Chores: expectations, accountability, and professions of love
By Bill Stork, DVM
Chores: noun. A chewy, single-syllable word, with one muddy vowel sound in the middle. Spoken by a software engineer in Chicago mowing the boulevard of his bungalow with an electric Craftsman before coaching T-ball, or a Wyoming Cowboy riding fencelines. It always comes out with a Midwest-mushmouth: “I’ll be ready to go, right after chores are done.”
The word may feel like a wad of used barn shavings in the mouth. Yet, I submit there are few things we can learn more, teach more, or benefit from, than chores.
From a nine-year-old boy burdened by unloading the dishwasher, it’s like dragging an anvil: “Mom says I can’t play kickball until after I do… chores.”
They were the ultimate kid’s currency, long before we knew a dollar bill from a Benjamin. Assigned according to age, and ability; and inversely proportional to attitude. I was every kid. My first jobs were to take out the garbage and help mom dry dishes. If I did a good job and had my geometry done, then I could go play basketball or help Dad put a new muffler on the Chrysler. I spent weeks collecting conduit and plywood, and scabbed the hard plastic wheels off an old shop cart to cobble together my first pull-behind bike trailer. All to tow my Toro to the neighbors’, or two beat-up galvanized garbage cans fifty feet, to the end of the driveway.
My introduction to negotiation was the day I convinced Dad that I was big enough to mow the grass. My allowance jumped from $2.50 a week to $7.50. The job was in jeopardy the day he came home from work to find the self-propelled mower chewing at the foundation of the house like a carnival car off its tether. I was nowhere to be found.
Mom had come out of the house to tell me my best friend had called, “CT says the dogs got out of the fence.” I did three and a half miles on a Schwinn Varsity in nineteen minutes. His pair of Schnauzers were securely in the chain-link. (His dad made us dig the post holes before he took us water skiing.) CT lived across from the entry to Baker Woods Estate Swimming Club. “Dogs are out” was code for “Kim Chizevsky is two blocks from the pool.”
I was ten or eleven when Mom and Dad left me home alone for a few hours while they went to visit a friend in the hospital. Looking to earn another increment of trust, motivated by some intangible ethic, I was one possessed pup. I mowed the seven-tenths of an acre tight as the fairways at Augusta, and raked every apricot I could get to fall from the three trees out back. I washed the F-250 and swept the garage.
Forty years on, I’ve the image of them pulling onto the gravel at the end of the driveway in the piss-yellow ’72 Chrysler Newport. I’d just finished hosing the concrete. I signaled Dad to roll down his window, “’Scuse me, sir, you mind wiping your tires before you pull in?”
The ultimate teaching moment. To that point, and since, I’ve never felt pushed or pressured by my parents, just loved.
My brother, Scott, is an attorney in Chicago. He drives a BMW, lives in a condo in The Loop, and shares a health club with Oprah, Michael Jordan, and Barack Obama. Realizing the perceived conflict of concepts, he has the purest heart of anyone I know. He listened politely, as I told him about Sheila.
I’d met her shortly after crossing the Cheddar Curtain eighteen years ago. When her name came up in tailgate conversations among the guys, there was simply, “something about Sheila.” I began to understand what that something was when fate and our friends Ned and Sarah conned her first to the beer garden at Tyranena, then into the passenger seat of my Subaru. We were heading from The Kristy Larson Trio to see Joel Paterson and the Modern Sounds in Madison.
With St. John’s Lutheran Church and Joe Spoke’s farm tucked under the mist of a September sunset in the twin valleys just beyond the windows, a feeling came over me like the heated seats were on high as she talked of working in the family garden. Ten miles and minutes on, I gazed out the driver’s side to see the stocking hat of Ryan silhouetted by a single fly-shit-yellow incandescent in the vestibule of the Haack farm, as she spoke fondly of her grandma. After swing-dancing until bar time, we parted in the parking lot at four on Sunday morning. I didn’t risk a hug, so I extended my hand across the console, and thanked her.
I fought the urge to tell her I loved her, a battle my mouth would win with my heart exactly one time.
