By Amber Mabe
My niece texted me the other day, excited because she was on her way to pick out her very first car. Aside from making me feel old to realize she had grown up enough to be getting a license and picking out a car, her excitement took me back to a memory of my first car and the summer I spent working for it.
It was 2004, and one of those radiant upstate New York summers that remind northerners why we put up with the endless, harsh winters and muddy springs. My grandparents owned a 150-acre farm of blueberries and Christmas trees so far away from the noise and bustle of the city that it was easy to forget that the rest of the world existed beyond the tree line. The rolling hills were an impossible shade of green, speckled with wildflowers in vibrant purples and yellows. The days were long, full of golden sun and invigorating breezes, and the nights cool and still with an unobstructed view of a sky full of stars. This was the setting in which I spent much of my eighteenth summer.
The older generations are known for their work ethic and seemingly bottomless wells of productive energy, and my grandparents are no exception. Not only did my grandmother still work a nine-to-five job during my growing up years, she and my grandfather also maintained a working farm, raised cattle, ran a commercial cleaning business, and more. With no shortage of work to be done, their farm was the perfect place for a teenager looking to earn some summer cash.
When the days are long and dry, it is the season for bringing in hay. And in dairy country, there is no shortage of demand for fresh, sweet alfalfa hay. On my grandparents’ farm, a square baler was pulled behind an old tractor, and we would follow along with a wagon, with one or two people on the ground tossing bales to the team in the wagon, who would then stack them into neat rows. When the wagon was full, we would drive it up to the barn, reversing the process to unload the bales. A hay bale elevator would lift the bales to the hay loft, where they would be stacked for long-term storage. It was hard, back-breaking work, and my gangly, teenage self surely looked out of place with the team of burly men my grandfather had hired for the task.
You see, my grandparents have a special gift. It is the gift of seeing people that no one else can see. The men my grandfather would hire as farm hands were the most unlikely, motley crew of ex-cons and recovering addicts you would ever meet. But I watched those men work hard under the quiet leadership of my grandfather, and quite often take a step toward a better life because of the chance they had been given. After a long morning in the hot sun, the crew would gather around the farmhouse kitchen table and eat a meal together. Typically, it was a simple lunch of fresh lemonade and hot dogs that my grandpa cooked in an old frying pan on the stove. Somehow, those hotdogs tasted better than any gourmet steak as I sat and listened to my grandfather’s stories and watched him be a positive example to men the rest of the world had given up for lost.
In the evenings, we would meet my grandmother in town and spend the rest of the day cleaning medical facilities, banks, and offices. I watched the patience and equality with which they treated their evening employees, who were often mentally or physically disabled and passed over for other employment. Not only were they gracious and accommodating as employers but would often bend over backwards to help people with personal struggles. Full of teenage angst myself, there were many life-changing conversations that happened between my grandmother and I while sanitizing exam tables or mopping floors.
When that summer came to an end, I left with enough money to buy my very own second-hand purple Dodge Neon. However, I came away with a lot more than an unfortunate-colored car that summer. I left with memories and lessons that made me who I am today. Lessons of kindness, diligence, contentment, and love. Sometimes, the biggest lessons in life don’t come from self-help books and life coaches, though they can be helpful. Sometimes the biggest lessons come from simple things like hay bales and hotdogs.