What I Learned from My Father

Paul Willis on the family farm.
Paul Willis, Sarah’s father, on the family farm.

When Father’s Day has arrived, I find myself reminiscing about my dad and my childhood growing up on our farm in rural Thornton, Iowa.  My mom was in charge of our household and proudly introduced herself as a “farm wife”.  She cooked three meals a day and washed our dishes by hand.  My father was in charge of the farm work. He was a bit untraditional in that fact that he liked to cook as well.

One of my fondest memories was when my father cooked the traditional Nigerian food he ate when working for the Peace Corps in Africa in the late 1960s.  I was around eight years old and my sister, Anne, was nine when he made a spicy chicken dish loaded with foreign-tasting flavors. He served it in one bowl, which we all ate from together. We were told to eat with our hands as we sat on pillows on the floor. During dinner, dad entertained us with comical stories of the cultural clashes he experienced and the laughs he shared with new African friends while in Nigeria.

Of course, it wasn’t all laughs and good times. My father was a hard worker and expected nothing less from us.  During the hot summer months we spent a good amount of time picking up rocks out of the fields to prevent damage to our farm equipment during the fall harvest.  It was not a job that any of us enjoyed but my father did pay us $3.00 per hour. We rode on the back of the rock picker attached to our tractor, stirring up clouds of dust as we crisscrossed back and forth through the fields. He stopped whenever we spotted a rock or cluster of rocks. To this day, when he teases us about not having worked as much on the farm growing up as he did, we protest with our stories of hardship similar to rock picking.  Every generation goes through some version of this, but in the end our resilience today can be attributed to enduring these strenuous circumstances.  Happy Father’s day to all of the fathers who have cultivated strength and courage in each of us!

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