After World War II, when my grandfather returned to Minsk, the capital of Soviet Belarus, his parents suggested he become an electrician. He refused and became a barber instead. “I wanted to work in a clean smock, not a dirty one,” he said. (Barbers in the Soviet Union wore smocks.)
The future that my grandfather – my mother’s father – imagined for me when my family immigrated to the United States in 1988 was in keeping with his disregard for messy manual labor: A suit and tie, a high-floor office, an impressive bi-weekly haul. Truly talented people had clean fingernails. Especially in America.
So his face shifted into a troubled frown when I told him that I was going to spend part of last summer volunteering on a dairy farm in northwestern New Jersey.
“Will they pay you?” he asked.
“So your work isn’t worth anything?”
I had a well-paying position at a start-up company. Why would I want to give up my weekends to work with my hands, and for free? I tried to explain: At the end of a workday – my eyes bleary from the computer screen, my listless mind only vaguely aware of its contribution to the enterprise – my body was anxious, a limp wire that hadn’t received electricity.
I thought of my father, a housepainter in the USSR. With his beautiful work-roughened hands, he built desks, benches, chandeliers. Unlike most of his friends, he actually enjoyed the harvest-season countryside volunteering that was compulsory for most Soviet young people. He had learned to become self-conscious about all this – “Go, go study,” he would turn me away when I’d wander over to his stepladder as a six-year-old – but I still thought of it often.
On my first day at Bobolink Dairy, which sits on the border of New York and New Jersey, I worked a pickaxe. The owners, Jonathan and Nina White, had decided to plant a big summer garden to feed family and staff. It was mid-June, close to a hundred degrees. The pickaxe tore at my palms even through thick workgloves. But I found it was easier to persevere here than at my desk in New York, where each moment required the same mental exertion. The ache in my hands eventually subsided into a dull burn, the strain in my stomach eased, and the temperature quit climbing. I swung, sunk, and pulled, the repetition coming to feel like hypnosis. I experienced the singular sensation of being alert and detached at once. At the end of the day, I could barely move, but my mind felt like water quietly swishing in a jug.
This repetition came to seem representative. Farm life is ritualistic: You do the same thing every day, partly to maximize already thin profits, partly because of natural facts – cows like to milk in the morning, before it’s too hot. I had come from a place where I was constantly re-scheduling dinners, meetings, phone calls. Not here. It was a relief.
With time, though, I realized that the routine was a false front. Farm life was actually full of unpredictability. You didn’t know if the seeds in the garden would sprout, so you planted extras, except if they all sprouted, the plants would throttle each other. But as there wasn’t room for error, neither was there time for self-flagellation – there was too much to do. We’d plant the seeds farther apart next time, that’s all.
This was a revelation. For as long as I could remember, I had labored under the faint but constant anxiety, familiar to any immigrant child, of coming up short on my family’s grand dreams. Every setback caused weeks of addled, soul-searching regret. It would take more than some seeds for me to forgive myself more, but it was my experience at the farm that, for the first time, made me want to.
One evening later in the summer, I headed to the garden to pick tomatoes and zucchini for dinner. In the failing light, surrounded by corn stalks reaching to human height and squash leaves that looked like elephant ears, it suddenly felt like a jungle, primeval and terrifying. To someone raised on steel and glass, it was a deeply unnerving sensation. But then I caught myself. I had shepherded these plants from seed to full bloom. I knew what was in here – my contribution to this enterprise was right in front of my eyes. And the nervousness fell away.
On one of my last days, I shoveled mounds of cow manure, turned soupy by urine, out of the milking barn. My coveralls flecked with grime, my feet sloshing around in mud boots, I was one misstep from ending up in the mess. I smiled sheepishly and wondered what my grandfather would say.
When I finished, I called him. But I was relieved when Oksana, his Ukrainian home attendant, picked up. I didn’t have the heart to tell him what I had been doing. So I told Oksana, who knew her way around a farm. She laughed: “Someday, you’ll be telling this story to your kids.”
I glanced down at my splattered coveralls. “And I’ll tell them,” I said, “I wanted a dirty apron, not a clean one.”