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The Parable of the Oldest Son

00:00AM Sep 15, 2008

By one of many who traveled this road
Once upon a time, the oldest son took off his overalls, packed his high school diploma and his scholarship papers into a bag and went down the stairs of the farm house.

"Oh no!” his father cried. "You cannot go off to college! How can you think of such a thing! You must help me farm so your brother can graduate from high school, too.”

So the oldest son went back up the stairs, put his overalls back on and went to the barn to milk the cows and feed the pigs.

The second son got his diploma and some special training too, and went off into the big wide world to work and earn money. The oldest son went to the attic and found the wrinkled travel bag again.

"Oh no!” said his father. "With your brother gone and out earning good money, you have to stay home and help me farm. You have to help me send your sisters to school, and to college. They must have something to do until husbands come along.”

So the oldest son hitched up the plow and went back to the field. He cut more trees and grubbed more stumps and hauled more rocks so there would be more land to plant.

And he built fences and mowed the hay and filled the barn and sat up long nights tending the farrowing sows and calving cows and repairing the broken machinery. And every day like the day before it, time passed.

The two sisters went to college and brought home papers with their names written on them in fancy scrolls and then they both left home to make money and find husbands.

"At last,” thought the oldest son. He picked up the old bag and dumped out the chewed-up scholarship papers and mouse-nest fur.

"Oh no!” said his father. "I can't do all this work. You have a duty to stay home and help your mother and me pay off the mortgage.”

So the oldest son stayed home until the farm was paid for and a barn was built and a roof added on to the too-small house—all the work of his own hands. And then again he packed and again his father and mother cried.

"You have to stay on the farm and help us get ahead,” they said. "We remember the bad years when you were a tad. The bankruptcy papers that so long burned a hole in our hearts.” And maybe, if we get ahead, we can pay you some dollars,” his father added. "Here, here.” He fumbled in his pocket, "you need new work shoes.” The oldest son looked at him and he put on his old cracked boots and went back to the barn.

His father began to spend longer hours each day reading the ads in the paper and nodding in his rocking chair. And seeing him thus, there came to the mind of the oldest son the words he'd never understood before, words his father's mother had said to him years before when he'd been but nine.

"Poor little Tad,” she'd said, "You'll always have to be your father's hands.” Puzzled, he'd looked down at his own hands and knew his father had hands of his own.

"Some day you will see,” Grandma had said. "Your father sits too long in yesterday's regrets and in the terrible things that tomorrow might bring and he does not see today. He does not get today's things done.”

Yes, it had always been so. He saw it now. It had always been him that searched the early morning pasture for the freshening cow, that labored hours before and after school.

He had always been the muscles and the steady mind and no one, not even himself, had known it. But the reins were not his to hold. His father must sit on the driver's seat. That was the way of a father and a son.

"No, no,” said the father. "No new tractor. No big plow. They cost too much money. Repair the old. I must save my dollars. These young whipper-snappers, buying big, they'll lose the shirts right off their backs.”

So the oldest son took handfuls of rich black earth and rubbed it on his face and breathed the fragrance of it deep in his heart and he toiled long, long hours after the neighbors were done. And he took his father's piled money to the bank.

"The old man's doing pretty good, isn't he,” said the second son when he came to visit, and the sisters smiled. "Just think what Pops could have done if he'd had an education!” one said, and the other sister said to the brother at home, "There's weeds need cutting down by the drainage ditch.”

Some years, tribulation came and shadowed the land and corn froze on green stalks and beans snuggled under white until spring. And there were drought years that sucked the plants and the sap of man. Years when fat clouds billowed each day only to blow away on nighttime laughing winds. Years when hog prices dragged on low flat bellies and a load of cattle brought only a pittance.

One day the oldest son looked at his own years: "A man like me should have teenage sons by now.” And he went out and got himself a wife.

"Now I suppose I must pay you a wage,” his father grumbled. "Milk you can have and meat when we butcher and you can live in the little house there. The roof is not too bad. And you can put a wet rag over the smelly sink. But no money for paint!”

The next year a child was born. "Now it is time,” the oldest son said to his mother and father. "I have a wife and a child of my own to take care of. I must leave and build a future for them.”

"Oh, no,” wailed his mother. "You cannot take my beloved grandchild from me! He is such a joy to my tired heart. We have had such a hard life! All my children are gone, married, so far from home. I cannot bear to have you go.”

"What if I get sick?” said his father. "I am afraid of old age. Go your own way? How can you think of doing such an ungrateful thing? Who will take care of me and your mother now that our bones are stiff and crooked?”

And the oldest son looked at them and loved them and he buckled tighter his love belt and he stayed home and kept on farming the land that was his land and yet was not his land.

"Father,” he tried yet again. "You are past retirement age. I will get a loan and buy this land from you.”

"No! No! My feet and my fingers and my name must be on this land until I die. Land prices have gone up many times over,” said the old man. "Hard times are coming. I know. I've seen it before. It is not fair to you to have such a terrible debt on your shoulders when the prices break.”

And so it was. The oldest son toiled the promise years of verdant green and he toiled the withered brown years and he watched the expenses climb and the machinery grow bigger still and he watched the high cost of money and he watched the little farms become Jonahs, swallowed up whole, and he watched the changes, but the land prices did not go down.

"But they will. They will,” nodded the father. "I know.”

One day the woman died. The father grew feeble in his mind and body and the oldest son shouldered the farm and his father, like he always had done, and one day the old man died too. But before he did, land prices jumped until it was something the old man couldn't comprehend. "I dreamed a bad dream last night,” he had mumbled. "$1,000 dollars an acre. $2,000, $3,000. But that will never come to pass,” he said and he picked up his paper, upside down, and began to read.

"We leave everything equal to our two sons and to our two daughters,” stated the will.

"The folks thought it was a fair thing,” said the oldest son. "I have no quarrel with that.”

He turned to his brother and sisters and spoke to them. "Farming is all I know how to do. You have made it plain to me that you will not sell our father's land to me at the appraisal price. It will bring even more money, you say. And you have made it plain to me, and this I understand not, that you will not sign an estate contract with me.

"Even at the appraisal price I am too old to take upon my shoulders now a debt of the great size necessary to buy our father's land. The land will not even be able to pay the interest each year on such a loan. I will be gone before such a great debt could be paid. I do not wish to leave such a burdensome heritage to my children.

"So now I will work the land in joint ownership with you until the age of retirement is upon me. Then we can sell. But I must live these few years and provide for my family.”

"No!” said the second son. "Land is selling for a high price. We will sell it now. For CASH!” And the film grew thick over his eyes and crept down over his little heart and the hearts of his sisters.

"We agree with our second brother,” echoed the sisters. They jerked their heads up and down and their husbands did the same.

"All my life I have done what my heart has said to do. For you, for Mama, for my father. But you, my brother and my sisters, you will not help me now? Not even for five years?” The oldest son thought this but he did not speak a word because it was not his way.

And so the family farm was sold to a stranger for cash and in due time the oldest son and the second son and the two sisters stood in the lawyer's office. The lawyer handed each of them a little piece of paper.

The second son grabbed his paper, smearing the ink, and the two sisters laughed and laughed and they all hurried out to the car dealer, travel agency and store that sells everything they had always wanted.

The oldest son stood still. He looked down at the little scrap of paper in his calloused hand and—he wept.

Farm Journal, Mid-March 1980