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Amish Insights on Big Families
THIS MONTH’S QUESTION:
Springtime is a busy time of the year for homesteaders. How do you keep such large families seemingly so organized during busy seasons?
Emily: "Out with the cold and in with the spring" is what comes to mind as the sun shines these days. Pretty soon, we’ll notice the first Coltsfoot bloom in the ditches and the Spring Beauties pop up in the otherwise bare lawn, and we are assured once again that the next season is almost here. It would be lovely if we could spend long hours in the neighboring woods, observing the reawakening that is happening, but in all reality, it is also the beginning of a busy time for most of us. Fruit trees and grapes need to be pruned, gardens planned, early crops planted, lawns raked, spring cleaning finished up, and much more. For us farmers, it’s getting the fields prepared for the spring seedings, the fences fixed so the cows can go on pasture (oh happy day!!), and thinking about first cutting hay. So how do such large families seemingly stay so organized during this busy time? Let me put in a disclaimer: first, we do not have a large family, and second, I do not consider myself the model of efficiency, but there are many, many women I greatly admire and who have taught me much over the years. And I could add “homesteaders” doesn’t quite fit our mold; our farm is our livelihood.
It seems much of our culture is rather structured, with everything having a rhyme and a reason. There is stability in knowing that each season brings things that need to be done in order for us to be able to enjoy the beauties of the season coming in. Summer is planting and harvesting, Autumn is preserving and preparing for the cold months, and winter is spent preparing for spring. Closets and drawers get sorted, organized, and cleaned; March might begin with the walls, ceilings, woodwork, window whites, windows, furniture, and floors all getting a thorough cleaning. There is something so gratifying about washing curtains and hanging them back up in a sparkling, clean room. The same goes for sheets that have line-dried in early spring—I’m convinced that luxury makes your brain release endorphins and creates a happy feeling! Some weeks will come when the farm work is most important, and the floor barely gets swept, but we know that everything was clean at one time. A lot of women have workdays once a month where their sisters and sisters-in-law get together, and they do whatever is on the list. Very enjoyable and helpful, especially if you’re preparing for church services. In the winter months, lots of sewing gets done so that once the outside work begins, there are not many clothes that need to be made. Weddings start happening in April, so if your family needs certain attire for that, most women will have everything made, ironed, and hanging in the closets. Just the other day, my friend was telling me that she wanted to get fabric and sew her dress for a family wedding coming up in the fall. To me, that is impressive! But she is preparing for the busy times, and this enables her to help on their farm and ENJOY it.
A friend of ours became gravely ill, and the future looked uncertain. Her sister had the difficult task of checking the children’s closets to see if the appropriate clothes would be ready should she pass on. It touched me when she related how everything was there, pressed and ready to go. This friend was granted life, but I’ll never forget how she had her things in order. We are not promised tomorrow, and I like to think that most will make similar preparations for their families during the not-so-busy months.
Being stewards of the land and homemakers are worthy virtues and highly important, yet being so busy that we don’t have time for others is just sad. Sometimes we can get so wrapped up in good things that we really miss what life is all about. In communion church, we hear that alms are not just monetary but also the giving of our time. I remind myself of that when I think I have such a busy day and I get asked to make a gallon of potato salad for a funeral in a neighboring church. It’s a little thing I can do for the ones who are grieving. So perhaps doing what we can before the busy times keeps us from feeling overwhelmed when the unexpected happens and allows us to graciously give where needed. Plus, as my husband keeps reminding me, you’re just as busy as you make yourself to be. Annoying but true.
So, perhaps the secret to being organized is to take the example of the industrious ant and the slothful grasshopper in a favorite childhood story—plan carefully and work ahead so there is time to live a life of worship. For me, a springtime walk through the woods after the evening chores renews my spirit.
Daniel: Here are some homespun observations regarding this interesting question. I suppose it’s mostly wrapped up in family structure, a work schedule that’s doable, and camaraderie in heaping doses. The long and short of it is that it’s not that difficult to figure out. A large family doesn’t happen overnight. As year follows year, the children, by succession, grow into the tasks they’re capable of doing; a natural progression that creates its own order of work, from oldest to youngest.
Large family or not so large, the overall approach to cooperation remains much the same. Anyone who grew up on a farm knows firsthand about the busy season. It happens every spring on every farm and is apt to stretch into summer, and fall for that matter. The earth wakes up, farmers begin their fieldwork, the oats get sowed, the sun warms the soil to a certain temp, and then... boom!—everything happens at once. A fair amount of corn seed is in the ground by now, and a fair amount is still in the bags it was bought in, meaning planting season isn’t over yet. The hay crop is ready, and the weather is favorable for cutting it. At this point, the lady of the house drops not-so-subtle hints that she couldn’t think of a better time than right now to get the garden plowed and prepped.
The bottom line is there are only so many minutes in a day. No matter how fast the farmer picks up his feet and puts ‘em down, it’s not fast enough. Here’s where a large-size family shines, their superior numbers making short shrift of a big workload—the more, the merrier. On any work project, Dad, Mom, and older siblings provide leadership—actively promoting the spirit of teamwork. Children generally respond favorably to situations where Dad or an older brother rolls up his sleeves and leads by example—“Watch me, here’s how you do it.”
