Wednesday, October 11, 2006
The Farm (The Good-bye)
I don’t know what year my grandparents bought our farm. I’m looking at a picture on my desk of myself, a chunky toddler running full tilt across the gravel drive with my gramma in pursuit. I’m wearing pink plaid overalls and I have fuzzy wispy baby hair. She has on denim clam diggers and sandals and looks not that much older than I am today. There’s a calico cat in the frame and in the background, our barn. The doors hadn’t yet been replaced with the big red ones with bright white Z’s. My grampa would get to that before long. I don’t remember this time before the new barn doors but by the outflung arms and joy-filled baby face (so much like that I would see in my baby’s faces 20 years later) in the picture, I was already in the throes of my first love, the farm.
I do know that in 1975 when I was seven years old the farm and I had entered our last season together, although I didn’t know it. That summer before third grade started was an exciting one. The country was getting ready for her 200th birthday and we all learned the word “bicentennial”. We school children looked forward to a year full of specialness and celebration and my mom was going to take my sister and me to special classes at our community center where we’d learn about pioneer life and at the end, be in a parade wearing period costumes. My dress was bright red and blue with a matching bonnet.
That summer we also looked forward to a wonderful family event. My mother’s only brother, his wife and two children were driving from California to live on the farm. It might have bothered me to share my farm but it didn’t. I had no other cousins and the girl, Lisa, was the same age as me. And like a child with a glorious toy or pet, I was anxious to share my farm. And more than a little jealous that they’d be living there where I’d always longed to live. But I didn’t worry about that, they would settle in for a while and move to their own home and the farm would be mine again, as always. In the meantime I’d have an aunt, uncle and two cousins all the way from California In that bright summer sun my cousins and I waited for the moving truck to arrive with all their belongings. As we played in the yard we saw it, lumbering up the dirt road. A big white moving truck with green letters, B-E-K-I-N. My cousins yelled “Bekin ” because they knew that was their truck with their stuff. The thing looked odd and foreign pulling up the farm’s long drive where only the familiar cars of my grandparents or parents usually sat.
And so with much excitement we children watched the grown ups unload that Bekin truck. When we found boxes marked appropriately, we tore in to them; Lisa and Robby knowing what was inside and anxious to see their toys and games, myself feeling like Christmas as I discovered the treasures driven all the way from California.
Eventually the family settled into the farm making it their home. I was suspended between the happiness of their arrival and sadness that their furniture and decorations had displaced all the precious things that “belonged” there. The farm didn’t look the same and for my money, it was not an improvement. There were toys scattered all over the big dining room floor, like a playroom for goodness sake My grampa’s sunny room looking onto the garden became Robby’s room and my aunt hung wooden football players on the wall. Gramma’s soft and sweet smelling room became Lisa’s and she filled it with Partridge Family and Sunny & Cher albums and a record player. The furniture looked “modern” and there were no worn out sweet blankets thrown around. Everything was new and pretty, too pretty. My grampa said he didn’t like the way Bob and Sue decorated the farm. My gramma said he just wasn’t used to it. I think my grampa was right. My poor farm. It just had to hang on a little while and we’d move back in with the right furniture.
My cousins enrolled at my dream school up the road. They went to the 4-H Halloween party where I was supposed to go too. My Aunt Sue had gotten us fancy trick or treat bags with plastic Halloween scenes on the front and yellow handles. But then my sister or I (I can’t recall who) got sick and we didn’t make the drive out to the farm. My cousins got a pony that lived in the garden pasture. I wasn’t entirely sure that a pony should be stomping around the garden pasture but I was no fool. If they had a pony on my farm, as far as I was concerned, I had a pony. They also got a giant sheep dog named Bingo. That seemed like fun but that dog was crazy and I only remember him being trapped in the corn crib like a giant dog house. I think Bingo was bigger than the pony.
The Christmas of 1975 was the first time I ever did not want to go to the farm. By that time it had been thoroughly made over to suit the California family. Bright and sunny and pretty it no longer felt or smelled or looked like my farm. They didn’t understand the rules of the farm, the primary being quietness and simpleness. New things didn’t belong at the farm but they had new things every time I went there. For crying out loud, they had a telephone The farm did not need a telephone
On that Christmas morning as we prepared to leave our home to go to the farm, my mom expected me to wear the long cream colored granny dress that was my church Christmas dress. Now things had really gotten out of hand. The farm was completely transformed. Another family lived, LIVED at my farm. Those cousins who seemed like a good idea in the beginning were running around like they owned the place and I feared they intended to stay. And I was expected to wear FORMAL WEAR? To the farm? A place were shoes were optional and sometimes you got to sleep in your bathing suit? Ridiculous.