Ask a girl out to dinner. If she says, “I don’t know, I have to do chores first,” you’ve either been given the country equivalent of the classic “shopping with grandma” brush-off, or been served a slow-ball right down the middle of the plate. Your response is the difference between a table for two overlooking the lake, and a seat for one at the bar.
I am not famous for my confidence, but this time I was swinging for the fences. I showed up with a pair of work gloves in my back pocket, and a Leatherman.
To a guy, after ten or twelve hours at work, doing horse chores is the equivalent of picking up a gallon of milk or changing a wheel bearing. Just get-‘er-done. To a farm girl, being in the barn among her horses and cats is better than the finest Pinot and a Prozac. Spend an hour in the barn, and you’ll know more about her than Match.com, OK Cupid, and DATCP combined.
There are times in life you find a mate by way of shared interests. Others, love comes first.
Eight years ago, I would never have thought the smell of horses and cedar shavings on a fall breeze, and a freshly swept barn would trigger a full-on serotonin surge. The sight of her car in the drive sets me to singin’ a two-line ditty only the dogs will ever hear.
I told Scott how we feed horses, clean barn*, bale hay, and share our days. I explained that I had learned if it was eight below zero and she had to go back to the clinic at midnight to foal sit, you were well-served to hurry home and have chores done before she got there. If she had conducted staff reviews that day, make a casserole and a stiff drink. Stay as far away from the barn as you can get.
Scott will stand in a courtroom before jury and judge and argue fearlessly on the behalf of his client like a well-spoken pitbull in a thousand-dollar suit. Ask him to step through a two-strand electric fence, and he approaches like he’ll be sticking his head in a guillotine. Standing in the middle of a pasture grazed tight by six horses, I turned to see Scott holding his shoes shoulder high. He had once stepped into the grass in Grant Park. It took him fifty bucks and an afternoon to get the stain off the white soles of his Adidas. He chose to sacrifice his socks.
He didn’t get it.
“C’mon, Hick, you gotta get her the hell out of the barn for a while. Take her for some tapas. Buy her a nice bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and then lay some of your fancy words on her. You know, tell her the wine features her hair.”
I explained to Scott that his resemblance to Tom Cruise, personality, pedicure, and skin care routine is clearly working well, for him. Any one of Scott’s dates could be plucked from the pages of the Colombian Cosmopolitan magazine.
Here in Wisconsin, you’ll get more cuddle time on the couch if your hand fits a fork handle, than the homemade ravioli and a twenty-five dollar bottle of wine at Trattoria Number 10.
The woman who nurses a seven-dollar corn broom until the bristles meet the braid is the one to trust with your pocketbook. She who concocts soaked alfalfa pellets, soybean oil, and Nutrena Senior feed for her thirty-year-old quarter horse, and spends more money buying Nike Airs to protect the thin soles of a big Bay named Boom Truck, than on her best pair of cowboy boots, is the one you want holding your hand the day the doctor finds a lump.
Chores act as the currency of accountability and expectations, and sometimes a profession of love that will outlive any collection of daylilies and phlox plucked from the roadside.
This spring, I knelt in the mud at the site in the pasture where we hope our front porch will be, and asked if she’d wear a white gold and diamond ring on her left hand.
Seven years previous, my first major play was also shiny, round… and galvanized. The carriage bolts were about to pull through the rusty, once-green bed of the True Value wheel barrow she picked stalls into. Four ¾-inch fender washers bought us another couple of years.
My head gets warm envisioning the soft of her temple the evening she pulled it down on its wheel, the handles solid in her hand.
*Allow me to interject a couple observations for the single young men looking to land a farm girl:
You can haul her muck bucket, clean the water tank, or scrape the yard; but only clean stalls if you can keep her out of the barn long enough for the horses to shit ‘em up again. You could have a PhD in stall picking from Texas A&M, but you will not meet her specs.
Feeding hay: To a horse woman, a flake is as precise as any metric measure of weight or volume. To us, it’s the way the bale falls open and how much we can grab without getting chaff under our shirt sleeve. You’ll get it wrong. On a good day, she’ll just pick some up, add some, or move it ten feet to the left, without saying a word.