Sunday, April 13, 2014

The grass isn’t greener

There was a farmer named Hershel. He had been farming all his life. His piece of dirt was all he knew. He didn’t want to know any more than that.

Hershel had inherited the farm from his father, just as his father had inherited the farm from his father. For four generations the farm had stayed in the family. And Hershel was intent on passing the farm to his sons.

Over the years, most of the farms in the county had been sold. Many were now abandoned properties or had been sold to agribusiness. Not Hershel’s farm.

Hershel’s farm had good soil, good fences, good workers, good equipment, and good buildings. Hershel had a good wife and good sons and daughters. They went to a good church, and they had good relations with the people in town. Nothing is perfect, but Hershel didn’t nitpick. He had all he needed, and he was content.

All of a sudden the farm next door went up for sale. The neighbors couldn’t meet orders, and they couldn’t maintain their equipment or pay for a steady staff of workers, so they were selling. With tears Hershel bid them goodbye.

It didn’t take long for the farm’s new owners to move in. They immediately began making improvements. They built a new house and a new barn. They built a new stockade and stocked it with young, healthy animals.

One morning, Hershel was working near the fence when his new neighbor walked up. He was a handsome man, with a full head of hair and clean, smooth skin. Handsomer than me, Hershel thought, scratching his balding, wrinkly scalp with worn, dirty hands.

His name was Steve Prescott. “Why don’t you bring your family over for dinner tonight,” Steve offered.

“I’m not sure you can feed all seven of us,” Hershel said.

Steve laughed. “See you tonight.”

That night, Hershel and his wife and two sons and three daughters walked to the Prescotts’ dressed in their Sunday best. The house was a great, big beautiful house, much larger and more comfortable than the old house they lived in. The wood smelled fresh, like it had been carried straight from the mill.

Steve’s family was lovely. He had one son and one daughter, both very well-mannered and well-dressed. His wife was beautiful and vibrant.

They sat to a splendid meal of turkey and beans. Hershel had not eaten so well in months. Why can’t my wife cook like this? he thought.

After dinner, they took a brief tour around the property. Steve showed them the new buildings and the new equipment. He also shared with Hershel his plan to build a new fence between their farms. Even though it was a better fence than the current one, Hershel refused to consider it.

“I built that fence with my dad when I was a boy. It’s shown no sign of wear. It does its job, and that’s all I ask of it.”

Steve relented and said he would shelve his plans for the fence for now.

When they got home, Hershel’s sons and daughters gushed about the neighbor’s house and the neighbor’s handsome children and the neighbor’s food. The family was full of envy. Even his wife was jealous.

“I wish I were as pretty as Mrs. Prescott,” she sighed, looking in the mirror at her sagging cheeks and grey-streaked hair.

Hershel didn’t know what to say, because silently he agreed with her. He wished his wife was as pretty. He wished his house was as nice. He wished he could change a lot of things that, a day ago, he wouldn’t change for the world.

The next day, Hershel’s son spent the morning next door helping the Prescotts lay down fresh sod around the house. The report from his daughters was he was smitten with Miss Prescott.

Hershel found himself working near the fence again. He stopped and looked across onto the Prescott farm, at the new buildings and the bright, green grass his son was helping lay down. He saw Steve’s daughter bring lemonade out to them while they worked. She stopped to chat with Hershel’s son for a minute. Although Hershel couldn’t hear what they were saying, he was certain they were in love.

He looked back at his house, with its small windows and leaky roof, with its peeling paint and dull, patchy yard. He could hear his daughters playing the piano. I wish I had a daughter to attract such a man as my son, he thought wistfully.

Hershel’s son returned from the Prescotts’ and asked if they could have them over for dinner. Hershel didn’t want them over but felt he couldn’t say no. He acceded to his son’s request and retired early to prepare the house for visitors.

That afternoon the house was a tornado of activity. Everything had to be prepared just right. They knew they couldn’t impress the Prescotts, but they would do the most with what they had to work with.

The Prescotts arrived early, so Hershel took them on a short tour about the property while his wife finished preparing dinner. The buildings he showed them were old, ancient compared to the new buildings the Prescotts had just built. The same could be said for the equipment, some of which Hershel’s grandfather had bought brand new. Nevertheless, the Prescotts showed a peculiar wonder at the modest farm. Hershel was certain it was a put-on.

For dinner they had beef and rice casserole. Hershel felt tense through the whole meal. He resented what was obviously Steve’s condescension in coming over, as if the families were on equal terms, when it was obvious they weren’t. Nevertheless, he was determined to endure this family visit and be nothing less than a gracious host until the last of the Prescotts set foot out the door.

It was a cool, cloudless night, and Steve proposed they have a smoke behind the house. Hershel agreed. They walked a ways from the house, where the noises of the children playing and women cleaning merged into a light, indistinct rumble. They stood staring out over the farm and at the stars, silhouetted in the moonlight.

Steve broke the silence. “I want to thank you again for having us over, Hershel. And for your son’s help this morning. He’s a terrific young man. And a hard worker! If only I could get my son to work half as hard as him.”

“Your son?”

Steve nodded as he dragged on the cigarette. “Steve Jr. would rather follow his imagination than follow instructions. Your son’s example is a blessing.”

“Don’t let him know that. As far as I know, he thinks you’re the one who’s blessing him by letting him nearer to your daughter.”

“Ah, yes. She’s been having that effect lately. In part that’s why we moved the kids out here, away from bad influences in the city, away from temptations.”

“Temptation is everywhere, even in the country.”

A wry smile stretched Steve’s lips. “It’s hard to tell by looking at your family. Had me fooled.”

Hershel pondered Steve’s words. Did Steve envy his family? Steve, with his pretty wife and two well-mannered children? The idea was absurd.

Indeed, how absurd was it? No more absurd than Hershel envying his family.

Hershel laughed, the tension releasing from his body. “I have been such a fool.”

“What?”

“Since last night I have been thinking of all the ways my life could be as good as yours.”

Steve looked at Hershel, nonplussed. “What do you want a life like mine for? Look at your life! Look at your big, beautiful family and the home you’ve built and the living you’ve made off this land!”

“I could say the same about you. Look at your pretty wife and your new house and the fresh start you’re making.”

They stared at each other, and they burst into giggles together this time.

“I do have a lot to be thankful for, don’t I?” Steve said.

Hershel looked at his house, teeming with life and vitality and the sounds of love and joy. “As do I.”

He extended his hand to Steve. “I’m glad you moved in next door, Steve.”

Steve took his hand. “As am I.”

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