Saturday, October 18, 2008


We all move forward. There is no way we can ever move backward, because time doesn't travel in that direction, unless some invention like Hadron's Collider finds that extra element and surprises us all. I have known many people who have returned to the scenes of their childhood. They usually have their families along and point out the spots where they used to play ball with Pete or Joe or Jimmie, ride past their old high schools, stopping to stare at the home where they used to live, owned by someone else now, with strange curtains on the windows, different shrubbery in the yard. Their kids, bored senseless, fight over territory in the back seat and suggest that they all go home.

The truth is, time plays hell with childhood memories and often shreds them into fragments of imagined activities. Thus, men gathered in a bar will recall the one time they made the correct move in a game and the crowd stood up in their seats and applauded. It is as though time stood still at that moment, frozen forever, the highlight of their now busy lives. In a way, it is like recalling some old boyfriend or girlfriend, the one that made your heart pound and took your breath away, the one that occupied your mind twenty four hours of the day. So, you think backward in time with a warm, loving feeling, but for some reason, it just doesn't work. You ask yourself what on earth could have made you feel that way, how could you have made such an idiot of yourself over someone so positively ordinary with no great qualities at all?

I cannot go back to the scenes of my childhood, because the bulldozers came in and ripped them away, shredding them, erasing them from the earth forever. Now, a subdivision exists on the acres of the Farm, and there is not one scene of my childhood left to substantiate my memories.

I remember the day the bulldozers came. My brother, Bud; my nephew, Charlie, whom we all called Junior, and I sat on the old cement porch just outside the back door of the farmhouse, watching the monsters creep on their destructive way toward the orchard that I loved, that we children had used as a vast and magic playground, climbing on the old trees and shouting out at each other.

The machines started their task of digging into the earth, uprooting trees, smoothing out hills and valleys. Eventually, they dug away the Dead Man's Cave, the Forbidden Plateau, even Dinosaur Hill! When they finished, there would be nothing left of our playground, nothing left of the magic of childhood. Teenage had come and gone and time marches onward. The Farm was doomed and would be eventually torn down, to be replaced by the modern brick homesteads with shining facilities and workable plumbing, the mini-mansions that dot our landscape across the country.

We didn't talk, we just watched and listened to those motors and shovels as they tore at the earth, eating away familiar scenes like some primeval beast tearing at the limbs of his prey. Bud was silent, his deepset brown eyes filled with sorrow. I leaned against him and could not halt the tears that were sliding from my eyes.

"You know," he said finally, "a smaller house will be much better for Mom and Pop. It has a bathroom and indoor plumbing. It will be easier to heat!"

"Mom may be happier," I snapped at him. "But moving away from this Farm will kill Pop!"

I was right. It took awhile, but he was never the same after he moved away. How can a man who has spent a lifetime busy in the fields do little besides sit in a chair and wind his watches? How many times can a man light a pipe and try to while away the long afternoon hours? How can he say goodbye to fields of Golden Bantam growing green and healthy in the sun?

Bud didn't answer, but his doleful expression made me believe he knew I was right. The hunger for more land for subdividing was being appeased by the loss of our acres of memory and Bud could think of no words to soothe the sorrow in our hearts. Junior was indignant at the thought of it all. "They're tearing up the orchard!" he said, his eyes blazing. "Look at that! They're killing those trees!"

"Hubert will be here in a little while," said Bud, as though Hubert could ease our heartbreak. I have a feeling he would be very relieved to hand us over to Hubert or anyone else, for that matter.

"We all grow up," he said. "Our lives go on. Soon you young people won't be so attached to this Farm. You have lives of your own to live. You will always remember the Farm, but it won't be the center of your lives."

We could only stare at him. What on earth was he talking about? Big, monstrous machines were tearing up the orchard and all Bud could offer was this kind of nonsense, nothing that helped us at all!

"Let's go!" I called to Junior and we jumped up and started running, leaving Bud seated on the concrete slab. It felt good to stretch our legs and we ran like wild deer, heading for the orchard, taking one last journey through the worn old trees with their spreading limbs and their knotted trunks, weaving through the bulldozers with loud Indian yells, as their drivers smiled and waved at us as we passed.

So we said goodbye to these familiar scenes, taking one more long look at Dead Man's Cave, running across the Forbidden Plateau and finally reaching the lake where we splashed in the water, tossing it around as though it were liquid remnants of a modern world that was encroaching on our lives. When we finally returned to the Farm, Mom had supper ready. Hubert had arrived and Bud had left his post to go inside. Boxes of this and that were packed and piled around the dining room and living room. Mom was ready to go to her new home.

"It sure will be nice to have running water," Mom said, as she set the food on the table.

Running water? It was years later when my own family surrounded me that I learned what a blessing running water is to a woman. At that moment, I could only think that the running water in the streams and swamps were enough for me! The running water in the lake, rippling silver in the sun, were enough for me!

I crawled in bed that night and said goodbye to old walls with their faded wallpaper, the worn floors, the old stovepipe running up the center of the hallway, the familiar homemade ladder propped outside my bedroom. I wondered what Pop was thinking about then. Did he, too, bless the thought of running water? Did conveniences matter at all to an old farmer who just wanted to put on an old felt hat and walk out in the sun?

Perhaps, I thought, it was fortunate that Pop suffered from dementia, often mistaking me for Mom, often wandering around in the scenes of his own childhood. Perhaps the fact his aged mind was crumbling would blunt the pain of moving away from all that he loved. Perhaps sorrow can be blunted by dwelling in the memories of the past.

I can drive by the location of the Farm today and it is like another world. The old trees are gone, the old gnarled pine tree fronting the farmhouse is just a memory, the cornfield on the corner is now a manicured lawn with neatly spaced shrubbery and a few flowers. The wildflowers do not grow on the hills any more. The milkweed sheds its silken burden elsewhere. The Farm exists only in my memory, the big, noisy family is spread across the globe. Only at Pop's funeral did they congregate in his honor, with a cortege that stretched miles along the highway.

Happy times fade. Dreams turn to dust. Life goes on and old dreams are replaced by new ones, happy times appear in different colors and shapes, old illusions fade while new ones are born. Soon life becomes cluttered and busy and there is little time to look back on a childhood scene. Both Bud and Hubert gone now, gone from my life, and Pop eternally walking along in that field of Golden Bantam, the sun shining down on that battered brown hat, a picture emblazoned on my mind and etched forever on my heart.