Forty-three of my 49 years on God’s green earth have been spent below the Mason-Dixon line. I guess that makes me more “Rebel” than “Yankee.” I’d like to think I’ve been able to display the best attributes of both cultures. I tell it like it is while still maintaining the gentleman persona. I’ve tried to balance the I-couldn’t-care-less-what-you-think-of-me attitude with my refusal to sit while a woman stands or my insistence of opening the door for her. My roots may be northern by nature, but my trunk and branches have been nurtured and nourished, like a majestic red oak, in the sweet southern breezes and the summer rains accompanied by thunder that echoes off the Blue Ridge Mountains.
I returned to the family farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia five days ago to spend Christmas with my parents. Today is the first day I’ve actually been able to sit out in the sunroom and enjoy the warmth coming through the large windows. This time of year, the sun takes its lowest path across the sky. Although that means shorter daylight hours, on a cloudless day like today, the light and warmth coming into the sunroom make for a peaceful and relaxing setting. Stretched out upon a comfortable sofa, I’m surrounded by expansive windows and walls that are composed of beautiful old wood planks that were run through a planer to give them new life. The brick floor absorbs the heat from the sun adding even more warmth to the room. Outside, all around me are the bare trees of winter and barren fields dotted with Angus cattle, sheep and goats. Today is the first day since I’ve been here that the temperature pushed above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The last five days have been brutal and only made more so by a persistent howling wind that dropped wind chills below zero and made being outside unbearable. But as unbearable as it was when one is on a farm, venturing out is not only unavoidable, but necessary. Animals up at the barn need food and water. Newborn sheep and goats must be checked on. The work is never ending.
My first morning here, we woke up to no hot water. The temperature was a balmy two degrees, and the wind out of the northwest was ruthless. If we wanted to at least have hot showers, we had to go into action. My parents have had an outdoor wood stove for 20 years that not only heats the farmhouse but also heats the water, as well. After checking this, that and the other, the logical conclusion was that the cold water pipe running into the stove must have frozen. This is where the brainstorming began. First, a heating pad was connected to an extension cord. But the heating pad was no match for the brutal cold and did nothing to thaw the pipe. Next, a hair dryer was taken from my mother’s bathroom. Standing in the arctic temperatures while pointing a hair dryer at the frozen pipe was also futile. Finally, I decided to go for broke and heat up a pot of water on the stove in the kitchen. Before the water was boiling, I carried the pot out to the wood stove and slowly began pouring it down the outside of the pipe. Carefully, I continued bathing the pipe in liquid warmth. And then, I heard it – the whoosh inside the pipe as water flowed freely again, unobstructed by the ice that had been blocking it. I walked into the house to the nearest bathroom, turned on the faucet, and after a few spurts and gurgles, hot water ran from the spigot. Eureka! We had conquered Mother Nature and would be taking hot showers again!
Yesterday, my old man and I ventured into the nearest town (which has actually grown into a small city over the past five decades). We needed to pick up a few things at Lowe’s. With his cane in hand and Vietnam veteran hat upon his head, my father entered the store as I trailed closely behind him. For the record, my father should have run for mayor years ago. He’s never met a stranger and seems to know everyone in the county. Add to that the fact that he spent 21 years substitute teaching in the same high school my siblings and I graduated from, and you could say he was a father figure to many. We had been in the store for perhaps three minutes when people began approaching him, greeting him, shaking hands with him and even hugging him. This continued for easily the next 30 to 40 minutes. Every time we turned a corner, a new face lit up and shouted, “Mr Desmond!” I just stood back and watched the love and genuine congeniality being exchanged between my father and people I had maybe met once or twice years ago, but didn’t necessarily remember now. It was a miracle that we were able to even leave the store. These interactions that I watched with a warmth in my heart reminded me that I was back “home.” I was again part of a very special place in America where people are genuinely good, kind hearted, hardworking and decent. I know these places exist in other areas – not just the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. And, knowing that gave me a comforting feeling. A feeling of hope. I needed that, as I think many of us do.
I am thankful to know and appreciate the hard but rewarding work of farm life. I am fortunate to be surrounded by good, small-town but big-hearted people. I’m grateful to know what it means to be southern by the grace of God. And, I am truly blessed to have lived a life that has given me something I will always cherish – that feeling, that state of mind that we call, Southern Comfort.