Oct. 12, 1941

Dear Grace: 

Just got the pictures yesterday that were taken at the lake the Sunday you were here…With best wishes. Your friend, Kenneth Schenck

 

And so began my grandparents’ correspondence and fifty-one-year love affair.

After my grandmother died, a thick brown envelope containing the ten months of Grandpa’s letters was discovered among her belongings. At the time he wrote this letter, my grandfather was a thirty-two-year-old bachelor farmer, taciturn and conscientious. He lived with his younger sister and parents outside Tonganoxie, Kansas and had a part-time job at a bank. My grandmother Grace was living in some 100 miles away in Emporia, working as a live-in housekeeper for a single professional woman. Although today the specifics are a bit fuzzy, somehow Grace knew Kenneth’s sister Peg and had come to the family farm for a weekend visit that October.

Grandpa’s full name as a signature speaks to the formal nature of their acquaintanceship when he wrote the letter, as well as to his general shyness and reticence. But I was immediately charmed nevertheless. Grandpa is reaching out on the pretense of sending Grandma some photographs, a transparent ploy for sure, and hardly a dated one. While the paper on which Grandpa wrote this first letter is now crumbling and the ink faded, his intentions are as clear as ever.

During the ten months of their long-distance courtship, Grandpa writes a total of fifty-one letters to Grandma. He writes about incidents at the bank. He writes about church suppers and the doings of neighbors and relatives. He writes about his work on the farm. He reports on a “pleasant” Thanksgiving Day plowing. He cancels a visit because winter days are short and there are many chores to do. He closes one letter saying that he has to “turn the cows in the barn” before he goes to bed.

Both of my grandparents came from a long line of Midwestern farmers. In fact, close examination of the family tree finds nothing but farmers as far as the eye can see. There are no writers, lawyers or doctors. No shopkeepers or shoemakers. No painters or musicians. Only farmers.

This is rather disappointing. Why couldn’t I have a wild aunt who ran off to Paris with a lover and became a famous chef? I want a crazy uncle who skipped family reunions to throw pots. I want a distant cousin who meditated with monks in India. How about a great grandmother who wrote poetry?

Nope. Nothing but farmers.

But farmers, it turns out, know a thing or two about practicing, about the daily ritual and discipline of work. Cows don’t take holidays. They have to be milked on Thanksgiving and birthdays. Fields have to be plowed and harvested. Chickens fed. Gardens watered.

I know nothing about crop rotation, and I couldn’t milk a cow if my life depended upon it. I have never sheared a sheep. But I have spent many happy Thanksgivings practicing. I have skipped out on dinners with friends to spend a pleasant evening at the piano. My days are structured around my practicing chores, not unlike my grandfather’s days on the farm. Maybe the apple didn’t fall so far from the tree after all.

Today begins the fall semester in the Ten Thousand Stars Studio, the “farm” where I work and play. Students and I are resuming our normal schedule of lessons and performance classes. Every week practice charts will have a predictable five boxes waiting to be filled in. There will be recitals to get ready for and new music to learn. Almost daily, I will remind students to use strategies like Practice Sandwich or Metronome Mountain. We’ll talk about the benefits of repetition and ColdPlay. For at least the 10,000th time, I will find myself asking: How did you practice this?

I’m tempted to say “and so it begins” except that’s contradicts the point, really. In the life of practice (on or off the farm), work doesn’t begin or end. It simply continues. Day after day, week after week, there are cows waiting to be turned into the barn before bedtime. There are fields to be plowed. There are sight-reading pages to fill into our practice boxes and scales to learn. There are new pieces to break down. There are chickens and chords, weeds and metronomes. There are pencils to sharpen and rhubarb to water.

A new school year begins. Farm work is never done. Practicing continues.