The Farmer

Over a week ago, I attended the funeral of an Illinois cousin of mine. He possessed a rare clarity of purpose in the world: he lived to farm. Obviously, farming is not like banking or retail, a job you leave at 5:30 and for which you occasionally work overtime. And yet, despite having grown up in a small farm town, having cousins whose entire existence depended on the right combination of good rain and good luck, I guess I had forgotten.

Attending Kevin’s funeral made me remember.

For years during my childhood, my farming cousins left every holiday party early to go milk cows. Or, they wouldn’t even show up at all, if the weather was fair and they had sun-dependent chores. I sometimes resented this, missing their presence, and wondering why they couldn’t get jobs that demanded less time, less effort on Christmas Day. Carol and Suzanne were close in age to the four of us Manning siblings, and we missed valuable play hours due to their farming responsibilities.

In recent years at family parties, Kevin and I spoke only of topics of interest to him: the weather in Illinois and its impact on crops, the weather in Minnesota, and its potential impact on crops, tractors, snow, cows, and well, that’s about it. Kevin occasionally prodded me once or twice for Minnesota farming news, but sensing I was worthless on that topic, he eventually lost interest.

A photo essay at the wake indicated Kevin’s life revolved around John Deere tractors. Pictures of high school friends hoisting beer near a tractor, Kevin grinning big while sitting on a giant wheel, Kevin kissing his girlfriend and the camera flash bouncing off some piece of farm equipment’s windshield. He spent his whole life on a farm, farming, growing life.

Kevin was 21 when he was killed.

I remember a Thanksgiving at his grandmother’s farm when Kevin was five or six (had to be Thanksgiving because we always gather at Aunt Barbara and Uncle Chuck’s farm for that particular holiday). Very enthusiastically, Kevin explained the world of tractors to me, and despite my being older and more worldly, his grasp of mechanics already left me in the dust. The kid had this fire in him, as if he had just discovered the great secrets of life and clearly, the only reason I did not share his passion for tractors was because nobody had explained it to me.

I remember nothing about the tractors themselves, but the memory stuck because I loved seeing Kevin so exuberant.

As the Thanksgiving accumulated in our lives, Kevin’s excitement morphed into something more sedate, as he grew more stoic and silent in bigger crowds, just like his understated Dad. But you only need ask one of two questions about farming to reignite that wild enthusiasm, just as goofy and strong as when he was five. While I loved listening to his stories the biggest fucking snowdrifts man had ever seen (Kevin ran his own snow plow business in the winter and was perhaps *slightly* prone to exaggeration), he knew I was a spectator to his world, not a confidant.

We were not particularly close.

Extended family is odd that way: you hang out with people who you don’t know well, and probably don’t spend a lot of time getting to know beyond the big gatherings. But for a few holidays each year, you celebrate together, trying to get to reacquaint yourselves. I used to resent the polite, awkward questions and small talk chatter, but I now find it reassuring: I want to see how the kids turn out.

I cannot say I was or am particularly close to Kevin and his siblings, but I like them. I want to see them. I want to see the adults they have become, and I want to study their faces and remember their childhood shyness. I don’t really care if they like me or know me. I love them. I want to see.

But I won’t be seeing Kevin anymore.

One of his high school essays had been copied and put on display at the wake.

“Ever since I can remember I never liked school the only reason I ever want was for my buddies and for the girls, and because I had to. I never really needed it since I have been doing my greatest passion, and doing what I want to do for the rest of my life, which is farming. Many people think I may not be intelligent because of the way I speak, or the way I dress, but that’s because my education is about soil, crops, cows, tractors and trucks. There may be more to life and someday I will find that out but it is my life and always has been.”

I’m proud to be related to a man who possessed such clarity and confidence. Of course, I have no right to any pride about any of his achievements. But Kevin knew who he was, and he lived from that clarity, which made him a warrior. While we may not have connected much at Thanksgiving, I want to believe we are spiritual brothers on our own unique paths.

Kevin’s unique path took a very sharp turn. He was thrown from his truck in a late-night accident which can never be explained. He was not drunk, there were no other vehicles, just swerving tire skids and his upside down truck, discovered the next morning. There will never be a satisfying explanation. There will never be another Kevin.

Sometimes, this world just sucks.

At the wake, I struggled (as everyone does) with finding words say to his survivors, because of course, there were no right words. There never are. His mom, my cousin Carol, stood next to her son’s coffin and held my hands briefly in the horrible reception line. As I choked out my obligatory, “I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry,” she waved away a buzzing fly that landed in the coffin on Kevin’s head.

In a tired voice, she said, “Thank you, Teddy.”

I have no insight about the nature of life or death. A man died, a man with clarity and purpose, a man who believed in something and every day of his short life, loved who he was, what he did.

When I grow up, I want to be like Kevin.

6 Responses to “The Farmer”

  1. Jeffrey Fillion Says:

    Hi Edmond.

    Thanks for sharing this portrait of your cousin. You are a gifted writer.

    When my mother unexpectedly passed away 10 years ago… I remember the most comforting thing anyone said to me… “I don’t know what to say”. And I thanked them for it… to stunned expressions… and explained… “Neither do I”. Which released them from the obligation of saying just the right thing, even though, they already did.

    Blessings to you.


  2. Edmond Says:

    Jeffrey, thank you for the lovely compliment, and taking a moment to know my cousin, Kevin. I really appreciate and love that you come here regularly to see when I have posted something new. I’m really grateful for that, Jeffrey. Thank you.

    And yeah, I get how there’s just no words. My own father is sick…dying? Well, someday if not today. And I imagine myself standing in that line as his friends from 30 years ago try to explain the impact he had on their life and I stand there trying to hear it, absorb it, remember it…and I’m sure we will both say, “I don’t know what to say,” “Neither do I.”

  3. Brett Benson Says:

    Edmond — Loved this piece. Heartfelt, genuine, reflecting a great truth. Thank you. ~Brett

  4. Edmond Manning » Blog Archive » I’m in Rooster Hell Says:

    [...] Expectations are funny. I always want life to work out a certain way, and when it doesn’t, life is always wrong, not me. Life is wrong to send me here, to give me this challenge, to expect too much from me while giving me so little. I could do better with this life, I really could, without all these damn hindrances: illness, aging, deaths of people I love, the housing market, things that keep me awake at night. Should I tear down my garage and build a new one, or hire a contractor to straighten it out? Who even cares? I never wanted to be the guy struggling over goddamn garage decisions. [...]

  5. Jennifer Miller Says:

    Oh Edmond,

    I’m sorry for your loss, your families’ loss, for Kevin, for the “soil, crops, cows, tractors and trucks.”

    My roots are “farmer’s roots,” too. I didn’t understand it either(do they HAVE to talk about the weather again…BORING!). I don’t want to over-romanticize life on the farm either, but I came to a much greater appreciation over time.

    What I see now is how you and Kevin are both alike…you just had different passions and how cool is that?


  6. Edmond Manning » Blog Archive » The End of Days Says:

    [...] On these days when I’m grumbling about time’s unfair passage, I forget that I’m still here. I have today to choose: either bitch and complain, or sing with P!nk at the top of my lungs. Either way, it’s still gonna be today. I guess that’s what helps me crawl out of any New Year funk, the fact that I’m wasting today with unnecessary mourning. I believe in mourning. Though I never want to do it again, this horrible gift to mourn is part of our humanity. But to mourn over December 31st? A day arbitrarily chosen to mark time’s passage? Fuck that. [...]

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