My Parents Know More Than I Thought

One of my fondest memories of my father is from when I was 13 years old. We were standing outside the barn door after working together on a fencing project. I stood at his left-hand side, and he looked down and said, “That’ll do, pig.”

I grinned as I looked up through my massive owl-eyed glasses that took up half of my face.

Perhaps the addition of “pig” at the end of that sentiment sounds strange, but our family had recently adopted several phrases from the cult classic Babe: The Gallant Pig. We had seen the movie for the first time recently (I read the book later) and loved it, despite its agricultural inaccuracies (taking sows away in the manner the movie depicts in the beginning makes no animal care or economic sense to a farmer).

So the phrase “Well done, pig,” was some of the highest praise I could receive.

Grandpa (right) and I with the judge and plaque for our champion ram at the Shropshire Spectacular.

When I think of memories with my mother, I think of when she and I would drive to sheep shows with Grandpa in his green extended cab truck. I loved those trips. The worst part was waiting for them. There was one year where Mom and I were packed, and I was beyond ready to go. I paced around the house, saying, “When will Grandpa get here? When will we leave? I want to go.”

Mom finally said, “Why don’t you sweep the kitchen floor? Waiting is easier when you do something.” (I now see this as a clever parental ploy.) So I grabbed the broom out of the closet, started sweeping, and 30 seconds later, Grandpa and his truck waltzed down the driveway with the sheep trailer. We were ready to go to Illinois.

Mom also took us to flea markets, and even though there were a lot of toys around, I somehow ended up most fascinated by the books, and that was encouraged. We would also make trips every year with my younger brothers to the Exposition Hall at the State Fair, and we’d stop at the book vendors the longest, often making multiple purchases. Mom would read books to us during the summer after lunch, despite protests that we wanted to do something else. We didn’t want to just sit on the couch and listen. But it ended up that we’d want her to read another chapter because that one had ended on a cliff hanger. She’d refuse to continue, instead saving it for the next day.

Even with these memories and all the activities we did together, there are things that my parents knew that I didn’t know they knew.

After I had arrived in New Zealand and settled in to where I was going to live for two-and-a-half months for work on the dairy farm, I discovered I needed to learn how to light a wood stove. Despite watching my grandmother light hers for years, I still didn’t know the exact technique. I informed my family of this challenge in the first email I sent from that rural area:

“I also am trying to learn how to keep a wood stove fire going. Although I’ve watched the process for many years, it is pretty different when you’re trying to do it yourself. So I’ve been watching some YouTube videos too. The house is actually colder than it is outside, so I could start opening windows to let in some warmth, which is a strange concept. I have had to open windows to let smoke out, that’s how badly this process of lighting a fire has been going.”

Dad cutting up limbs that fell near a fence with the help of dogs Evie and Sadie.

My dad replied:

“As for the fire, all I can say is start with very small bits first, laid on top of paper, then when that starts going, put on a wee bit bigger pieces, and save the biggest bits for when things are really hot. And make sure the wood is dry. That’ll do.”

My first thought was, I didn’t know my dad knew how to light a wood stove fire.

At the houses I remember living in, we had central heating. All we had to do was flick a switch and tell the thermostat what temperature we wanted the house to be and voila, we had heat. In my memory, I never had seen Dad light a wood stove fire.

But it made sense after I’d thought more about it. His parents had a wood stove, and he sometimes helped collect firewood for them, so at some point in his life, he must have lit that stove.

I experienced this phenomenon with Mom, too. When I started substitute and then full-time teaching, my mom would give me crowd control tips. I had given presentations as a state officer, a college student, a graduate teaching assistant, an intern and a professional in the agriculture field, but all of those experiences were totally different from trying to keep 14- to 19-year-old students engaged in blocks of 46-minute periods all day for five days in a row. And I would think, I had no idea my mom knew all this stuff about crowd control.

But it made sense. After all, there were three of us kids, and she had been working at the school ever since I was in elementary grades.

She also would give me tips about presenting lessons and giving kind replies to unkind remarks.

Again, I would think, I had no idea my mom knew this stuff. 

Mom and I at the airport on the day I flew to New Zealand.

All of these thoughts came to the surface after reading the “That’ll do” phrase in Dad’s email. Those two words reminded me of that moment in the barn lot after building fence as a 13-year-old. As we grow up, we have a very limited view of what our parents and other family members know. We know what it’s like to be teenagers, but our parents have no idea because they never were teenagers. They have always been grown up.

But as it turns out, my parents know a lot more than I thought they did.

Travel, and maybe even simply growing older, has helped me recognize and appreciate that fact.

And it’s one of the coolest things in the world.

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