I noticed this picture of my father-in-law, Garry, on the shelves in the living room when we went home to visit for Christmas.
He is riding on a tractor in a field and because I am not a farmer, I can't glean much else about the practical things that are happening in the picture.
Because I have lived among his family for so many years though, I can tell you that this picture evokes a wealth of stories. There is the story of how Garry would, during planting season stay in the fields on his tractor for so long that one night, bleary-eyed, exhausted, and thirsty he lifted a gallon jug of water to his lips and was four gulps in before he even woke up enough to realize that he was guzzling the gasoline jug for the tractor.
There is the story of how one day Lynn, Brian and Helen all were excoriated for not hearing Garry as he stood in the field (miles away from the house) shouting for help.
And these stories of his singular intensity recall other legends -- like the water slide he built for his nieces, nephews that stretched more than a hundred yards down the hill by the house and shot the riders precariously into (or over) a small ditch next to the road where other farm trucks blistered by at speeds that matched the expediency of the day.
Or the Happy Day Express he and his twin brother built as a parade float for the church his parents had founded. It was based on a sunday school song but grew into a several-car "locomotive" where children could ride, wave, throw candy and (hopefully) recruit new members to join the faithful in the pews.
I remember the first Tractor Pull I attended with him: a contest that pits Machine vs. Gravity -- tractors pull a weighted sled across a rodeo arena at a county fair exposition -- a poignant dramatization of the central tension farmers face as they extend themselves through their tractors, combines and forklifts to work against the unpredictable face of weather and season.
This picture manages (for me at least) to evoke this iconic and superhuman man whose ghost hasn't really faded at all from our imaginations. Even after seven years.
A few months ago, I found out about Proust's Questionnaire. I love Proust and have been leisurely wandering through his In Search of Lost Time for the last three or four years. Right away I started working on answering his important questions and was stumped when I arrived at: "What is your motto?"
Do I need a motto?
I'd like one. It could be like my mission statement and my brand promise and my destiny all rolled up into one.
For weeks I tried to figure it out -- but it was SO HARD to try to distill anything that I actually believed in into Motto Sized Proportions.
Until I happened to find this little art piece I had made.
And then I knew what my motto is. The thing is: Garry is still happening. His yell from the field, his fierce determination, his loud guffaw, his gruff generosity.
All our past, all our present. It's all so mingled together that it can't help but also determine our future. And I wonder what will be the gestures and the moments that are crystallized after I am gone? What habits and values can I lean toward right now to make a better past for my children? It's a heavy mantle, but a good one.
And one that spawns gratefulness when I look back at the shadows that have been cast across my life.
Including this fiercely independent farmer riding through the field.