The holidays came and I went to the farm in my long cream colored granny dress and with no small degree of guilt, I played with the Evil Knieval race track set up in the dining room. Doggone if those cousins didn’t have good toys. Made it hard for me to hate them. And my Aunt Sue was always so funny and bright and just made you feel like she couldn’t wait to see you. And she said things like “Guy, it’s sure cold here ”, “Guy”, what a hoot. And “Gees Louise”. My aunt Sue said the craziest funniest things. And she bought Lisa and I coordinating outfits from J.C. Penney. And in my entire life, she has never been angry. My Uncle Bob called me “honey” and had curly hair and Lisa also had curly hair and a quiet voice. She hated her button nose but I wished to look just like her. Her fingers were long and tapered and she was sweet and patient. She’d probably like to wear a long cream colored granny dress on Christmas. The only thing that saved me from this state of mixed emotion was my cousin Robby. He was downright mean and bad and he had silver caps on his front teeth and he yelled and cried almost constantly. In Robby, I had a place to focus my disgust with the situation while still enjoying my family. At least when I wanted to sock him, I felt justified. I never did sock him though, really I didn’t. But he needed it.
The new year, 1976, brought the kick off of the official Bicentennial. School days were more fun with one activity after another and everyone in the country was proud and patriotic. My California family came to my school to see the Bicentennial displays in the class rooms. My parents and grandparents were big on antiques and I got to bring several items in for our display. One was an old rusty tool used to mash potatoes. My teacher, Mrs. Baines, said I had the best items. She wrote “tater masher” on the card in front of my kitchen tool display. Then she called the teacher next door over to see what I had brought. Third grade was my year. Then my Uncle Bob and Aunt Sue and cousins came to our family day and my Uncle Bob said, “Teachers sure didn’t look like that when I was in school ” about my teacher Mrs. Baines who was very beautiful and wore a blue sweater dress with red sandals in the winter. My Aunt Sue said, “Gees Louise Bob For crying out loud ” and laughed her full laugh. I was proud of my pretty teacher and proud of my tater masher and proud of my country and proud that my whole family, even ones from California came to my school for Bicentennial Days. Maybe I could tolerate these California people in my farm after all. Maybe the farm liked having kids there all the time. Maybe.
Snow turned to slush and melted away brown and gray, like winter always melts away in Michigan. The sun started to feel hot through the car windows on our trips to the farm. And then the talking started. Uncle Bob and Aunt Sue were moving back to California when school let out. They just “weren’t happy” here. Not happy at the farm? Well, I wondered just where they thought they’d be happier. But kids didn’t put their two cents in in 1976. So I came to realize that my California family would be moving away after less than a year with us in Michigan. I was sad to lose my cousin Lisa with her gentle voice and curly hair. I was glad that mean Robby with his silver teeth was moving though. That kid still needed a good spanking. I came to decide that it would be ok, I would get my farm back and life would be back to the way it had always been.
It seemed a short time between finding out about the move and the move happening. Back then, grown ups didn’t talk kids to pieces with details and problems and information. You pretty much found out what was happening the day it happened. I don’t remember an extended period of awaiting the exodus of the California family. I just remember going there to say good bye. We played in the mostly empty house that day and didn’t talk about anything in particular. Kids are good about just playing and not talking too much. All of their California stuff had been loaded back into the green and white Bekin truck so the rooms of the farm seemed extra big. We went upstairs to my parents room, which had been my aunt and uncle’s room for that year. It was completely emptied out and we had one of those hard rubber balls, like you get from a gum ball machine if you’re rich enough to have a quarter. It bounced around marvelously in that empty giant room with hardwood floors. In 1976 four kids could have one rubber ball and an empty room and be happy.
The day wore on and darkness came and we had to say good bye to the California family. My mom said they were leaving early in the morning and stopping at another family’s house an hour away to say good bye to them, and then on to California. We hugged awkward child hugs and said “bye”, “bye”. I even hugged that bad Robby who had spent much of the day in his ugly foot ball player room crying about moving. I felt bad for Robby for the first time on that day as my Aunt Sue laid next to him in his bed and rubbed his back. Even if he was the worst boy ever, I understood not wanting to leave the farm.
My Aunt Sue hugged me for a very long time and kissed my cheek and held my face between her two hands with white frosted nail polish. She was crying without apology or attempt to hide her tears and she said “I love you. We’ll see you soon. I promise.” Thirty years later, that’s still how she says good bye. My Aunt Sue is the only person I know who can live thousands of miles away and still send you things constantly to let you know how much she loves you. My Aunt Sue still sends my children things from thousands of miles away to let them know how much she loves them. I realized all of a sudden on that day on the farm saying good bye in the dark kitchen that I might miss her most of all. I was sorry I had been so mean in my heart about her furniture. My Uncle Bob hugged me good bye and kissed the top of my head and grinned with squinty eyes and curly hair.
