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One more empty barn

Published on 18 April 2019

It was just a few weeks ago I finally got the call. The one I knew would someday come but still wasn’t quite prepared to receive.

“We’ve decided it’s time to sell the cows,” said the fatigued voice of my mother on the other end of the line. “My mind wants to keep going, but my body says it’s done.”

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Like so many other dairy farmers, Mom and Dad have never been ones to give up. Even at 74 years old, they have a hard time justifying age or milk price as an excuse. Together, they’ve farmed through it all … the ag crisis of the 1980s, market highs and lows, weather extremes, worn-out body parts … and seldom did they complain. There was never time to sit around and feel sorry for themselves when there was work to be done.

Cows always needed to be milked, animals needed to be fed, and hay had to be made. Work sometimes became a convenient distraction from talking about or dealing with the deeper side of emotions.

Perhaps that’s why I had always feared the day I would receive this news. I wasn’t really sure how I’d handle it. Hearing it on the phone was one thing, but being there in person would mean no escape from the tidal wave of emotions I was afraid would drown me.

Shortly after that phone call, we made a somber two-and-a-half-hour drive down to the farm. In the house with my dad, I watched him grimace in pain from the hip that awaits replacement. In his slowed-down state, we actually had time to talk to each other. A lump in my throat burned like a hot coal, and I realized I had two choices: to hold it in, push it down and go distract myself with washing dishes and looking after the children, or to let it go and release the knot of emotions binding me up so tightly I could hardly breathe.

So instead of the “suck it up” motto I had learned from my parents and spent most of my life abiding by, I chose the opposite: to let it go.

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There I sat, holding my dad’s calloused, trembling hand, allowing tears to stream down my cheeks. In that moment, I realized I wasn’t crying because I was sad but, rather, because I was so proud. Proud of my parents for everything they had achieved in nearly 40 years of marriage, dairying and raising a family together. For living their dreams, for working harder than anyone I’ll ever know. For keeping up a picturesque farm with a little red barn and white board fences, for breeding generation after generation of purebred Holstein cows. And, perhaps for the very first time, I told my dad just how proud I was to be his daughter.

I closed my eyes and, for a moment, it felt like the only two people in the entire world were Dad and me, and then I felt a tender touch reach for my other hand and a gentle, comforting pat on my back. It was my sweet 4-year-old little boy. He sat there quietly with us too, three generations connected by interlocked hearts and hands. In the stillness, a small wave of peace came over me, and I suddenly felt grateful for letting my guard down and finally granting myself the permission to feel.

My family isn’t the only one having tough conversations right now. They are happening at kitchen tables across America as equity erodes, bills pile up, milk checks dwindle, and age takes its toll. Perhaps you can relate. At a time like this, there are plenty of people out there telling you what to do. Consultants, bankers, advisers. But what they can’t tell you is how to feel. Give yourself the permission to feel how you need to, even if that is sad, overwhelmed or fearful – but more importantly, allow yourself to feel uplifting emotions too, whether that’s relieved as decisions are made, grateful for what you have or proud for all you’ve accomplished.

Soon after you read this, there will be one more empty little red barn in southern Wisconsin. Though the cows will be gone, it will forever be filled with wonderful memories and an incredible feeling of pride for my family and our farm.  end mark

Peggy Coffeen
  • Peggy Coffeen

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