“Say, the price for your brisket isn’t bad,” the man said as he glanced over the list at our farmers market stall, “when you consider how much you get paid for your steaks!”
I tried not to let it get to me. It had been a decent market day in spite of the barb, and the weather was beautiful. We packed up as swiftly as we could, eager to get ready for the birthday dinner we’d be holding for Saoirse later that evening.
In family farming, nobody hands you a bonus check and says, “We realize we couldn’t do this without you.”
We pulled into the driveway, and I saw dad peek his head out of the grain room. I knew I should start helping Bob unload the coolers, but I didn’t want to. Dad likes to get his market report, and Bob doesn’t mind the wait.
So I walked over and squinted up at dad as he stood on the top step, a broad smile on his face as he filled his last bucket. “Well?” he asked, waiting for the sales totals and any gossip I could bring him. His foot was on the top step, nearly at my eye level. I noticed that only the back of his heel was on the wood.
Doesn’t he know he isn’t actually on that stair? I thought to myself. But before I could say anything, he had begun to fall. Our eyes met, and I saw the terror fly across his face. His back surgery had been only six weeks ago, and the nerves in his legs were still excruciatingly raw. His eyes locked on mine as he came tumbling forward. I held out my hands and shifted my weight in his direction.
I caught him. We stood there a moment, gripping each other, trying not to think about what could have happened.
Saoirse came running up to us, unaware of what had just transpired, her eyes radiant at the excitement of her birthday, her cheeks flushed. She threw her arms around me.
“Hi Mom!” she said. “Grammie and I are going fishing! Pop Pop, can you come too?”
“I can’t.” He looked down at the grain buckets. “I need to go in and rest for a minute, then I gotta finish chores.” He walked slowly toward the house as we unloaded the meat and ice packs from the truck.
“We’ll finish chores, Dad,” I called after him. “Just rest.”
After we finished unloading, I went out to the lambs, while Bob brought feed to the pigs. Then we drove to the back field to put the chickens in. As we came back to the garage and parked the Mule, dad came out to greet us. “Don’t bother putting it away,” he said, his energy suddenly revived. “I’m taking it fishing.”
We drove home to set the table. Bob shucked the sweet corn, and I made pesto for the zucchini. A short while later, my brother and sister-in-law came in with their toddler and their new baby. I glanced at the clock. Mom, dad, and the girls were late. What could be holding them up? We made drinks and began carving the chicken.
A little while later, the four missing guests burst in the door, Saoirse carrying her grandmother’s iPod. “Mommy! Mommy! Look at the size of the fish Pop Pop caught!” She ran into the kitchen and scrolled through a series of photos of their great conquest. I was too distracted getting supper on the table to give it much thought.
But then my sister-in-law got my attention. She had just returned to her job after maternity leave, and announced that on her first day back she was awarded a promotion, a 14 percent pay raise, and a retention bonus.
“What’s a retention bonus?” I called from the kitchen. I wasn’t familiar with the term.
“It’s money they pay you as part of an agreement to stay on the job for a certain period of time, and not go looking someplace else,” she said.
As the story unfolded, we learned she had been called into the office of a superior on her first day back. Over the course of her maternity leave, the company had realized just how much they suffered in her absence, and just how valuable she was as an employee. In an era when women are still being penalized by corporate America for choosing to have families, my sister-in-law is bucking the trend.
I felt proud of her. And then I felt a green streak of jealousy shoot through my body. That retention bonus was worth nearly four times as much as what Bob and I earned in 2013. She was getting a bonus on top of a pay raise. And I had to listen to some guy at the market tell me that our brisket was overpriced at $11.25 per pound.
But my jealousy ran deeper. How marvelous to go in to work and have someone say, "We really value you. We can’t do this without you. We want to reward you."
I often give lip service to the idea that my value in life can't be quantified, but there are times when I question it.
“Hey!” I shouted over the clatter of pots and pans in the kitchen. “Where the hell is my retention bonus?”
“Hey yourself,” mom shouted back, just as loud. “Where the hell is my retention bonus?” Stalemate.
We pressed my sister-in-law for more of her story, and she told us the details of her performance evaluations. I put down the platter of chicken and gaped at her. Performance evaluation? Someone got to examine her day in and day out and pass judgment on her performance? And it was written up in a file someplace? I bristled at the very idea.
The story left my mind as the evening rolled on and we feasted on all the delights that the midsummer harvest offers up. But early next morning as I slipped out of bed to go for a walk, my jealousy and self-pity returned.
I often give lip service to the idea that my value in life can't be quantified, but there are times when I question it. I question whether I was a fool to walk away from a conventional career. I question whether my co-workers—my own family—truly value what I do.
There are no retention bonuses in family farming. Nobody hands you a bonus check and says, “We realize we couldn’t do this without you.” Nobody even worries whether you’ll go someplace else. We are bonded to the land. We are bonded to each other. We are hostage to a culture of taking each other for granted.
But there are no performance evaluations, either. Nobody looks at my work and judges the quality. Nobody writes down whether each of us is sufficiently dependable, cooperative, or adaptable. Nobody makes a note in a file when we stand in the kitchen and hurl invectives at each other and slam doors. Nobody is going to fire me or eliminate my position.
There is no retention bonus, a voice in my head claimed, because you live your reward. But where was that reward?
By that point I was perching on a rock that overlooks a pond. My three dogs were alternately sniffing around the forest and coming to lie beside my feet. The reward is this time beside a pond, I told myself. Was that all I’d bought myself? Time to sit beside a pond and breathe deeply? Anyone could do that on a Sunday morning.
Then I thought back to when Bob and I pulled in from the market the previous afternoon. I was smiling as I jumped out of the car. Nothing particularly spectacular had happened. But I love what I do—even when someone complains about the price of a brisket.
There is no retention bonus, a voice in my head claimed, because you live your reward.
And I ignored the work of unloading for a minute because I knew Bob wouldn’t mind. I wasn’t worried about any performance evaluation. Instead, I went and stood at the foot of the grain room stairs. At that moment, the person I most wanted to see was my dad. And he was smiling because he was happy too. And then he fell.
And then I got to catch him.
And there we were: present in the moment for each other, simply because it was where we wanted to be. On that particular afternoon, my arms were his retention bonus. And his regained balance was mine.
I walked back to the house, my steps much lighter, my belly grumbling for breakfast. I went into the kitchen and opened the fridge. And there on the shelf, skinned and filleted, was my very favorite breakfast in the entire world: dad’s fresh-caught fish. A priceless reward for sticking around.