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My Father the Farmer

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In keeping with July being the Men’s issue, I would like to dedicate this month’s article to my dad. Having raised five children, four of them girls, and having stayed sane (for the most part), I’d say he did a pretty darn good job. 

My dad was the youngest son in a family of seven children of Calabrian immigrants who had settled in the hills east of the Bay Area. My dad’s grandfather came through Ellis Island with a dream and a satchel of money. He bought a piece of land to take up farming and raise his family. That love of farming made its way down the family line to my dad, and feeling civilization moving in on him, he bought a farm here in the valley to raise his own growing family. 

Although the farm was large enough to keep him and my mom busy, it was too small to bring in a lucrative income to sustain a family of seven, and so my parents both worked outside the home to make ends meet. My dad worked in heavy construction and was an expert at his job. Not long after we settled here, he would pile us all into the ’55 Chevy and drive us through the Comanche basin, pointing out landmarks that would soon be under water. After the dam was built, he was proud to take us back up in the foothills and proclaim that he had built that very dam.

Most folks knew him as Don, but we called him Dad, Daddy or Papa. He hung out with guys named Gino and Joe and gave his dogs simple names like Fuzz and Poo. His stories were endless and were always about people, places, events and tractors. We would be held captive for hours and if we even so much as looked as though we had lost interest, we would get a sharp, “Are you listening to my story?” 

He loved to wrench on, repair and restore tractors. He had plenty of them around and even used them to teach us how to drive. He bought us all our first cars but expected us to maintain them. One time when my sister had gone out to start her car and noticed she had a flat, he told her that if she was going to drive, then she’d better know how to change a tire. He said, “The jack is in the trunk; let me know when you’re done.” This was a contrast, though, to the time when my youngest sister was leaving work and found that her car wouldn’t start. When asked if she needed someone to call a tow truck, she replied confidently, “No, just Daddy.” 

Even though he never said as much, we knew that he was proud of us. He helped us raise and take our 4H animals to the fair and brought home stray cats and dogs for us to care for. As we girls began dating and introducing prospective beaus into the family, we would once in a while find a not-so-suitable suitor. Dad could be heard lamenting, “It’s just like raising up a good hunting dog and then the next thing you know, the dog brings home a damn skunk.” 

He had lots of friends and acquaintances and was always coming home with boxes full of fruits and vegetables, as if his own orchards and gardens did not supply enough for our family of seven. His friends’ generosity would keep my mom and me busy canning for days. After a visit to one of his paisanos, the jewel-colored jars of fruit would be lined up on the kitchen counter, their seals popping out a tinny tune as they cooled.

In later years, after we kids had mostly left the farm, he could be seen in the mornings meandering around with his cup of coffee and cornflakes. Being Italian, naturally, he loved food, but was mostly content with a loaf of French bread, a chunk of salami and a slab of cheese, with a side of fat tomato and red onion from his own gardens. One time a friend came upon him having lunch and asked what he was eating. He replied, “A jam sandwich.” Knowing that my mom made several varieties of jam, the friend asked him what kind of jam. He responded straight-faced, “A piece of meat jammed between two pieces of bread.” 

His grandchildren can tell tales of how they rode helter-skelter over the fields in the Go Devil—a sort of go-cart he built from scraps—chasing coyotes with the shotgun. And years later, after he and my mom had moved into town, he would still visit the farm every day to putter around, water the orchard, catch stuff on fire, run over stuff with the tractor and eat the fruit that he grew. And when he was finished with his chores, one could find him napping peacefully under one of his tractors, the smell of tractor grease a calming sedative. 

This is the farm where I grew up, and I am happy to say I have returned, hopefully with my father’s blessings. Some of his friends still come around telling stories and we laugh about our fun times with him. One now-grown-up kid who still lives up the road remembers how his dad “wouldn’t let anyone but Don work on his tractors.” Another remembers how he would take them on forbidden fruit forages, only to find out that the farmer was a good friend. One of my old-timer neighbors loves to joke about how my dad was “outstanding in his field.”

Just the other day, I asked that neighbor if he thought my dad would be proud of what I have done with the farm. After about a half a second, he let out a big guffaw and replied, “Hell no—all the broken-down old tractors and junk are gone.” And then looking out into the field, which is now a lush, green cherry orchard, he added with a smile, “But it sure looks nice.”

We like to think of Dad now, puttering around in the clouds, shootin’ the bull with his cronies, wrenching on tractors and napping under a shiny green John Deere. He’s probably looking down at the farm and nodding to his paisanos, “Yeah, I did all right.”

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