Sam Kauffman died in his sleep on Monday in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He was 89 years old.
Sam was a farmer who owned his farm, a man who rose before the sun every day of his life and went out to milk the cows. He went to church every Sunday and raised five kids. When he decided to retire, he sold his farm to his son-in-law and moved a few hundred yards down the road with his wife. He watched his grandchildren grow up and got to see nine great-grandchildren born before he died.
I don’t want to turn my grandfather’s life and death into a symbol of something that it is not. It’s easy to turn Sam into a symbol for Jeffersonian agrarianism or to make him a citizen of an American nation that existed in one Founding Father’s dreams. But to transform one humble man into the embodiment of something so grandiose does Sam a disservice. I want to remember Sam for his family, an institution that grew from the earth he tilled and rallied around him to his dying day.
Sam’s family is my family. But the experiences of those who grew up around Sam’s farm are unlike mine, growing up a couple thousand miles away in Denver. My Lancaster cousins are inexorably tied to the land and to their relatives who sprang from that land. Even those cousins who wake after the sun and put on a suit instead of waking up with the roosters to put on a set of coveralls have something I lack. They grew up surrounded by a community whose ties to the earth and to each other have been forged for generations. I grew up with my parents, loyal to my nuclear family but unfamiliar with the bonds that connect the rest of my extended family. Most of my cousins went to college in Pennsylvania before coming back home to raise their kids. Even when they started their own families, they never left home.
Visiting my grandfather on his deathbed left me thinking about family. It made me think about the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who convened on Sam’s farm the night he died to celebrate the lives that could not have existed without him. It made me wonder if Sam’s death somehow symbolized a passing from his way of life to mine — from an agrarian life defined by land and family to an academic existence more concerned with tomorrow’s paper than tonight’s family meal.
When I visited Lancaster County, I saw signs that Sam’s way of life might not survive technology and modernization. The Amish in Lancaster still travel in their horse-drawn carriages, but many carry cell phones and sell “authentic” Amish furniture on the Internet. My cousin — Sam’s grandson — still owns the family farm, but someone else is milking the cows, and the corn in the fields is tilled by someone else’s hand. My second cousins — Sam’s great-grandchildren — won’t all make their lives in Lancaster County. They’ll move away to Philadelphia or New York City and start their own lives away from the comfort of the farm. What will it mean for Sam Kauffman’s legacy when they leave Lancaster? I know that everyone who experiences the pull of the family farm and the warmth of the people who draw sustenance from it will always call Lancaster home. I was born and raised in a city far removed, both culturally and geographically, from rural Pennsylvania. Yet I, like everyone in Sam’s family, am moved to think of Lancaster as home.
Sam Kauffman won’t be remembered for monumental deeds. The history books won’t record his long days in the fields and the loving environment he provided at his home. But Sam created and perpetuated a family, one whose resiliency was shown most strongly when as many of us as possible gathered to remember fondly the man whose life made ours possible.
Xan White is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.