Ancestor haiku

Charlie Barlow and his team

Generations tilled
to eke out a meager life. Now I
scribble in comfort.


Notes:  I have to go all the way back to England in the 1600s to find an ancestor who had a desk job.  To the best of our family research, my great-great-great (etc.) grandfather was a clergyman back in the old country, who had the poor judgment to raise the ire of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In those days it didn’t take much to get your head separated from the rest of you.  Heretics and troublesome free thinkers could easily meet the same fate.

My forebear wised up in the nick of time and caught one of next boats after the Mayflower to the New World.  We are not sure if he stayed in the preaching business in his new surroundings in the Connecticut Colony, but as far as we can tell, all of those who followed him were dirt farmers.  (Which probably seemed like a safer line of work back then.)

Several generations later, after my great grandfather Frederick Ball narrowly survived the Civil War, he came back  home to find Connecticut getting crowded.  So, he headed west for the promise of cheap land and opportunity.  He wound up in southern Iowa, got married, acquired some land, and raised a family.

One of his sons was my grandfather, and he, too became a farmer, moving to Missouri to chase opportunity.  When my father came along, he showed considerable mechanical aptitude and had hopes of going to school to study engineering.  But the Great Depression dashed those dreams.  Dad had to drop out of school before he finished high school.  To  help support the family he became a farmer.

And  who knows, except for a twist  of fate or two, I might have followed right along and farmed myself.

But  my father had a bit of a mid-life crisis in his 40s.  When I was in first grade, he sold the farm and went in with his brother-in-law and a neighbor to buy a Ford Tractor dealership.  It was his one big entrepreneurial gamble in life.  And for a few years, it looked like it might pay off.

But some lean times for farm prices and some skullduggery by the neighbor-turned-business-partner, and the operation went broke.  They had to sell out cheap, and Dad was forced to fall back on his mechanical skills to make a living.

What this meant for me was that I spent most of my formative years in the town rather than on the farm.  So, while there were centuries of agrarian instincts bred into me, it didn’t take me long to adapt to indoor plumbing, central heating, and really close next-door neighbors.

And I certainly didn’t miss getting up early to gather eggs, milk the cow, or slop the pigs.

Oh sure, I still hoed beans, bucked bales, and detasseled corn as a hired hand in the summer.  But that was a job — not a way of life.

Even if my father had never left the farm, odds are I would have eventually left anyway.  That was the demographic trend during the whole last half of the last century.  The kids went away to school or to a big city for work, and tended never to move back.

It’s been hard on the farming communities.  And I know it was hard on the old folks left behind as their kids fanned out across the country.

When I stop to think about how much different my life has been from the generations before I marvel.  I have no explanation for why my entire adult career has been all inside work with no heavy lifting.

My father’s body bore the marks of a hard life in harder times.  He was kicked in the head by an ornery horse, and had headaches for the rest of his life.  His leg was caught between a hay wagon and a wall, and he walked with a limp.  He even had a few scars from surviving what he believed to be a mild case of small pox.

If the American Dream involves working hard and ensuring your children have a better life, then my parents and their generation certainly did their part.

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Good Father, a Tanka

Raymond Ball gave me a good example of fatherhood
My father with one of his grandsons

 Father, all I ask —
unbutton your coat, and warm
my toes on your skin.

This weary world is so cold,
and I am a trembling reed.


Notes on the form:

Tanka is a type of Japanese short poetry that some believe predates haiku.  Rather than the three line 5/7/5 haiku for, tanka adds two more seven syllable lines to form a 5/7/5 7/7 pattern.

From what I can determine, the content tanka tends to be more personal than haiku.  Some are even love notes passed between lovers.  But many also express an appreciation of nature.

I chose the tanka form for this poem inspired by my own father, and written as a prayer.

Notes on the content:  The example of a good father

I had the most excellent good fortune to have been blessed with a wonderful dad.  Because of his example, I found it easy to comprehend the idea of God as a good and loving father.

One of my earliest memories goes back to a winter day when I must have been no more than 3 years old.  Word came to our farmhouse on the party phone line that something strange had been found in a tree a couple of miles from our place.

We all bundled up and went to the scene.  It seems that a large weather balloon had fallen back to earth and gotten snagged high up in the tree.  It seemed to me that it took forever for the local high school-age farm lads to determine how best to climb the tree and free the object from its captor.

As the proceedings dragged on and on, I got colder and colder, and my feet were freezing.  When I  complained to my dad, he scooped me up, took off my socks and shoes, and stuck my tiny feet inside his coat and inside his shirt to warm them up.

A bit about my dad

He was a provider.  He worked hard all his life to provide for his family the best way he knew how.  In his youth during the Great Depression, working as a farmhand for a dollar a day (and glad to get it!)  Then, after saving up, he bought his own 80 acre dirt farm, which he operated for many years.

I came along as a late child, as Mom and Dad were facing middle age.  When I was young, he sold the farm, made the one big entrepreneurial move of his life, and bought a Ford Tractor dealership with a couple of partners.  When that business ultimately failed, Dad kept one working, this time as a mechanic.  Through hard times and disappointments, he just kept chopping wood, and doing the best he could.

He possessed a merry disposition, quick with a story or a quaint country expression.  But he was capable of administering effective corporal punishment when required.  His boys learned early on that he was not afraid to use his belt to emphasize a disciplinary point.  I must say his spankings, while no fun, were short, undamaging, and few.

He was honest to a fault, even refusing to charge mark-ups on the parts he bought to use in repairing cars, trucks, and farm implements.  Even though that was standard practice in auto and farm repair shops everywhere, it just didn’t seem right, he said, to take that money for nothing.   It was known throughout the county that if Ray Ball couldn’t fix it, it couldn’t be fixed.

And in those rare cases when he could not get the  tractor to run or the corn picker to pick, Dad wouldn’t charge the farmer anything at all.

An example as a husband

Dad was faithful to our mother throughout his life, and he clearly adored her.  And when she declined in health past the point where he could care for her at home, he visited her in the nursing home every day, personally spoon feeding lunch to her.

Finally, Dad did his best to expose his four sons to faith and to the love of God as he had come to know it.  He had seen his own father undergo a dramatic adult conversion, which resulted in a softening and sweetening in the disposition of my grandfather.  This must have had  an effect on my own father, because he was always a gentle and kind man.

Although my brothers and I all initially rejected the faith of our parents, at least some of us eventually came around.  Dad passed away in 2000, but I would like to think that Dad would appreciate this little poem, if he were around to read it.