Growing up in rural Ohio, I knew certain things were expected of me. I helped make supper and do the dishes. In the summer, my brother and I helped my mom mow grass and tend to the garden while my dad was at work. These were not easy tasks. I would be pulling weeds at 8 a.m. when my town friends were still in bed. After picking buckets of green beans, we still had to spend hours snapping, cleaning and canning those beans. A few summers, when the neighbor’s sweet corn crop was abundant, we would walk across the road to husk corn with them. When the tomatoes were ripe, we blanched them and squeezed them into tomato juice or spaghetti sauce.
Part of me hated this work. But it wasn’t all bad. First of all, I knew it could be worse. I knew the neighbor girls who were husking corn with me had been up before dawn to milk their 100-head of Holsteins. And I knew their brothers were bailing hay in the hot sun. And I knew this work gave us good food. I didn’t understand until years later know much my family depended on that food. We never had much money, but we never had a shortage of food–in the summer or winter.
But the best part of the work was the time we spent together. When we were pulling weeds in the garden, we were also talking. I don’t even remember what we talked about. But we talked. When we spent hours in the hot kitchen, we also listened to music and sang. Not well, I might add, but we sang. When we husked corns with the neighbors, we laughed and teased and kept up on community gossip. In the winters, when I helped Mom cook dinner and do dishes, we talked about our days.
This work gave me a sense of my values. A sense of self.
And when I left for college and began finding my own way in the world, I knew who I was.
Now, I work in a city, but drive an hour to reach my own rural Ohio home. I don’t have the large garden that my mom had, but I try to have a couple tomato plants each year. Last summer, my daughter, who was not quite 4 years old, was excited to pick tomatoes with me. She even helped pull some weeds in the flower bed. And now in the evenings, we talk about her day while she stands on a chair in front of the kitchen sink, while she helps me with dishes.
This I believe: that the work, routines and rituals we teach our children will provide them with a sense of their values and a sense of self.