From day one, these children grow up in an environment of working with a cheerful heart. Dads try their hardest to set a pleasing tenor to the day, whistling, singing, telling stories. All the folks in the neighborhood operate in like manner. The children see it and sense it, day in, day out. They mimic it, and it becomes an integral part of how they go about it themselves. Another thing: parents put a high value on seeing their children happily finding their places in the family setting and discovering contentment in their world of work, play, and school days.
If you’re beginning to think all this sounds too fanciful and cookie-cutter perfect, let me show you another side to it. In a family made up of a dozen or more siblings, any one of ‘em is liable to get up on the wrong side of the bed on any given morning. More than likely, there’s a Curious George in the mix, too. Trouble always seeks him out, no matter where he is or what he’s doing. Disagreements arise at any time for any reason. An older brother may take it upon himself to motivate an uninspired little brother who, in turn, gets seriously annoyed at Big Brother’s bossiness and purposely disrupts the workflow by acting the slowpoke. It’s all in a day’s work, the good and the not-so-good. Camaraderie goes hand-in-hand with any sibling crew. In that regard, parents make allowances for a certain amount of monkey business. Wherever a dozen or so brothers and sisters work side by side, occasions for pranks arise on every hand, and few opportunities are altogether ignored. Many families possess a bumper crop of prankster lore, impressive in both scope and ingenuity.
Aside from that, the age-old tradition of dangling a carrot on a stick is just as effective today as in centuries past. Incentives such as the promise of an end-of-the-summer trip to the zoo do wonders in helping school-age children bear the heat of the day while hoeing sweet corn rows. I know that for a fact; once I was the hoe-er, then I was the dad. Sometimes no particular incentive is offered or needed.
On the farm next to ours lives 11-year-old David Lee, the youngest of nine children, presently a 6th grader in Hickory Hollow School. For a number of years now, he’s been the official caregiver of the occupants in the calf pens—bottle feeding and so on. Each evening, year-round, David Lee helps milk their 40 cows. Every Thursday morning since he’s been nine and a half, the little feller rolls out at four o’clock and takes his turn as morning chore boy. Little stepping stones such as this may seem insignificant, but they aren’t. When his number comes, he’s up and doing.
The nice thing about it? David Lee gets to take a snooze after chores till it’s time to get ready for school. In my experience, all work and no play was a nonfactor. Children on every farm roundabout got time off to pursue hobbies—and still do. Pastimes in my own boyhood had to do with ponies, playing ball, the creek, and anything outdoors. Horse-farming figures into family structure, too. A horse in harness requires water, oats, rest, and care—morning, noon, and evening—which brings the family together and sets an order to the day. In many larger families, the older siblings may have day jobs, but when suppertime rolls around, everyone’s home, everyone’s there to stick their feet under the table, and everyone’s talking. It’s the highlight of the day.
On occasions when there are grain sheaves to be set in shocks or hay to be put up, these older siblings lend their muscle and might, giving the family at home a welcome boost with the harvest. Exactly how produce farmers go about handling the workforce and the hand-picking required in their operations is beyond me. I don’t know diddly about it... other than it all looks formidable.
To me, the best real-life paragon of large family cooperation revolves around a typical hay day on an Amish farm—or the way it used to be done. Once the hay is windrowed and ready to bale, Dad calls all hands on deck, top to bottom, boys and girls. Oftentimes the lineup spills into neighboring families. Dad oversees each part of the haymaking, helping out where needed, sometimes raking more windrows once the baling is underway. Grandpa handles the team pulling the baler. The oldest children stack bales in the haymow because that’s where the hardest, warmest, sweatiest work takes place. Middle-bracket children ride the wagon hooked to the back of the baler, lifting the bales from the chute and stacking them in their proper place on the wagon. Unloading the bales from the wagon to the elevator demands at least one sibling old enough to handle the job, reinforced by a couple of smaller children who roll the bales within reach. More little ones are scattered throughout, doing this, doing that, or doing nothing, delighted to be part of the goings-on.
On hay day, everyone is on their best behavior. Even Curious George needs no intervention from the Man in the Yellow Hat. The littles, as yet exempt from work, caper about and get chaperoned rides to the field on empty wagons and return rides to the barn on the loaded wagons. Sisters work shoulder to shoulder with brothers, enjoying the outdoor work to the hilt. At chore time, Mom ramrods a ragtag crew to get the milking done. On a just-unloaded flatbed wagon, Grandma serves up stacks of omelet sandwiches seasoned with a light dusting of alfalfa chaff and slathered with mayo. Everyone leans against the sides of the wagon, sunburned and ravenously hungry. Ice-cold chocolate milk in glass quart jars caps it all off. Grandma smiles when she’s told that was the best meal ever, and everyone who says it means it from the bottom of their hearts.
Those were, and will always remain, the best of times. //
Emily Hershberger with her husband and two children have an organic dairy near Mt Hope, Ohio. She enjoys farming, gardening, garage sales, and a good book.
Daniel and Mae live on a 93-acre farm between Walnut Creek and Trail, Ohio. Five children, hay-making, and Black Angus cattle take up any spare time after work at Carlisle Printing. Questions and comments welcome: 330-893-6043.