The grown ups sniffled and hugged some more and then we were in the car. As we drove away I thought about these California cousins and the aunt I had just then fallen in love with in earnest and wished for another chance, another year with them on the farm. We drove headlights cutting across familiar pastures and down the dirt road sad and quiet in the car. We turned the mirror-image turns of the trip toward the farm, right, left, right and then the smooth highway was under our tires with oncoming headlights flying by. My parents murmured quietly in the front seat and I sat in the back seat with my pink sleeping bag with the big flowers unzipped to form a blanket, ready for sleeping on the hour long ride.
I wondered about moving our old worn sweet smelling things back in to the farm and this gave me some comfort and then some downright happiness. Summer was coming. The farm would be back and it would wrap itself around me again with its promise of sameness and cool breezes and green beans from our garden. I asked my mom, “When are we going to the farm?” And there in the car on the freeway with headlights blazing in the oncoming lanes I learned the awful truth. Much worse than the news of my California family moving away. “Probably never. Grandma and Grandpa are selling the farm.”
Have you ever seen a child mourn? I hadn’t lost anything up to that point in my life. My parents, my grandparents, even my great grandparents were all alive. I saw them all constantly. My 8 years had been a smooth continuum with little adjustment required of me beside the new furniture in the farm. But in the back seat under my pink flowered sleeping bag, I had my first encounter with grief. My first loss. My heart broke in my little girl chest. I felt panic and fear and anger and worst of all, helplessness. I had no say in the future of my farm, it suddenly occurred to me. No one had asked what I thought. I don’t think anyone knew the impact the sale of the farm would have on me. It had always been there so I don’t think I ever voiced my love for the creaky floors, the dry dusty dirt of the garden or the gnarled trunk of the climbing tree.
And so, the farm was sold with little fanfare. We never did go back. I never walked again through the rooms that held my heart’s secrets and dreams...that I would live there one day. I never again climbed the climbing tree outside the kitchen door wall or ate the rhubarb growing along the garden fence. My side porch with the echoing wooden floors and old school desks was gone to me, without a final moment to memorize the details I had taken for granted for all those years. No more walnuts to walk over in the fall and no more rides high in the seat of the loud bouncing John Deere tractor. No more of my grampa stomping off with his shot gun to get that darn woodchuck in the flannel shirt. No more laying in my bed with my gramma to listen for the bird to call his name, “Bob White ” and my gramma to answer back, “Bob White ” in her girly voice.
My dad wouldn’t hunt bats with his tennis racket in the summer evenings upstairs in the farm. I wouldn’t fall asleep to cricket songs and country breezes or awaken to coffee smells and grown ups murmuring.
My grampa and I would not pick our own green beans from our garden pasture and my mom and gramma and I wouldn’t clean them for our supper. A chapter ended, a season over and a child grows up just a little bit and just a little too soon by learning how to lose something she loved. If only I could go back in time, I’d walk slow and careful over every inch of that twenty acres, over every room in that house and run my fingers on smooth old wallpaper and rough splintered farm buildings. I’d have taken a mason jar to fill it with dirt from our garden. I would have pictures of every room taken with an old Kodak camera to show my children. I would have saved some lime green colored sour smelling walnuts to put on the window sill in my kitchen someday.
I have never returned to the farm since that night I hugged my California family good bye thirty years ago. It seems I would have, at some point, just hopped in the car for a Saturday drive to see the old place. I am weak though, where my farm is concerned. It’s too raw, to consider the time, the sweetness and the goneness of the farm and my little girl time of assuming it would last forever. My grampa died several years ago and another part of the farm passed with him, because he and my gramma were the center of it, not the buildings or the pastures. I don’t go to his grave the same way I don’t go to the farm. I want Grampa and the farm to remain where they are...young and strong and glorious. I want to be the little girl with stringy blonde hair flying in her face riding the tractor around the garden. I want soft sweet smelling blankets and Bob White calling to my gramma and me. I want Indians to stick their big toes in the river and say, “Oh That’s cold water ” and a lake with a hole that reaches all the way to hell. I want the place where I learned to be still and quiet with warm garden dirt under bare toes. Where children ride in the back of pick up trucks down rough country roads and eat green beans from their grampa’s mouth before they’re old enough to talk. You may think I can’t have these things, that they are gone. You’re wrong. I had a secret at 8 years old in the back seat under the blankets...I never said goodbye.