A handful of friends and I had a significant birthday coming, which brought forth a range of emotions from each of them.
After I watched my girlfriends handle it more tearfully than the men in the group, I called my oldest friend.
He was born a few hours before me, so our kinship started in the hospital nursery. His father kept company with mine as he waited out my birth. I imagine that Daddy was dressed in a suit and tie, a fedora pushed back rakishly. During the moments that he sat and did not pace, I can see him in a chair, his elbows on his knees, the orange embers of a cigarette glowing in one hand. His forehead is dropped in the other, praying humbly for his wife and child.
“How do you feel about your birthday tomorrow?” I asked.
In genuine bewilderment, he gentled atoned, “Where did the years go? That’s what I don’t understand. Where did they go?”
He’s a farmer, so I can tell you where they went for him. They are a vast collection of days when he arose before sunrise, ignoring aching bones and a lack of sleep, and darted — real farmers always hurry — to the barn where too often he found bad news like a dead cow or a problem with the milking equipment or the tractor.
Then, when he finished out a brow-beating, sun-burning day, he hurried off to a community meeting of some sort, church or to pay his respects at the funeral home.
He occasionally took trips away to big cities for conventions, where he served on boards of farmers organizations. But, any farmer knows those trips aren’t folly or relaxation. You’re always worrying about home and if a neighbor is going to call and say, “Your cows are out. They’re all over Bethel Road, every which a-way you look.”
That’s where his years went, poured into an occupation composed of days that depended on the undependable weather and his stubbornness that refused to surrender. With his family, they sent many a gallon of milk off to quench thirsty kids and to help make biscuits, cakes and casseroles.
I awoke the next morning musing because he had set me on the path to accounting for my own years.
My years went in a flurry of ways. They started with a child, who always toted around a book. She waded endlessly in the creek, ran through the pasture, made mud pies and gathered the horses and cows together to hear my stories.
They were underlined boldly by parents who introduced me to Jesus, taught me to kneel in prayer, insisted that a 12-hour work day was the norm and that it was impossible ever to save too much money.
The years leapfrogged into happy days of schooling with friends, who remain by my side; of 4-H awards and FHA offices; a spelling bee won in the fourth grade; the lead role in our fifth-grade play; an essay contest won in the seventh grade; and 10 consecutive years of perfect attendance awards in school and Sunday school, until a serious case of strep throat callously broke the streak.
There were years of toil, tears and tests that turned into baskets of experience. I had close friends from cotton mill villages, one who won college football’s Cotton Bowl and a couple who didn’t cotton to “doin’ things the right way.”
A childhood dream became an explosion of truth when I wrote a bestseller that, 20 years later, is in its 45th printing. Another of my books became a movie. I began this column which continues after 1,000 stories told, and somehow, the little girl from Rural Route One married a handsome, kind man who brought with him a famous family.
Yes, the years have gone. But, thank the good Lord, they did not go empty handed.
Ronda Rich is a best-selling Southern author. Visit rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.