Sunday, April 26, 2009


We didn't know we were sitting on a fortune in gravel. We didn't know that, when we had a chance to buy the Farm for just $2,000, with $500 dollars down, that we could have made a hundred times more money than that, just in turning it over to a gravel company. I was a child still and had no income at all, but surely the other children, most of them adults, could have raked up the $500, had they pooled their money for it.

Back then, no one wanted to invest that much money, quite a sum then, in a decrepit old farmhouse sitting on gravelly sand on a windy hill along a remote rural road. Even to look at the farmhouse made a person wince, because there wasn't a part of it that didn't need rebuilding. It was eventually torn down, taking a chunk of my childhood with it, because it was too far gone to refurbish or try to repair.

Even its paint was old and weathered and peeling. It had been painted yellow, but had faded in the sun and the wind to a putrid shade of yellowish gray. Many of the windows were cracked and broken, the frames rotting and threatening to crumble at the touch. The roof needed repair, causing Mom to place a series of strategic buckets around the leaks that came through the roof. Sometimes, at night, the "tap-tap-tap" of that splashing water was like music lulling me to sleep.

Our summers were filled with bugs. No matter how we tried, the bugs won the eternal war we fought against them. Our nights were filled with the drone of mosquitoes and there was always one that persisted in landing on your face just as you were drifting off to sleep. Mom bought sprays, but they were ineffectual when the mosquitoes had easy access through the crumbling windows. She also bought fly strips, horrible looking ribbons of yellowish death that hung from the ceiling. I hated those strips, felt sorry for the flies, and spent hours in the afternoons prying the flies from their date with death to allow them to fly freely again.

We also had wasps, wasps that seemed to love our clothing. They would get into the sleeves of a shirt and lurk there, waiting for that arm to be thrust into the sleeve, so that they could attack with their sudden vicious sting. How often have I yelped with pain, then nursed a red and flaming bump for days afterward! Hordes of wasps buzzed and hovered around the windows of the farmhouse, making their home in the old and creaking corners of the gray planks.

In the summertime, the farm was sheer fantasy. The rosebush by the front porch bloomed in a burst of glory and lasted for weeks, proudly drifting across the slanted planks of the porch as though covering its ugliness with their beauty. It was never pruned, fertilized or watered, but lived with only God as the gardener, refreshing itself when the rains came, somehow clinging to life when they did not.

Beside the house, by the kitchen window, the Tree of Heaven spread its shade throughout the summer months, hugging the house, leaning inward, as though to protect it from the elements. In front of the house was the old pine tree, too shredded with age to give much shade. Pop put a rope swing there for me and I spent many an hour swinging and singing as the pine cones fell to the ground and the birds perched in the branches above me.

I don't know who built that farmhouse. I tried to imagine it at times, picturing the owner as a prosperous farmer with a thriving estate. He would, of course, have had a lovely wife, several servants, and a beautiful daughter my own age. She would have had all of the material gifts I lacked, the clothing, the shoes, the sweaters. She would have had a lovely name, something like Delilah or Angelina, much different than Herma, which I always thought sounded like a German milkmade carrying a pail and smelling like cows.

The driveway to the farm was circular. Then, out in back, by the barn, it spread out to encompass a patch of sandy gravel by the old shed where my father hung all of his tools and all of the paraphernalia needed for the horses and mules. Old Kate was my father's favorite mule and, with her crippled hooves, he always treated her with special tenderness. She responded to him, too, standing with a leg held up, as Pop, Hubert and Bud would filed down her hooves to give her a better, more solid, footing. They would come out in the early morning and Mom would fix them breakfast. Then, when they had finished the meal, they would go with Pop out to the barn and lead Old Kate onto the driveway.

Sometimes Herman would stop by to oversee this surgical maneuver. He would pull up into the drive in his old rattletrap car, the back door would open to spill out the kids, and Herman would walk toward the barn to give his advice on just how to file down Old Kate's hooves. Somehow, Herman's kids never just emerged from a car, but came out like a human avalanche, so anxious were they to join the other nieces and nephews and myself in the fields by the orchard.

Eldin was the oldest and we formed a special rapport at an early age that has persisted to this day. Our favorite sport is to argue about anything, especially politics, and other people have often decided we are serious, which we never are. Eldin has always reminded me of Bud. He has conducted his life on a certain path and followed it, come what may. He has shown an affinity for wayward teens and rowdy toddlers, is adored by his children, and is a person one turns to in time of need.

