My mother grew up working on a farm—here’s what I learned from her about dreaming big

I grew up climbing magnolia trees during the day and shoving lightning bugs into mason jars at night. In the brutally hot Tennessee summers my dad and I hiked all around the green hills near our wooden house and brought back misshapen arrowheads and swirled sticks as treasures, tracking mud and leaves in the kitchen. I raked leaves, dragged tree limbs, spread straw, planted herbs, and even took horse riding lessons for a while.

From the sound of it, you might think it was out in the country somewhere. But actually, I still grew up in suburbia. Most of my angsty teenage days I stopped by Sonic to get mozzarella sticks after school and later sat in a friend’s room gabbing about who we wanted to ask us to prom. There was strong air-conditioning to keep us cool in the humid summers and Christmas parties and ugly sweater events to entertain us in the winters. Through all of this, I struggled with a kind of guilt that I never understood until I fully grasped where my mom grew up: a tobacco farm.

I know you’re probably thinking of Little House on the Prairie and Dolly Parton songs, but it wasn’t all idyllic. There’s actually a lot of research out there about the dangers to people’s health who have worked on tobacco farms. There were also cows to herd and pigs to watch over, and of course tobacco to strip in the fields. My visits to “the farm” when I was little were all about catching crawdads in the creek and ravenously eating melted chess pie with my dozens of cousins. It wasn’t until I got older that I suddenly realized, “Wait. My mom didn’t just grow up here, she worked here.”

Lots of kids from the city I was raised in have parents with similar stories—they grew up in a small town, studied really hard in college to pursue a reliable profession, and succeeded in their career enough to move closer to a major city. My own parents grew up in the same small town in Hickman (yes, hick-man) County, Tennessee. In high school, my dad was a basketball player and my mom was a cheerleader for the team. Well-liked and both coming from respected families in their community, my parents always had jobs as kids. In order to go out on dates with my mom, my dad had to work in the fields to help her get her chores done in time. They had big dreams, both of them, to do something other than farmwork. Together, they did it, with persistence and luck and a lot of real, tough work.

Fast forward twenty years to me, an awkward blonde girl with mozzarella sticks listening to her Christina Aguilera hip clip and complaining about her broken slap bracelet. The way I understand work is so different from the way my parents did. As Jack Donaghy says in 30 Rock, “The first generation works their fingers to the bone making things, the next generation goes to college and innovates new ideas, the third generation…snowboards and takes improv classes.” As someone who has a savings account for improv classes, I laughed when I heard that, because I recognized the truth of it in my own life. I did have retail jobs in high school and later worked every weekend and a few weekdays all throughout college. But it was such a different kind of work to herding cattle across the creek at night (a real thing my mom did as a child).

I hate camping, live in a big city by choice (if Duane Reade isn’t in a one mile radius, I panic), sweat too much to do “serious” hiking or climbing, and still find beauty in barns and hay bales by a dirt road. Grappling with the difference between how my mom grew up and how I did is something that’s a process, but I know this: Both of us worked hard. I’m thankful she did so that I could experience a different kind of American childhood. And I’m thankful for my roots, to remind me of how different my life could be.


Notes on my mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease
Why my mother is my ultimate BFF

[Image via iStock]