What We Realize and What We Don’t

Ida (Trautvetter) Neill, taken at the Cecil and Ida (Trautvetter) Neill farm, north of Carthage, Hancock County, Illinois, 1950s. The barn pictured is the one referenced in this post.

Memories are often made when we don’t realize it. Sometimes later we realize those are the best memories of all.

It was towards the end of my senior year of high school when my Dad discovered that I had a day off in school in the middle of May–senior skip day it was called. It was a day of final exams and seniors didn’t have to take them and didn’t have to attend school either.

Therefore, according to my Dad, it was the perfect day to clean out the west side of the barn. It was also the same day as the senior party at some location that I have either forgotten or never knew in the first place. If Dad decided it was the day to clean out the barn, then it was the day to clean out the barn. And so that is what we did.

Grandma Neill was right there in the thick of things. It was several years before a series of strokes caused Grandma to become less mobile and, at seventy-five, she had no difficulty helping. So on that warm spring day, Grandma (in her house dress and knee high rubber boots), my Dad, and I cleaned out the west side of the barn. After all, the “bnure,” which is how “manure” always sounded when Grandma said it needed to be dealt with. Dad used the “H” with a small loader on it to scoop up some of the mess, but pitchforks were main instrument of getting the manure in the manure spreader. When the “bnure” spreader was full, Dad would go out and spread it while Grandma and I remained in the barn and filled up the small loader on the front end of the H and scraped some manure from the cement wall that formed the west ends of the barn.

So off Dad went.

My Dad had a handful of phrases he would use that we all had heard many times. Cliches that spoke of eternal truths one would learn first hand when they were an adult, “wait til you start paying the bills,” “life ain’t a bed of roses,” and “you don’t realize it” were three favorites.

Exactly how it started after Dad had left has been lost to time, but Grandma must have said something and I quipped back “Grandma you don’t realize it, life ain’t a bed of roses.” She laughed. She knew I was kidding and that I’d never tell her something like that in any serious way.

And so Grandma replied “Wait til you start paying bills.”

We were working. We weren’t loafing. The scoop on the front of the H got filled with bnure, and we did the other scraping that we were supposed to do. But along the way,

“Grandma…wait til you start paying the bills.”

The irony was lost on me then. It’s not lost on me now. I was telling a seventy-five year old woman that she didn’t know what life was like. This was a woman who had lived away from home since she was twenty-five, had (along with her husband) grown up pretty poor, and had worked on the farm “like a man” (as some used to say). Grandma knew what life was like.

She laughed and replied “Life ain’t a bed of roses.”

I laughed and told Grandma “you don’t realize it.”

We were both laughing as we shoveled cow shit. Work was sometimes difficult enough. One could have a little fun while doing it. We kept teasing each other with Dad’s retorts until we heard it.

The tractor was returning. We stopped laughing. I don’t think either one of had to tell the other that the time for hilarity was temporarily over. There wasn’t really supposed to be laughing while one was supposed to be working and we didn’t want to have to explain to Dad what was so darn funny.

Dad returned. We filled up the spreader and Dad went to spread it. As soon as he was out of earshot, we started again. I don’t remember who was the instigator and I’m certain it really doesn’t matter. Our laughter subsided when we heard the tractor return.

I don’t know if my classmates have memories of that senior party. I certainly don’t. But I do remember helping Dad and Grandma clean out the west side of the barn.

And I do have one of the fondest memories of Grandma as a result. It just took me a long time to realize it.

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