I’m looking at pictures of my family and thinking about how simple things turn out to be valuable things. It doesn’t take much. Little ordinary photographs can hold extraordinary significance. And thank God, I’ve had enough sense to hold on to some of the best.
When Dad was still living, I went up to Hampton on a Saturday with one thing on my mind. This has been nearly 15 years ago, now. I wanted a picture of him sitting on our old Massey Ferguson tractor. That was it. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. He was of the Depression era generation that didn’t care much for anything that wasn’t practical.
“Now, tell me again. What are we doing?” He wasn’t confused. He just didn’t see the point.
“I want to go down to the barn and get the tractor out. You sit on it. I’ll set up the tripod, turn on the timer and then I’ll stand next to you.”
“Yeah, yeah. I get that. But why?”
“Because I said so.” I had waited my entire life to say this to him on my terms.
“Well, I guess we can do that. I’m not sure I’ve got enough diesel to be playing around like this.”
“I’ll buy you some diesel.”
We get up out of our chairs in the den and walk through the kitchen. Dad grabs his old worn-out cap off the peg on the wall by the pantry. It’s a warm fall day. Long sleeves but no jacket.
“You want me to back her out?” I’m trying to make this as easy as possible.
“Naw, I think I still know how to drive a tractor.”
The old diesel engine fires up easy as ever. A little grind going into reverse. The bush hog lifts and he backs her around in front of the barn.
“Where do you want me?”
“Pull forward just a few feet. I want to make sure I get the barn in the background.”
“The door is falling off the corn crib. That won’t look very good.” Now, he’s a photo critic.
“But that’s what I want. You and Me. The old tractor. The barn.”
“Can’t you just take a picture of the tractor?”
“No, Dad. I want you and me in the picture. You’re gonna kick the bucket one of these days and this may be all I have left to remember you by.”
“You think you’re gonna forget me?” He let’s on a sheepish grin.
I can tell he’s finally giving in. He sits up on the old seat with his hands folded in his lap. I’m setting up the tripod, getting things set.
What I love about the old barn is that my grandfather built it in the early 1900s from trees that he sawmilled right here on the farm. 14” White Oak beams set up on fieldstone pillars. Full 2×4” rough cut Oak framing. 2×8 rafters. Wide Yellow Pine boards for the walls and the floor in the hay loft.
It’s not a massive barn. A milking shed on one side. Tractor shed on the other side. Two cribs in the middle and a loft overhead. The entire thing covered in secondhand tin. Nothing bought but the square nails that held it all together.
My people were always willing to make do with whatever they had. Even the seat that Dad is sitting on is testimony to this family trait. I notice it through the lens of the camera.
The original seat wore out a long time ago. Dad put a piece of plywood on the metal frame and screwed down a Craftsman Lawn Mower seat on that. And when that split all apart, he put a black plastic trash bag on over the seat to keep the water out. The edge of the trash bag is blowing in the wind out from under his right hindquarter.
“This gonna take long?” His patience is already fading.
“You got someplace you need to be?”
I set the timer and step out from around the tripod. My pant leg gets caught on an old spool of barbed wire laying in the weeds.
“I’ve been looking for that. Looked all through the smokehouse and barn and couldn’t find it anywhere. If you don’t mind, put it over there by the shed. There’s a section of fence by the back gate that needs a little work.”
Click. The camera goes off before I can get in the frame.
“You don’t have cows anymore, Dad. Why you worried about fixing the fence?”
“Ain’t right to just let something go.”
So, like I was told to do, I pick up the spool and set it down by the front of the shed.
“We gotta do this again. The camera went off before I was ready.”
“You sure you know how to operate that thing?”
This is the man who took 800 miles of home movies behind the eyepiece of a Kodak Browning 8mm movie camera when we were little. Christmas movies of me and Marian in cowboy and cowgirl outfits. Summer vacations to Panama City Beach and weekend trips to Cherokee, NC to see the fall leaf color. Every Easter Sunday from about 1960 to 1974 he stood outside Berea Christian Church and captured every family on film. Old men in hats and suits. Women in fine dresses and netted flowered hats. Little boys in shorts and bow ties. Little girls in lacey outfits with white gloves.
“Yeah. You got me distracted with the barbed wire. Just give me a minute to get reset.”
I finally got three or four shots. Me standing beside the tractor with my Dad. You could offer me all the gold in the world, and I wouldn’t trade it for that one picture. It’s nothing fancy. I’ve got other pictures, for sure. Other trips. Other places. All of them great pictures, but none that means as much to me as this one.
Several years after Dad passed away, I made another trip up to Hampton. I had one picture on my mind. You can probably tell where this is going. I pulled out the old tractor. This time the old man in the seat was me. The man who stood next to the tractor was my son. A generational memory tucked away for another time.
I haven’t been back to the homeplace since we sold it last fall. The last time I saw it, the door on the corn crib was laying on the ground. Some of the old tin was pealing back. The tractor shed had fallen in on one side. That barn has been standing there for over 100 years. Time and decay are winning the battle they always seem to win.
The tractor now lives in my barn at the tree farm. She doesn’t get much use. I crank her up every now and then just to hear it run. Somehow, just knowing the old Massey is there is all that matters.
It reminds me of a picture I took once upon a time. And if a picture really is worth a thousand words, here’s 1198 of them to prove it true.