Of the year and of some lives

Dear bread friends,

I started to write about Jack Lazor, author, friend and wonderful fellow who passed away the end of November. But then my father began to die and I had to stop.

My dad, Kevin Charles Halloran, died at home on December 13th. First, he was in the hospital, so we got to visit with him by FaceTime, thanks to the kindness of nurses who are well-versed in the brutal affair of helping families say goodbye from afar. Hospice helped us have a last few days together, and that was a terrific grace. How can hospice exist? Our culture strips us of so much agency over our bodies. We hardly know what to feed ourselves without USDA guidelines and ridiculous amounts of food advertising, yet there is a mechanism to allow families to be present as our bodies expire? I’m so very grateful.

I cannot believe it has been just a couple of weeks now that we don’t have him. I’m thinking of him a lot, and writing about him, too. Here’s something I wrote on social media about the tree fetch:

It’s almost time for the annual Christmas tree fetch. My dad would bring us to a tree farm and we would walk around for a long time considering what would be the right tree. After enough time had passed, we would choose one and cut it down. Ultimately, I don’t know that the goal was finding the perfect tree. Did he/we really prefer one over another? I think that being there and studying the trees more important than the choice.

We did buy trees at a tree lot some years. As my dad drove the station wagon, he told stories of his mother and the incredible bargain hound she was. Once we saw A Christmas Story, I had a better idea of my grandmother’s powers. My dad smiled so hard every time we watched that scene in the movie, comparing her tree buying method to the dad’s.

I carried the habit of tree fetching into my own family. There is a sheep farm nearby with an incredible view of the hills and houses of the Capital District. For the first few years I lived in the area, we would get our trees together, reveling in the tradition with my kid. The first year my dad couldn’t join us, a filmmaker friend made a beautiful little movie so that my dad could be a part of the trip.

The following year he was well enough that my husband concocted a plan to get my dad up the hill in his wheelchair. It was wicked rough terrain, but the farmer pulled us up the slope in a hay wagon, and we maneuvered my dad in his wheelchair between the trees. We considered them until we had absorbed the place and the moment, and then, with his one good arm, he cut the tree.

Every year, my husband loved the puzzle of getting my dad up the hill. One of the best methods was tying a rope to his wheelchair that looped around my son Francis, who was suddenly a giant, not a kid. One of us pushed or guided the wheelchair from the back while the mule boy did the tough work.

We haven’t brought my dad up the hill in a few years. But we will be headed out there sometime soon. Last night I said I wanted to go somewhere else. I don’t want to be where my dad is so on my mind. But anywhere we go, I will be filled with thoughts of him, saving up the story so I can tell him, carrying the past into the present, our only real gifts.

My dad was still alive when I wrote that, but we got the tree a week after he died. Oh what a hard day that was. Hard on my heart, and physically tough, trudging through 2 feet of snow. Then I was just there, where I’d been with him, on and off for 25 years. My sons had a snowball fight. We contemplated the trees for too long as more snow came down, in magical continuity.

We didn’t start to decorate the tree till Christmas Eve, and then it fell down the day after Christmas, and we had to start all over again. That was okay. Time and other rules do not apply. My father still feels like he’s here, no matter what I know.

Right before Christmas, I sat at my desk again to write about Jack Lazor for the Northeast Grainshed’s newsletter, the Grainshed Gazette. Here’s my tribute to him.

At the end of November, farmer Jack Lazor‘s family posted a picture of him on social media and invited people to note their memories of and connections to Jack. He had entered hospice at home, and would read everything people wrote. What a perfect way to celebrate this particular farmer, in public & with joy.

Each comment is like a little bridge, recalling interactions at Butterworks Farm in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, at conferences, on field days, and in other intersections. There are goodbyes from people who only knew him through others repeating what they’d learned from him. Jack had an irresistible friendliness and contagious generosity, and these goodbyes prove those characteristics. We have lost an elder statesman of grains in the Northeast, but his life, and now his death, are evidence of what we are to each other: bridges.

A bright and open person, Jack and his equally bright and open lifemate and wife Anne began homesteading in Vermont in 1974. They met while working at Old Sturbridge Village, and their back-to-the-land beginnings were a bridge back to out-of-date farming tools and styles. When Anne was in graduate school at UW Madison, Jack worked with a Wisconsin farmer, traveling with him to farm auctions, and listening hard. “I feel quite lucky to have spent almost an entire year under the spell of John Ace in 1974 and early 1975, as he had a reverence for the past and he had lived it as well,” Jack wrote in his book, The Organic Grain Grower

The book is a bridge that carries readers to his connections with Quebecoise grain farmers, who never gave up grain culture, and all the way back to the first farmers in New England, Native Americans. The chapter on corn is dramatic, full of promises to quit the crop, racoon devastations, and success with a variety of open pollinated (OP) corn called Early Riser. Ever an innovator, Jack questioned his own grain love in the last few years, and favored perennial grasses as the way to feed the Jersey herd at Butterworks. He dug deep into the potential of forages, researching on-farm and off, with Heather Darby and her Crops and Soils Team at UVM. 

There’s a tendency to glorify people who make an impact, but the way people have celebrated Jack reveals a person, not a hero. That’s an important distinction. If we elevate his memory to hero status, we reduce our capacity to mirror his efforts. Most of us do not consider ourselves heroes. If we salute him for his fabulous capacity to be conduit for information and connection, we can better see ourselves carrying love and learning across generations and other divides.

Jack Lazor is gone in body, but his sharing spirit remains, reminding us that WE are the bridges we need to be in the world.

I’m clinging to the parts of these people that I haven’t lost— my father’s delight in being alive, Jack’s curiosity and sense of connection. I hope something of these stories strikes you as useful as we turn the calendar and prepare for another year.

Are you making anything special for New Year’s Day? I’m for sure going to eat my luck — hoppin’ john and collard greens, and cornbread.



PS if you’d like to sign up for the Grainshed Gazette, or Artisan Grain Collaborative’s newsletter The Crumb, where I also write, please follow the embedded links.