Others’ rocks are lighter than your own

On the way home from daycare a couple of Monday nights ago, we saw five members of the Dan Ziegler family hard at work picking rocks out in one of their fields. Friends from church, the Zieglers have five kids and own a lot of farmland. It made perfect sense they would be out picking rocks during a break in the weather.

“Stop!” said Connor from the backseat of the car. “I want to see what they’re doing.”

No you don’t, I thought. The sight of them triggered a kinesthetic reaction from my rock picking youth, a time my sisters and I sometimes refer to as “doing time on Leon Smith’s farm.” I still suffer from PTSD, post-traumatic Smith Farm disorder. Sometimes I wake up in the night, sweating buckets from dreaming I’m endlessly carrying buckets of grain and water to livestock.

Part of the attraction for Connor was the potential of getting behind the wheel of the John Deer Gator the Zieglers were using to haul stones. Our family hadn’t had a fun vehicle for doing the job. Like that would have mattered.

Growing up, the back-breaking, annual manual labor ritual known as rock picking brought us closer together than we cared to be as a family. Dad would hook a flatrack wagon behind a tractor, then haul it with protesting children to his two most problematic fields, the Wood 40 and the land by Turtle Lake he rented from a neighbor.

While we intellectually understood the dangers substantial stones and rocks posed to our father’s farm equipment, we didn’t care. We openly resisted being part of his rock-busting, chain gang each spring.

Youth was not an acceptable excuse to shirk work. “Don’t worry, we’ve got rocks for every size of hand,” Dad would say, ever the advocate for toil and trouble. When that didn’t work, it was, “Shut up and get busy. The sooner we start, the sooner we finish.”

Bald-faced lie. The rock job never neared completion. We were the mythical Sisyphus family, rolling our rocks up a hill, only to have them tumble back down. Fieldstones are like head lice nits: always more waiting to be uncovered. The hiders enjoyed ambushing us.

The Ziegler kids have been indoctrinated that there are mama and papa rocks. If you don’t pick them up in time, they mate and leave you with a whole new crop of rocks. I admired their parents’ brain-washing ingenuity. It would greatly please my dad.

“We should get out and help the Zieglers,” Kate said with the sincerity of someone whose room and board has never been resentfully contingent upon her rock picking productivity. It was all I could do to observe the speed limit in my haste to drive by. But I turned around at the next road and came back.

The kids scampered out of the car and ran across the field toward the Zieglers.

“We want to help,” Connor announced. He grabbed a short-handled hoe and proceeded to loosen a medium-sized rock from the soil. I apologized to Gloria, the mom, that as much as I would love to pitch in, I was still on a 15-pound lifting restriction from recent surgery.

Gloria Ziegler is one of those parents who work alongside her children. My dad used to do that, too. Actually, it’s good strategy because when someone complains, you can counter with, “I am not asking you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.” So there!

We’d look up at Dad’s calloused hands and skin permanently toughened and tanned by the elements; he who grew up milking cows by hand, plowing fields behind a team of horses, felling trees with a crosscut saw, and using an outhouse. There wasn’t a job too objectionable for him. And he was as doomed to suffer his onerous offspring as we were doomed to work alongside him. But somehow it worked.

“Look, Mom!” yelled my kids. They’d unearthed a large stone, wrestled it upright, and were brushing it off with their hands and the coats I’d just washed. “It’s a gravestone to mark the tomb of the unknown cat.” I smiled, noting other people’s rocks are always infinitely lighter than our own.


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