Our children have had many summer jobs. Summer on the farm is a time to get to those projects you’ve been putting off – like building and machinery repairs – in between baling jobs.
I recall one summer when our sons were in middle school. I can’t remember why they felt called to dismantle a grinder mixer; I suppose they needed the frame for something they were inventing.
I went out to visit with them one hot summer afternoon and found them both asleep – one lobbed over the frame and the other leaning up against a tire – with the mixer part of the grinder lying on the ground.
It must have been exhausting.
But it wasn’t until our church needed someone to mow the cemetery that our family began a summer job that would span more than a decade and give us an up-close-and-personal understanding of what it means to honor (in this way) those who have gone before us.
Our children were in elementary and middle school when we began this new job. It was very trying at first, figuring out the system that would be most efficient, given the man hours it takes to mow and trim a cemetery; keeping everyone busy and, for my husband – keeping all of the mowers and equipment running, which was a struggle that first year.
Some dead evergreens there were unsightly and were also not kind to our push mowers that summer, and I remember approaching our pastor to ask him about removing them. In my appeal I said, “… besides, it makes no sense to mow around something that’s dead.”
Well, he knew what I meant.
Although it wasn’t our favorite job, it was a time of learning patience as we mowed around stones slowly and methodically, understanding that the cemetery needed to be mowed whether we had the time to take away from the farm or not. The grass was still going to grow.
Our children learned that it was important to be respectful of the stones because they represented someone’s life. And although walking on the cemetery lawn is something people do, they learned to respect a fresh grave and not walk on it or drive over it while mowing.
Once in a while someone would stop and ask us where someone’s grave was. Most of the time we knew, even our children knew over time where someone specific was buried.
They, too, mowed around the graves of people with whom they had shared their lives.
We read stones as we mowed – older people, young people, children; so many people placed there with great care, grief and sorrow, and their gravesites were watered with the tears of those who loved them.
At their young age, our children came to know it as sacred ground; holy ground. It taught them about the brevity of this life, given the fact that they knew people who were buried there. It also gave them a healthy respect for our veterans who also rest there.
Memorial Day weekend brought about a thick sprinkling of flowers and flags and made it seem a little less like a forgotten place. It was actually a beautiful place every year then.
It would be difficult to return to that job now, given the fact that our children have all grown up and are living their own lives.
But over the years I have been grateful for that time spent together as a family doing something that mattered, and for what it taught our children about compassion, care for those who have gone before us, respect and responsibility.
George Burns once said, “Don’t take life too seriously – we’re not getting out of it alive anyway.” He was right. And after we’re gone, someone will be along with lawn equipment to mow around our stones, helping others see that we, too, were once among the living.
It’s the important legacy of a cemetery caretaker – even if it starts out as a farm kid’s summer job.
Schwaller is a Farm News correspondent from Milford. Reach her by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and at www.karenschwaller.com.
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