I am just finishing slopping the hogs. You will ask what does the slopping of hogs have to do with the affection of a family. Good question!
I completed some farm jobs because of obligation. I creatively turned other hard work into a game. I am standing on the tailgate of our 1938 dull green Ford Pickup and throwing the last scoop of ground oats into the open fifty gallon barrel filled with water. I grab an oar like stick and plunge it into the barrel to mix the oats and water. Below me the hogs gather and raise a commotion of grunts and high-pitched squeals, their only way to express their cry for dinner. The only thing left to do is jump down into their midst, crowd my way to the bottom of the barrel and unscrew the plug that frees the milky liquid through the hole in the bottom of the barrel and along the trough as the hogs push for their place at the table. I will give them a few moments of contentment and then punish the most aggressive one closest to the front of line as I jump on its back and make a short ride until the feeder pig spins and forces me to jump and not fall into the manure that the hogs leave everywhere they walk.
Just as I finish, I hear the farm bell ring three times signaling 6:20 p.m. and Mom has dinner about ready to put on the table. The clang of the bell means simply—“You have ten minutes to come to the house, pull off your boots, wash up, and change any clothes that have the slightest hint of a barnyard smell.” The Watkins household know you will arrive on time or not be fed. My Mom doesn’t make idle threats and will not ring the bell a second time.
Just like always, everyone is in his place around the table. Mom has the South seat closest to the wood stove and Dad sits directly opposite her. I am to Dad’s right and my sister, Carolyn, is directly in front of me.
Our family is beginning a ritual seldom broken. Everyone eats dinner together unless there is a very good reason like hospitalization, a sleep over with a friend, or a school activity. It is time for catching up on the news of the day and Mom is primarily responsible for the flow of conversation. Everyone participates in the discussions. This is the place we resolve make family decision and resolve disagreements. There is equal voice, but Mom and Dad make the final decisions. It is always clear to Carolyn and I that we cannot divide and conquer—not in the Watkins household.
And, then, when Dad deems dinner conversation has ended. Regardless of the temper or time involved in the conversation, Dad slides his chair back from the table. This is the silent signal and Mom gets up from the table, walks around to Dad, and gently sits in my father’s lap. I can’t remember when this tradition began. We say little at this point. He hugs her firmly until he has once again affirmed his consistent love. He might give her a kiss. She returns to her seat. Carolyn is next as she hops in Dad’s lap for her time to cuddle. Then, it is my turn. It is obvious that everyone finds peace in this time of unity and affirmation.
Dad will probably not say, “I love you.” But, his hug will express his love in a way that goes far beyond words. I don’t realize it, but I am one of the fortunate to grow up in an affectionate family.