A challenge for you on this Father's Day

Opinion

Father’s Day for many farm families involves a BBQ, gifts, maybe some golf, and likely some farm work if the weather is right for spraying.

Like mothers, fathers play an integral role in the family farm business. For any family business there are smooth days, rocky ones and outright turbulent days that test the ties that bind even the strongest of families. Living and working within a family business can be complicated, as families attempt to separate family and business, often with mixed results.

It is not easy to have a normal relationship with your father (or mother) when you are working side by side on a daily basis — it takes significant effort to have a traditional parent/child relationship in addition to a professional one.

In any relationship there are things left unsaid, not discussed or not explored because they are easier to ignore or avoid. In many cases, farmers spend their entire life focused on building on their family’s legacy but never explain the true “why” around their motivation beside the shallow standard answers. Even in the closest of families, there are many things not understood because there are topics not discussed.

Recently, I was greatly impacted when I read Anderson Cooper’s latest book titled “The Rainbow Comes and Goes.” It’s a conversation between Cooper and his mother Gloria Vanderbilt. I bought the book after my wife gave me tickets to see Anderson Cooper live in Calgary. At this point it is my favourite book of 2020 due to the impression that it has left on me.

But what does a book about a guy and his mom have to do with Father’s Day? Let’s dig deeper.

Cooper writes the following in the introduction:

We don’t often explore new ways of talking and conversing, and we put off discussing complex issues or raising difficult questions. We think we’ll do it one day, in the future, but life gets in the way, and then it’s too late. I didn’t want there to be anything left unsaid between my mother and me, so on her ninety-first birthday I decided to start a new kind of conversation with her, a conversation about her life. Not the mundane details, but the things that really matter, her experiences that I didn’t know about or fully understand.

Cooper initiated this process with his mom via email and what developed was an extraordinary process of learning things about each other that they never would have known had they not made the effort. Throughout the book, Cooper, who had assumed he was nothing like his mom, learned they had much more in common than he thought as he learned the story of her life and her experiences.

After the first exchange, Cooper continues in the introduction:

That email…started the conversation that changed our relationship, bringing us closer than either of us had ever though possible. It’s the kind of conversation I think parents and their grown children would like to have, and it has made this past year the most valuable of my life. By breaking down the walls of silence that existed between us, I have come to understand my mom in ways I never imagined. It’s never too late to change the relationship. All it takes is a willingness to be honest and shed your old skin, to let go of the old skin, to let go of the longstanding assumptions and slights you still cling to.  

That’s such a powerful message, in my opinion.

The book is often promoted as an exposé into the life of Anderson’s mother, who was a Vanderbilt — once the wealthiest family in America. While it includes some bizarre stories that are very entertaining, the message I was left with was much deeper.

It is so easy to go through life not really understanding the people you are closest with. As my Grandma Haney would say, “we just don’t talk about those things.”

In the past I would go to my dad’s and we would talk about the exchange rate, politics, or the latest cattle-on-feed report. Conflict between us was routine as we struggled to find common ground on issues. Over time, my dad and I figured out how to be able to joke with each other without the other taking something personally. We never fight anymore because many of the things that used to set us off have been removed. It has taken effort by both of us to actually listen and understand the other’s perspective.

As Cooper alludes to in the book, the risk of delaying these more meaningful conversations is that one day the other person is gone. I often think about my grandfather Mehalko (on my mom’s side) and wish I would have taken more fishing trips, asked more questions about his experiences, and why he retired early from farming even though he loved it.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve had the opportunity to spend more time with my kids over consecutive days than in their entire life, and we have made the most of it, like I’m sure many of you have. Recently, we’ve really enjoyed time on the golf course (with no phones!!!) to chat about things other than whether homework was done.

It takes effort to have actual conversations that are deeper and allow you to have a better understanding of where a loved one is coming from. Fathers are expected to be stoic and an anchor for everyone in the family.  This traditional responsibility can be a burden, so it takes some effort to follow Cooper’s lead for actual conversations to take place.

This Father’s Day weekend I challenge you to move a little out of your comfort zone, and cherish the time you have with a son, a father, grandson, or grandfather and really connect. Ask deeper questions, give real answers, or just listen for the first time. As Anderson Cooper wrote, “don’t let life get in the way.”

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