who had to supplement their income with outside jobs as a cook and in lumber mills. Both my parents went to college; their parents wanted something better for them than they had. Both my parents had professions but still chose to live on a farm – daily milkings, crops in the garden and fields, raising animals for meat.

My husband’s story is similar, though his parents didn’t graduate from college. Dan milked cows with his dad and as a before-school job in the mornings.

We still chose to live on a farm to raise our children and commit to the daily work, no matter the weather, on sunlit days and blowing snow days and gray muddy days. And now, when our grandchildren visit, we introduce them to the routine and rhythms of farm life, the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows, and through it all, we are grateful for the values that follow through the generations of farming people.

And our favorite song to sing to our grandchildren is “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” as it is the sun that sustains our days and its promise of return that sustains our nights.

You’ll never know, dears, how much we love you.
Please don’t take our sunshine away.

The Light is Enough

There were moments, hours even,
when it was clear what I

was meant to do, as if
a landscape had revealed itself

in the morning light.
I could see the road

plainly now, imagining myself
walking towards the distant mountains

like a pilgrim in the old stories—
ready to take on any danger,

hapless but always hopeful,
certain that my simple belief

in the light
would be enough.
~Joyce Sutphen “Those Hours” from Carrying Water to the Field

We’re not always sure we’re on the right road, are we? Too often we’re struggling to find our way in the dark.

Suddenly things are under water, the bridge is washed out, there are potholes everywhere, the fog line disappears in the mist, a mudslide covers both lanes – the road seems impossibly impassable.

Yet we set out on this road for a reason and a purpose; this is not wasted effort. If we can’t see where we are going, fearing we may plunge off an unseen cliff, we pause, waiting until the light is enough to take the next step.

So the light will come.
I believe it will.
I know it will as it always has.