Wednesday, July 30, 2008


We all know that childhood isn't all joy, all delight, all fun and games. It wasn't for me, although the memories of the Farm are filled with laughter and family visits. I haven't said much about the darkness, the specter of hunger, the tense worry of watching aging parents grow older and grayer with each passing month. Nor have I mentioned the wind that whistled through the gray planks of the old house, hissing and threatening like an angry dragon threatening to burst through the walls. In the winter, that wind would howl and the walls would shake and the snow would pound on the windows, piling up into huge white cliffs outside the door. Then the woodstove would rage and fume as though it were fighting these vicious forces of frigid cold that threatening to engulf us as we huddled around its warmth.

Now, I watch as our numbers shrink. There are five of us remaining, five out of twelve, five remnants of what was a big family. Those five are bent and gray with age, and the diminishing numbers loom like a never ending threat around us, hovering over our heads and our deteriorating bodies, messengers of that final bell that rings for all of us.

On the night Bud died, I had a dream and he came to stand before my bed, his dark eyes looking down upon my prone figure, his body as youthful and muscular as it had ever been. I knew he had come to say goodbye, that he would leave behind that weak and weary person that he had become in the nursing home bed where he was confined. I lifted my hand to touch him and he faded away without a word. When I awoke, I had trouble separating reality from a dream and I actually called out his name. "Bud?" I called, but there was only silence and I knew that he had gone into the shadows. Just to make sure, I called his name again, my voice trembling as I spoke. Only the sounds of the night replied, the car passing by, the tree branch hitting the house, the sounds that come at nighttime to me.

I have been a person who scoffs at suggestions that there are ghosts and spirits that walk the earth. Yet, like everyone else, I have had some moments when I know that there is something else out there. Yes, I believe. I remember one time when I was berserk with worry, so frightened I could hardly breathe. I tried to go about my daily chores, but my mind was a jumble of worry and fear. My heart was pounding and every breath was a prayer, "Make it right. Oh, Lord, make it right!" As I paced the floor, suddenly out of the blue, I heard a male voice say, "Don't be frightened!" It was a deep, solid, comforting voice that I heard...and, as I say I heard it, you must remember that I cannot hear, but I heard that voice, and my pounding heart stilled and a great feeling of peace came over me. The fear that had haunted me went away and I knew, somehow I knew, that it was fine, that my worries were over, that sunshine had flooded the shadows.

So, I believe there is an alternative universe and that the walls between this earth and that are very solid, but that once in a while, there is a moment of time, a glimpse, a fragment of whatever else is there. A very great writer, whose name I can't recall, lay upon his deathbed and it is said that his last words were spoken as he breathed his last breath, "Ah, now for the mystery."

So when I remember those years on the Farm, I remember the joyful times with a big, rowdy family, but I also remember the clouds that often hung over the eaves of the old farmhouse, the brothers going off to war, the clipped, New England tones of Roosevelt's radio addresses, the old mule with the deformed feet, the deaths of my dogs, the agony of Helma moving in with Joe when he returned from the military, taking little Bobby Joe away from us. The worst time was when Pop was sick and went to the hospital. I remember sitting with Ronald and he shook his head and said, "He's so old! We'll never see him again!" It was like a cold spike being driven into my heart, the thought that Pop would never return to the Farm. He came back, that determined old man, but from that moment on, my life changed. He called me by my mother's name. The Farm was being sold and we had to find another place to live. That's a sad story all by itself and I can only brush on it here. Pop's life went on for a few more years, but things were never the same.

We grow up. We live our lives. We flounder onward. Then, one day, we look in the mirror and see an old person looking back. I can remember Hubert when he was young and vital and filled with the energy of two men, always smiling, always teasing, always loving. Then I remember him with Alzheimer's, searching for the words he wanted to say, frightened, alone in that dark forest that we all must enter someday, those huge, black branches swaying around him. Should I cry for him? Should I howl at the moon and curse God for taking them all away? Should I lament the loss of the ones I loved, or be joyous because I had them for so long? It's like a glass that is half empty or half full, however you choose to look at it. I prefer the glass full, but I see the emptiness looming, bottomless, a vacuum of nothingness, a day when the final breath is drawn and the twelve children of that huge family will be lost to the world forever.

Before Pop died, before we left the Farm, he sat in his tattered green chair as I sat on the nearby couch. He had straightened all the watches that he kept on his tobacco stand, winding them as he did every night. He had arranged his pipes in his pipestand and felt he could relax in his chair. After a while, he looked at me, sighed, and said...."They are all gone, you know. Only Dora is alive and I will never see her again!"

I knew that his sister, my Aunt Dora, was in a nursing home in Illinois. I knew that all of his other relatives had gone. As I watched the sad eyes of the sick old man that my active father had become, I had a glimpse of days to come, days when I would be old and my family and friends gone, when I would be alone as never before. I shivered and leaned toward Pop, trying to comfort him. I said, "I'm here,Pop!" He nodded and smiled. "Yes, you're here," he replied.