I have mentioned before that my first ever job was weeding onions on my Dad’s farm. I think I was going into 5th grade. Some days I really miss it.
On days when I’m juggling meetings and emails and travel schedules (ack!) I long for the simpler days of waking at dawn, putting on jeans, a t shirt, old tennis shoes, a hat, gloves, packing snacks, filling the water jug, grabbing my favorite hoe, and jumping in the back of my dad’s Dodge Ram and heading out to the field with my sisters.
When we first entered the field it was usually cool, but by midmorning the black muck would be super hot so we would find a shaded spot to set our snacks and water jugs. We would look out onto the long rows of onions and fight over the ones that looked like they had the least amount of weeds. The onions were grown in two rows on a raised bed. If the weeds weren’t too thick we could hoe them out of the ground, but if the weeds were close to the onions we had to pull them by hand. We would definitely get yelled at if we nicked the onions with our hoe.
It would generally take 45 minutes to an hour to reach the end of the row; then we would turn around and come back again. It was very satisfying to see clean rows of onions standing proud, with the weeds already wilting at the bottom of the trench. Then we would take a 10 minute break to eat snacks and drink water. Our cousins often had Kool-Aid, but we learned early on that water would quench one’s thirst much better than anything sugary. We were careful not to take a break for too long.
“If I pay you to work by the hour, I expect you to work, not sit on the end of the field drinking Kool-Aid,” my Dad would say.
Sometimes we would see our Dad ride by on a tractor on his way to another field to move irrigation pipes or spray fertilizer. On especially hot days I was jealous of the air conditioned tractor.
“Girls,” he would say if we complained, “some days I wish I was a boy again weeding onions.”
Twenty-five plus years later, I understand what he meant. The task was always clear. It was obvious if the onions were free of weeds. We mostly stuck together, helping each other out if one found themselves an especially weedy patch. Sometimes we would come across a baby rabbit or bird nest. Often we could hear the birds singing in the trees along the fields or in the weeds growing in the irrigation ditches. You could finish a field and have a sense of accomplishment. You could go home at the end of the day, take a really good shower, and forget the fields you left behind. After a summer in the fields we would be tan and muscular.
Often my sisters and I would make up songs or stories, or sing TV theme songs, or dream about what we would do with the money we earned when we got our big checks at the end of the summer. We earned minimum wage. I remember that the Mexicans got more. I also remember that they were always referred to as “Domingo’s family from Texas.” If we complained about the wages, we were reminded that they needed it more and that they worked much faster than we did.
Some years, not enough of Domingo’s family came. The weeds would start to choke the fields and my Dad would ask other farmers if their kids could join us. Often they did. My mom would stop for panhandlers in the nearby city and ask if they wanted to come work. No one ever took her up on the offer.
I see panhandlers today and I wonder if any of them are really homeless, and if they would take my Mom up on her offer if she asked them now, if my Dad still had the farm. Somehow I doubt it.
I think my upbringing is one of the reasons I love to travel to “the field” so much for my work. Sitting alongside farmers’ fields in developing countries reminds me of my childhood. I think I will forever be more patient, mindful of the weather, and value hard work because of my experiences.