The Last Straw

When other children were still fast asleep in their beds, my 11 year old father got up at 4:00 am to milk and feed the cattle, collect the eggs from the chickens, and fix fences that needed mending from any ruckus that occurred over night before he went to school. He learned to drive tractors long before he could ever legally drive a car on the road. He learned to fix engines, bail hay, and tend to newborn calves before many of us learned how to solve our first basic algebraic equation. When his four other brothers and sisters were born, they did the same, following my dad’s lead.

It was only recently that I noticed that my upbringing, and specifically that of my parents and grandparents, was much different than that of the friends I’ve made at college. While most of my peer’s parents were encouraged by their parents to attend college, my dad was conditioned to accept from an early age that he, the eldest son, would take over the family farm after his father, and like their fathers before.  The sort of picture I am painting here may sound archaic; many people I know have grandparents and parents who ventured out and went to college. However, my bloodline stood steadfast in old-fashioned ideals.

Of those ideals, dedication to family is of the utmost importance, in that it is expected to be upheld in some of the most constraining ways. A specific example of family dedication for the Altland’s deals with location. My great-grandparents and grandparents,  all of their brothers and sisters, and even my aunts and uncles all live within a 25 mile radius of the original family farm, and more than half of those are within 5 miles! I was astounded by this realization. Needless to say, leaving the homestead is not in our blood.

While leaving the area was unheard of, so was the thought of higher education. I’m not saying that a college education for my father or his siblings was totally discouraged, but it certainly was not outwardly encouraged, especially for my dad. My aunts and uncles went to a vocational high school to be trained to work as a cosmetologist, an electrician, and the like as soon as they graduated; one of my uncles never even graduated. For my dad, vocational training was not even an option. He grew up being told that the farm would be his and that was his future.

All of this scares me immensely (who wants to see their family simply existing instead of thriving?) and makes me question how I managed to leave and move on unlike the rest of them. However, I know the answer to that question: my father took the first step to breaking out of our family’s traditional ways.

While my grandfather was dead-set on my dad taking over the family business, my dad had other plans. Instead of planning for a future in farming, he joined the Army right after school, married my mom, and started his career as a helicopter pilot. After finishing up basic training in the U.S., my dad was deployed and stationed in Germany for about five years. From there, he and my mother lived in several places around the United States like out west and down south before they moved back into the area. Most importantly, he got away, traveled, and pursued a career that he truly desired.

My grandfather, however, was not happy with this decision. Defiance was not something he was accustomed to. I’ve been told stories from my dad and uncles about how angry he was about my father’s decision. Many of them include taking out his frustrations passive aggressively on the rest of the family, causing their home life to become rather hostile. The youngest son openly talks about how being the last child in that house was miserable;  he and my grandfather don’t have any sort of civil relationship to this day.

From that point, the whole Altland family farm, as well as the old-fashioned traditions, dissipated. I have some vague childhood memories at the farm, like building forts in the hay barn with my cousins and playing in piles of grain like it was sand, but by that time everything had gone downhill. My grandfather had already sold all of the livestock by then and it has since occurred to me that those last few hay bales were what was left of my family’s tradition. My grandparents eventually divorced, sold the farm, and my grandfather moved away to somewhere in between Oklahoma and Texas. I haven’t heard or seen much of him since. I’m told he lives on a ranch and has since remarried twice. In a way, it is sad to see the history of my family line come to an end; the sense of pride that comes with hard work and working the land is a trait that, I believe, is heavily instilled in my family. However, the end of one tradition gives way to the beginning of a new one. And I believe that my dad’s first step of defiance retrospectively impacted my personal growth and the direction of our family.

Somewhat like my dad’s childhood, we lived on a small farm in Dover, Pennsylvania (still within 15 miles of the old family farm) where from an early age I distinctly remember spending time sitting on my favorite rock within our hilly pasture watching the sheep graze. I remember rising in the early morning to put on my barn shoes (the kid friendly title for shit shoes) so I could go collect the eggs from the chickens. The work ethic was similar, but the restrictions and pressures that my grandfather put into place were not there. My dad always encouraged me to work hard and be dedicated, but not to be scared of trying new things. And he always stressed that sometimes, it is okay to be selfish, even if it means upsetting someone else’s plan for you.

So I followed in my father’s footsteps. At 18, I left, too.

I left the little, old town of Dover to start school in Philadelphia, which was a drastic change for a first generation college student. It’s been a challenge, but I’m changing the Altland tradition. And by next year, I will be the first in my family to graduate from a university.

My dad has gone back to his agricultural roots several times. For a while, he ran the small farm we had when I was young. Now more recently, he has a small farm where he raises chickens, goats, and sheep at his North Carolina home. There’s a comfort he finds in taking care of things, being outside and working hard; a sort of love he feels for the farm work he does instead of the crushing strain of tradition.

Writing this has been quite therapeutic for me. I have found that it has worked to give me some insight into how my family has grown, while also opening my eyes to the ways they have not embraced change. It has helped me work through some of the resentment I have for my grandfather, but not before I dealt with the rage I felt when I learned of what he put the rest of my family through. I am by no means soft spoken when it comes to my grandfather’s actions; I have refused to see him on many occasions. Our personalities clash so much that even tolerance is difficult.  But, this has given me some peace to accept that there are some things I cannot change, like my past, my family, and people in general. The most I can do is look forward; look forward to my future and the bright future of my family after me. My hope is that my future family line will remain loyal and dedicated, but  also that we will also not be afraid to venture out, take advantage of what the world has to offer, and establish new family traditions.

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