as my father has told me on many occasions, including this afternoon
by Brooks Lamb of Chapel Hill, TN
Uncle William asked Daddy to start working this farm, to raise the tobacco and care for the cattle, hay, and everything else. But start wasn’t exactly right. Daddy had been working this land his entire life, all through his childhood into his teens and twenties and now his late thirties. The reality was that Uncle William was getting older and tired. It was the nineties, and he was in his seventies. Being wholly responsible for nearly eighty acres was a lot for a man his age. He didn’t want to stop farming altogether — he loved the work too much for that — but asking his nephew to take over allowed him to slow down and rest.
It was good timing. Not long after handing over the reins, Uncle William got sick. Once a strong and skilled carpenter, the very best Holt’s Corner had to offer, he was now weak and weary. A trip to the doctor revealed that cancer was consuming his body.
Uncle William’s time was coming. But it wasn’t here yet, so he kept piddling around the farm, even as Daddy embraced his role as caretaker. The work was a comfort for Uncle William. Like many Lambs before him, farming was his calling, and he was going to do it even in pain.
One afternoon, Uncle William started itching to get out of his chair and onto the land. He left his house, which was two miles down the road, just west of the railroad tracks, and drove to the farm. He parked his truck under the big maple tree, walked to the barn, and then climbed on his M John Deere. He puttered over to the tobacco patch and started plowing. The bumps and jolts surely put him in pain, but he was doing good work.
Before Uncle William could finish, Daddy arrived. He had finished his day job at the factory, gone home, changed clothes, and loaded his tractor on the trailer to go plow the tobacco himself. My grandfather — Uncle William’s younger brother — was with him. They didn’t expect the old man to be out working, especially since his pain had been worsening. When they parked the truck and trailer, Papa hopped out and hollered, “What are you doing out here?”
Uncle William throttled the John Deere down and replied, “I’d rather be here than anywhere.” Thinking of his chair at home, he said, “I can hurt a whole lot more out here and feel a whole lot better.”
Daddy unloaded his Farmall Cub and joined Uncle William. The two men — one coming on strong, the other fading — worked as one. They plowed until the job was done, then met Papa, who was tractorless, at the truck. Sitting at row’s end, they talked aimlessly for a bit. Then Uncle William’s voice grew serious.
“I want you to have this place,” he said, looking at and then away from Daddy. “The land and the tractors and the cows and everything. All of it.”
Working the land was one thing, but this arrangement was something else entirely. Trusting his nephew to care for this land and keep it in the family as it had been for a century — and grounding his faith in Daddy’s hard work and affection for this place — Uncle William set a transition in motion. It wouldn’t be a gift. Daddy would have to buy the farm, and he and Mama would need to take out a serious loan to do it. But they’d work out these details later. Another matter needed to be settled first.
“All I want is my toolbox,” the old carpenter said. To all of this, Daddy agreed.
As the burley grew, so did Uncle William’s tumors. Within a couple months, he had to leave Holt’s Corner for Nashville. Stuck in a downtown hospital and surrounded by people and places he didn’t know, he wasted away. Doctors couldn’t plow out his cancer.
Hooked to IVs and other-worldly machines, Uncle William called Daddy over to the bed, along with his only child, Phil. The time had come to iron out the farm’s fate.
Uncle William repeated what he wanted — it was the first Phil had heard about the arrangement — and the two younger men nodded. Though Phil himself wasn’t attached to the land, he would later honor his father’s wishes and sell the farm to Mama and Daddy for a fair price. With that settled, Uncle William felt at ease, but not completely. Not yet.
Weary, he looked at Daddy and said, “Why don’t you just take that toolbox, too. I don’t think I’m going to need it.”
He was right. A few days later, William Lamb came back to Holt’s Corner to be buried, to rest in the same place he was raised. He is gone. The tobacco is, too. But the land and the love — and the toolbox — remain.