Years ago I took piano lessons from John Mehegan, a well-known jazz musician who played at local night clubs, the chords building, the dog-house-bass drumming, and then a cascade of notes flying from his right hand, ducking and weaving through the melody, transforming it, condensing it, drawing it out until the audience was breathless. My very first lesson was indeed given by John, the keys of his black Yamaha baby grand discolored by cigarettes having burned too low, a tumbler of "tomato juice" sitting nearby. (I always suspected that it contained its share of vodka.) It was a painful, dull-witted hour on my part, a perfect match of physical and mental deficiencies merging quickly into despair and incompetence. The magic of John's music was being reduced to mathematical formulas, to inversions and conversions, to minor sevenths, to the wheel of fifths, to relative minors, to just plain repetition and hard work to build physical dexterity. It was difficult, perhaps impossible, for me to imagine that one day I would play "Satin Doll" in a fluid, recognizable form.
Much like musicians, farmers develop proficiency, even artistry, over a lifetime. They develop a natural rhythm, whether plowing a field in one continuous pattern of ovals or simply launching a 60-pound bale of hay from the ground to the top of a pickup in a smooth arc. That is why my incompetence has been the source of so much amusement in our town. I have watched helplessly as my tractor ran down an embankment and into the crotch of a sturdy black birch. (I had to chainsaw the tree to free the tractor.) I was assured that deer don't eat pumpkin, so I didn't fence my patch the first year. (The local herd was well-fed.) My first attempts at an apple orchard were disastrous. If the trees didn't die, most of the apples fell off in June, the scabby survivors wormy and discolored by October. Every year I would bog down my tractor in exactly the same spot in the lower field; for the townsfolk, it was a sign that spring had arrived. And more than once I have tapped an oak, a red maple, or even an elm during the sugaring season instead of sugar maple.
Not all of us are musicians or farmers, but many of us are parents. Like dilettante musicians, we start off with our first child knowing little, having yet to master a natural rhythm of parenting. My wife and I have left our first daughter, Whitney, in her plastic car seat on top of the dining room table. (She rocked herself off the table onto the floor. We were panic-stricken; Whitney was fine.) I've yelled when I should have remained silent. I've negotiated when I ought to have laid down the law. I've been an ungrateful recipient of childhood alms (poems, welcome-home banners, and priceless bits of crayon art) when I should have counted myself the luckiest man alive.
Yet there is hope for all of us. I now walk a wet corner of a field before plowing it. I fence my pumpkin patch. I tap only sugar maples. The apple crop is a good one, the result of weekly organic sprays, scented bug traps, and a decent job of winter pruning.
This summer, I gathered our four kids together to watch home movies. Like Scrooge, I watched the past from a ghostly distance: kids hunting for frogs, telling stories on the front porch, lighting sparklers by the sap house on a moonless night, loading goats onto the pickup, and scrubbing apples for the cider press. I also saw moments of uncertainty and loneliness, times when I should have been out in front of the camera holding a hand or just paying attention. I remember one scene in particular. Our 3-year-old, Emily, was floating away from shore in a canoe, her face convulsed in tears, having been launched alone into deeper waters by a taunting older sister. Perhaps, in parenting, there is no perfection. I pray that it is the mistakes-- and getting past them-- that bond a family more than sparklers in the night, the fire illuminating the faces of hopeful children before the camera records their return to darkness.
Before bed, I took a walk through the orchard. I looked up and saw a moon bright with forgiveness. Home movies record the past, I thought, they don't predict the future. After all, the apple trees had finally borne large, red fruit and my kids were safe and sound, the wild things tamed by dreams of frogs and homemade cider.