MARY BURGER has held many of the jobs portrayed by Lena Dunham on TV, but she has never been the daughter of an artist from Tribeca.
My parents grew food. They grew up growing food. Vegetable, animal. My father’s family had a dairy farm. In a faded picture his father leads some neighbors in a barn raising. Bartering labor for labor. My mother’s father was a carpenter. He built the church steeple that still punctuates their little town. My grandmothers kept kitchen gardens and flocks of chickens and relentlessly put their children to work on them. Growing food wasn’t a stand against agribusiness or a symbol of the artisanal life. But it wasn’t completely unrelated.
All my grandparents emigrated to the United States as children. They came with their families from the upper Rhine Valley—Switzerland and Luxembourg and Alsace—in the late 19th century. These were farmers, craftspeople. Catholics. They left Europe because population growth and the spread of industrialization made it harder to own a farm or to practice an independent trade. Because anti-Catholic policies and forced military service threatened their lives. They didn’t want jobs in coal fields or steel mills. They weren’t likely to attend university. There wasn’t much farm-to-profession mobility.
They settled in the midwest in communities of farmers and craftspeople like the ones they’d left. And for about a generation, they carried on the lifestyle they’d brought with them. Their migration was as much retreat as exploration, maybe, though they weren’t anti-modern. They took to electricity and telephones and automobiles and air travel and all the chattels of manufacturing as those things came along.
There’s a dim story from my mother’s grandfather about taking part in frontier timber harvests—what amounted to the wholesale deforestation that preceded the settlement of the midwestern states. The cleared land and harvested lumber laid the way for the barn raising and church building of my grandfathers’ days, and the cities and freeways and so on that would follow. In the scant remnants of my great-grandfather’s story there is no trace of the aboriginal populations that had been decimated before he got there. Before the forests were removed.
My parents when they married set up home a few miles from my father’s family farm. They ran an independent dairy for 25 years. It was a single link from farm to table: buying raw milk from farmers, pasteurizing and bottling it, selling it from their storefront or delivering it in the early morning to front doors. They made ice cream, which still gets loving reviews from anyone who was there to taste it.
Their business was commonplace. Every town in the midwest had a dairy. They ended the business the year I was born. The timing of this seems wrong, I realize: my parents were working adults, with a business and ever more children, for decades before I was born. This elongated storyline is another family artifact, commonplace in my parents’ world but exotic or outlandish in mine. Like their parents and grandparents and doubtless every generation before them, my parents had as many children as biology allowed. They married in 1937 and had children for 26 years, ending with me. My mother went through labor seven times, which is unremarkable only when compared to her own mother’s 13.
After the dairy, my parents bought another business in a nearby town and we moved there when I was six. One of the best things for me about this little migration was that the nuns in the new school didn’t hit kids as much. Nobody knew this was going to be an outcome of the move. I was just lucky.
My parents bought us boxed cereal and fresh-frozen vegetables and plastic-wrapped bread, and milk and ice cream from the consolidated regional dairy, and countless other conveniences, because they wanted us all to have lives of less labor. More leisure. But still they grew a kitchen garden all their lives. My father coaxed his rototiller to life every spring to turn the soil. My mother relished summer tomatoes, sliced with a little salt.
I’m taking the long way around. So long that it seems I may not get there. Trying to identify the pivotal labors of my progenitors, as a way of understanding my own. If this mannered narration of a century and a half might stand in for my floundering, flummoxing efforts to be a part of my time.