Hour after hour I would sit with my nose pressed against the cold window pane and watch Grandad methodically shovel the long driveway that connected the big frame house to the cattle guard at the county road. Occasionally I would venture out to help, just so I could be with him. But I quickly tired of the strain of unaccustomed physical labor, the monotony of silence interrupted only by the regular scrape of the shovels. I would always retreat to the warmth of the old wood stove. I could never understand why Grandad would spend so many bone-chilling, backbreaking hours shoveling a driveway that was often blanketed again the very next day. To me it seemed a waste of time and energy.
It was not until one cold winter evening years later that I finally understood why Grandad “wasted” his time so. I had had a disagreement with my wife. Feelings were tense, and neither of us was in the mood to listen right at the moment. I wanted to be alone for a while but had no place to go, so I took the snow shovel and slipped through the front door.
I still hated shoveling snow, so much that the sun would often clear the walk before I did. Grimly, I began to transfer two weeks’ worth of snow, one shovelful at a time, from the sidewalk to the lawn. Over and over, I made the same unthinking, monotonous movements. Scrape, lift, throw. Scrape, lift, throw.
After a few minutes, I stopped to rest and straighten my back. The dim glow of the lonely street light half a block away revealed no movement in the winter stillness. I had never noticed how quiet snow made the world seem. Even in the city, the only sounds I could hear were my breathing and the occasional passing car. It was peaceful. I was alone.
Suddenly, I realized how little time I spent alone. I was always at home, work, or church. There were always people to talk to, things to watch or read, tasks that needed attention. For the first time in a long while, I was performing a task which required no mental effort. I was free to think without interruption. I was alone with my thoughts and feelings.
I began to reflect on my marriage. I remembered how I had felt while courting LaRae. I recalled the goals we had set as we began married life together. Now the evening’s disagreement seemed trivial and insignificant.
As I turned back to my shoveling, I saw that the hardest work remained. The loose snow was gone. What remained had been packed into a thick sheet of ice by dozens of passing feet and weeks of neglect. Chipping my way down to the sidewalk was a slow and tiring effort. Inch by stubborn inch, the ice yielded to my repeated shovel thrusts. I had to stop and rest often, but I was surprised at how good I felt. The physical act of chipping away the ice seemed to chip away the tensions I had been feeling lately.
Soon I had my sidewalk completely cleared, but not my mind. As I started shoveling the street around my car, my mind continued to work at putting my feelings in perspective. I made new plans, set new goals. By the time I felt relaxed and ready to return to the house, the street around my car was clear and I was working on my neighbor’s sidewalk. I had worked through frustrations which had been allowed to pile up too long.
Suddenly, I understood why it never seemed to bother Grandad that the driveway seldom stayed clear. It wasn’t the driveway he was clearing; it was his mind and soul.
Grandad was one of the calmest men I ever met. When I turned the tractor too sharply and tore the side off the hay trailer, Grandad took it in stride. I never understood how he could remain so calm in a crisis. Now I realize that Grandad took time to work out his frustrations and keep them in perspective. He took time to relieve his tensions. He took time to think.
It didn’t snow on Grandad’s driveway year-round, but plenty of other chores gave him a chance to think. Grandad always raised a garden big enough to feed half the county. He would spend hours and hours, the sun scorching his straw hat, as he hoed weeds too small for me to see. I know now that there were weeds growing in places other than his garden. He was hoeing both at once.
Grandad took a lot of kidding about the way he farmed. He always seemed to do everything the hard way. Years after all the other farmers were baling their hay, Grandad still used a pitchfork. He spent countless extra hours putting up his winter feed a forkful at a time. Grandad also milked his cows—sometimes as many as twenty—by hand, night and morning. There are two things you can do while milking a cow or pitching hay. You can tell stories or think. Grandad did his share of both. Looking back over the years, I think there were more than economic reasons for the way Grandad farmed. He enjoyed it. His profit was personal, as well as monetary.
Living in the city, I have to use a little ingenuity to apply the lessons I have learned from Grandad. After all, I don’t have pigs to feed or hay to fork. Still, I have snow to shovel and a garden to weed. I can also mow the lawn, clean the garage, wash the car, or just take a long walk. The chores may differ, but the benefits of exercise and thinking time are the same.
Today, my sidewalk is one of the first in the neighborhood to be shoveled. And I am a happier, more pleasant person to live with. Still, I often envy Grandad a luxury that city life does not afford—that long driveway to the cattle guard.