Our latest altercation concerns the color of his father's old car. I remember it as being brown. Eldin says it was blue. It was brown, of course, listed to the left, and had a door that had to be held closed from the passenger seat. It had no heater, which made for chilly trips on winter mornings and the sound of its motor could be heard for miles.

When Homer would arrive, his children were sitting sedately in the backseat of his car, always with a certain decorum that many of we other children did not have. Donald and Richard were both about the same age as myself. Donald was outgoing, personable and amusing. Richard was tall, good-looking, and took life very seriously. One had to work hard to get a smile out of Richard, even when he was a small boy. He followed the gang of us through the orchard with a tenacity that he used to succeed throughout his life. When others, smaller and younger than the rest of us, would plop onto the ground to gasp for breath, Richard would keep coming, determined not to allow anyone to best him. Homer and Emma also had two younger children, Joan and David. Joan married a minister and they have a church in Florida, sending me frequent bulletins about their activities.

Helma and Donna didn't race around with the rest of us, of course, for they were approaching teenage and spent most of their time combing their hair. They wore swing skirts, sweaters that gripped the hips and sported a brooch of some kind worn near the hemline. They wore bobby sox and saddle shoes and everyone commented on how cute they were....everyone except me, of course. They called themselves Jacqui and Bunny, refusing to answer to their given names, which they considered cloddish and unalluring.

Neither Jacqui or Bunny would have deigned visiting the barn, the shed or the chicken coop, but the rest of us had no such restraints. We climbed all over the old gray rafters of the barn and jumped around on the haystacks at will, shouting with joy. The floor of the barn was unstable, but that didn't stop us. We hopscotched over those broken gray boards, flirting with danger, narrowly avoiding being plunged to the horse stables below. In fact, one morning, Mom went to milk the cows, somehow walked across the floor of the barn, and fell through, catching herself with her arms. She was furious when Pop, taking one look at her head sticking up out of the barn floor, laughed. He did apologize for laughing later, but still burst into amused cackles at the memory of Mom's fall.

I never understood this laughter until one day, many years later, my husband was chased by a huge black dog. We had stopped at the home of my son's friend and did not realize no one was home. My husband went to the door. As he frantically ran away from the snarling brute, for some unexplainable reason, I laughed. I was still laughing when he was finally able to make it to the car to safety. I couldn't even sympathize with his plight without bursting into laughter. Just as with my mother, my laughter infuriated him.

I might not have laughed, however, if that huge, black, furious animal had chased me.

So many years. So many memories. Memories of hot, sweet, golden summers, and blisteringly cold winters with their screaming winds and torrential snows. Memories of the bugs and the host of animals in the barn, the flock of chickens that roosted nightly in the old, weathered chicken coop, the spreading acres of Pop's corn, green shoots that sprouted into golden ears.

I think about Mom's life, filled with work and worry about her twelve children and their families. Pop's life, plowing and planting, perspiration running down his weathered face and staining the brim of that old brown fedora. At that time, they had never known what it would be like to live with indoor plumbing, plentiful water available from faucets that did not freeze in the winter, furnaces capable of heating a home without chopping wood.

When they were very old, they finally had a little place like that, with a bathroom, a kitchen sink, water in the faucets, a stove that heated the little home. Mom was pretty happy, I think, to set her trinkets around that house and be able to get to church every Sunday. Pop, however, was miserable. His entire life had been involved with the earth, with coaxing crops to grow in the soil. He did not like having neighbors. He saw no joy in running water, in plumbing fixtures, in easy heat. He preferred chopping wood, with its haunting odor of mystic forests. He preferred working from dawn to dusk, rather than fiddling around with nothing to do all day.

He grew old. As Mom became involved in her church and its activities, Pop tended his watches, smoked his pipe and sat in his broken down chair, which had been transported from the farm by Bud, who had rolled his eyes in despair at the task of setting that dilapidated chair into its new home. He suggested buying a new chair, but Pop would have none of it. That chair was his and his alone. It knew every curve of his body, every bone, every joint. He wanted no new chair to cause him to sit up stiffly and never be able to relax.

He was sitting in that chair when he decided to get up to check the time on his watches. For some reason, it was important to him that all of the old watches had perfect time. He wound them and put them down, viewing them with pleasure. Then he dropped to the floor and died.