~ Riceland Meadows ~

Just Like Dad
by Ralph Rice

Steam rises from my coffee cup as I enjoy a break from woodcutting. The horses rest quietly nearby, waiting to move the second sled load of wood to the sugarhouse. The chainsaw also pauses from its work, warm yet silent. The day is cold and crisp. Three inches of new snow on the ground is just enough for the sled to slide easily, but not enough to bury the firewood.

My two boys and I have worked all morning cleaning up a dead elm, and will soon use the wood to boil maple sap. The boys are learning about splitting elm wood—some pieces yield easily, the gnarly ones take great effort. I chuckle as they tease each other about their lack of strength or woodsman skills. Their good-natured chiding is a relief from the constant bickering of their youth.

I cut the wood to length while the boys chop, split, and load it on the sled. We make short work of the dead and down tree. The woodpile at the sugarhouse steadily increases while our woodlot improves. The work is satisfying, the time I spend with my boys priceless. The horses move the heavy sled and the ringing of their harness bells echoes across the forest floor, adding their symphony to an already beautiful day.

As we make our way to the sugarhouse to unload the wood, a sudden memory makes me shiver. On a cold and snowy day, many years ago when I was a child, my grandparents and I were hauling wood on a sled such as this. I would dip my mitten into the freshly fallen snow and lick the snow-covered mitten like an ice cream cone. Grandpa reminded me we had spread fresh manure on that spot the day before. Grandma warned me my fingers would get cold.

By the time we reached the woods, my mittens were wet. While we worked to load the sled, my hands began to get cold. I had been warned, so I didn't want to say anything. I just put my cold fingers in my mouth. That warmed them up pretty fast, but they got cold again even faster. Before long my little fingers were stinging and throbbing in time with the beating of my heart. I started to cry, sobbing in silence because I didn't want my grandparents to know.

The sled was almost full when Grandma noticed my wet face and asked what was wrong. "My hands are frozen, my feet are cold," I said through sobs, "and I'm sorry." She scooped me up in her arms and hugged me. Grandpa put the tools on the sled and started for the barn. With the horses at a crisp trot and the cold biting my little wet face, the short trip to the barn seemed like the longest sled ride of my young life.

Grandma put my hands in a pan of cold water. I howled and bawled, but not once did she say, "I told you so." She wrapped me in a homemade quilt, tucked me next to the heat register, and gave me a cup of black coffee to sip.

"You're like your daddy," Grandma said. "You like the cold and snow too much. You have to tell us when you are cold, not after you're frozen."
I came to hear the words, "You're like your daddy" many times over the years—sometimes when my stubbornness showed through, other times when I told a dumb joke, but often when I spoke of horses or my love for farming. Hearing these words now, since my father died, touches me more.

The horses are back in the barn, the tools have been put away, and my boys and I rub our hands and feet to get the circulation flowing again as we crowd around the dinner table to warm up with homemade soup. My son playfully touches his cold fingers to my wife's neck. She jumps at the icy contact and says, "You're just like your dad."

A lump catches in my throat, then I smile as I ponder those wonderful words.

Ralph Rice's column "Reflections" appears regularly in Rural Heritage. This column appeared in the Winter 2004 issue.

30 January 2004