In this week’s episode of Sorry, I’m Sad I talked with Kate Fagan about her book, All the Colors Came Out, which is about the relationship between a father and a daughter. Kate’s book resonated with me on so many levels, but since it’s Father’s Day, it really made me think about my dad. My dad is a retired farmer, and I’m the youngest of three girls. He was and is everything a “girl dad” should be.
I don’t get to see my dad today. My parents live in the United States and I live in Canada, so I haven’t seen them in more than a year. I want to give him a hug today and play basketball in the driveway together and go for a drive. Since I can’t, I’m doing the next best thing — sharing something I wrote about him a long time ago …
My second year of college a friend told me, “I don’t think homesickness is something God wants to take away.”
A few weeks before, my grandpa had passed away and left me longing for a place that was more safe and familiar than my college dorm room. I drove home to Arlington, S.D., and did something I hadn’t done for years. I went hunting with my dad. Only this time, for the first time, I carried a gun.
The day was brisk, to say the least, the rushes tall and at times I couldn’t feel my fingers, but I didn’t complain. Mostly because I didn’t really notice, and also because there was no way I was going to let my dad know. It was one of those days you want to stop, to freeze, to do anything to hold off that 5 o’clock sunset even a few minutes more. We walked through what seemed like miles of brown landscape, barren in its midwinter sleep. We idled slowly through each country mile, down the dirt roads I knew so well. I asked the same questions I always had. My dad answered anyway.
He sat in that same spot in the pickup, the same mannerisms coming from his side of the cab, telling the stories I knew so well but couldn’t wait to hear again. He knew I knew those stories, but it seemed, as much as I wanted to hear them again, he wanted, just one more time, to tell them. As he spoke I scanned the fields and the farms, the silos and the grain bins, the cows huddled together, frost stuck thick to their noses and around their mouths. I tried hopelessly to get my mind around the fact that he’d spent his entire 58 years in these fields, on that farm, in this two-road town.
I used to be my dad’s girl. He is the center of countless childhood memories, but as I got older our crop checks and road hunts happened less and less. I suppose it was natural, but even now, especially on Father’s Day, not one second passes that I don’t long to be back in that place, my place — next to him in the pickup. It seems so simple, but there I’m nestled deep into the safest spot I’ve ever known, a crew cab pickup taking me to the deepest part of my dad’s eternally expansive heart.
We missed about six pheasants that day. At 10 minutes to 5, as the sun kissed the snow-packed horizon, we got our first bird. We shot at the same time, our yellow Lab disappearing into the rush as the pheasant tumbled from the sky. We didn’t know who hit it. When he cleaned the bird, Dad found two different sized BBs lodged in the bird’s chest. He chuckled. I didn’t get it. He looked at me and explained — “We both hit it, Kels.”
I sat on the tailgate, coveralls around my waist, hiking boots muddied from sloughs not quite frozen solid, legs swinging above the machine shed’s simple dirt floor, and watched my dad — all hands and heavy brown eyes — clean that pheasant. Another first he guided me through, one of so many he refused to miss, no matter what it meant he had to give up. My first steps, the first time I rode a bike, shot a basketball, swung a bat, sang a solo, starred in a play — no matter that he’d slip away at the curtain call or the final buzzer and head back to the fields — he was there, by my side, in the audience, I didn’t have to wonder.
After walking most the day, we spent our last hour road hunting. We drove to the edge of Dad’s land, the land he bought from his dad. He stopped the pickup on top of that same hill. You can see the whole farm from there. I knew this place. I used to run through these trees in the spring, picking wild asparagus, searching for that lone plum tree that grew the sweetest fruit I’d ever tasted.
The engine idled, my dad turned the key, and for a moment there was silence. Chills ran up my arms. I knew my dad used to sit where I am now, my grandpa in the spot my dad now owns. Then and now, the story is the same.
“When I was growing up, your grandpa would stop right here during every crop check. He would pull into this spot, turn off the engine, and say to me, ‘I remember when this farm was for sale. The banker took your mom and me right here. I looked out over this land, turned to Mom and said, “Yep, this is going to be a good little farm.”
The chills lingered. The simple story was far from new but had never meant more.
The moment had to end. If not, I might have burst. Slowly, Dad turned the key and backed up. The pickup jerked and bounced as we passed the sign that for my whole life had gone ignored. Bright yellow, it dared us “minimum maintenance road — travel at your own risk.”
This story was always worth the risk.
We headed west, driving aimlessly through the South Dakota countryside, so flat and unassuming you’d think the word peaceful was born right there, before coming into the tiny town of Badger. Just two roads, the two-room school where my dad learned his times tables, and a tiny Lutheran church — the silver steeple my dad painted glinting in the dropping sun.
I hadn’t been here since the funeral, and I knew what was ahead. Dad did, too. His foot eased on the brake as we pierced the outskirts of town, and suddenly, long before I was ready, there it was, my grandpa’s grave, not even a month old.
My throat tightened, and my eyes burned as we passed the frozen pile of fresh, black dirt. The sting of reality was still just too fresh. Dad looked at me, my cheeks wet with heavy tears, reached across the seat, his huge hand perfectly containing mine, and said softly and simply, “It doesn’t seem possible, does it?” I tried to push back the sobs but managed nothing more than a broken “no.”
Homesickness. It was always something I struggled with. I used to pray that it would go away, that my heart wouldn’t long so for my little prairie town. But that day, as I walked through the fields, wind biting at my cheeks, nose running and fingers numb, I looked ahead at my dad, striding long and tall through the rushes, and prayed my friend was right.
Please, God, never let this feeling go away.
Originally published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, June 20, 2009.
This past week my parents moved out of my childhood home. I loved everything about that house, about that place, and I have felt rather untethered by the fact that they don’t live there anymore and that, because of Covid, I didn’t get to go home to say goodbye to that house. And so even though I am 37 years old, I am feeling that same homesickness again that I did all those years ago when I first wrote that piece.
I know my dad can relate, and I know that because my parent’s sold the place I grew up to move back to the place my dad grew up. He was 58 years old when I wrote that. He is 75 now, and he has spent his entire adult life being homesick for the farm.
Finally, he’s back. My grandpa was right. It sure has been a good little farm, and I know that wherever he is, he is so happy right now to see my dad back there.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you, and I’m so grateful you are here so I can tell you that. Can’t wait to see you at the farm soon.
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