Monthly Archives: April 2017

Poison Ivy and Honey Suckle

Last week, I went back to my grandmother’s farm for the first time in three years. I guess technically, I should think of it as my grandfather’s farm, since it came down through his side of the family… but for so many years, my grandmother was the only one around, so I think of it as her farm. It’s located just on the Illinois side of the Illinois/Kentucky border, just outside Metropolis, home to Superman. Yes, there is a statue, and there are pictures of my brother and me at various ages, standing next to Superman. The farm is 200 or so acres with two wooded areas, a small stream in one of the woods, a dried-up pond where the cows used to drink, and an old white house. This is a part of the country that mixes culture from the Midwest with that from the South, and a lot of German influence. It contains a lot of my family history, partially because my uncle studied that part of the ancestry the most, and also because everyone pretty much stayed there until my mother’s generation, when they left to be something other than farmers.

The side of a tall, white house with a tall maple and other vegetation starting to swallow it up
From some angles the house seems untouched by decay and neglect

Probably half the houses on the road with my grandmother’s house are abandoned. Cultivating these small farms is no longer enough to support a family, so people either farm, a hard life, as a hobby, or they leave and get someone else to farm for them. Even though my uncle still lives on a corner of the farm, he and my mother have done the latter, getting someone else to do the hard work. As my family has moved away from farming, I used to want to preserve everything. I wanted them to take care of the house, keep it from rotting. I wanted there to always be a cleared garden and yard with a propane tank on one side of the fence and a pond filled thickly with pussy willows and frogs in the summer on the other. I wanted there to always be a driveway laid out with reddish orange rocks for us to drive up when we arrived, and an out of tune piano with my mother’s old song books in the bench in the living room to come back to.

Both my ancestors and I have vivid memories on Grandma’s farm. On the corner of the pump platform, someone wrote the family name and the year when the concrete was wet. The sidewalk to the screen porch and back door has worn away in thin layers that create shallow depressions. When it rains, this is the perfect place for puddles for a child to jump in. Next to the smokehouse, on the way to what they called the orchard, even though there were only a few different fruit trees, is the spigot my brother and I played in when we were very young, right up until we emptied the well and my grandfather had to crawl down into the concrete enclosure of the pump house to prime the pump. Coming from the city, it’s the first time I had a concept that there might not always be limitless amounts of water. Also, since my grandfather died when I was four, it’s one of my few memories of him. My grandfather’s father built the house, my grandfather spent his whole life there, my uncle spent his whole life either there or in the house about half a mile down the road, and my mother spent the first 17 years of her life in that house. It served as a magnet for everything the family brought over from Prussia, as well as most things that several family members acquired once in the United States. It’s one of those houses that grows in response to the times; they added on one room for an aunt who lived there a while, a couple more rooms for a grandmother who lived with them, a bathroom when they got running water inside, although they left the outhouse for the grandmother’s brother who sometimes lived with them. There were nooks and crannies and shelves and closets full of things to tell the mundane stories of day to day life. I am curious about mundane stories though. I feel what is probably an irrational attachment to the house and farmland and region of the country, although it’s undeniably strong. Roots and memories and sensations are part of my composition.

When they started taking things out of the house many years ago, after my grandmother moved to the nursing home, I felt an impulse to relocate the objects I associated with childhood visits to the farm into my normal life in suburban Colorado. Most of all, I wanted that piano, letters penciled lightly on 8 of the keys so I, not a pianist, could pick out tunes like “Wayfaring Stranger” and “Red River Valley”, while the rural seasons shifted outside the still house. For the in-between times, when the most activity came from cars and trucks flying by on the road out front, I would wander through the house, poking into spaces and cautiously opening doors and lids. There was a large old book made up of loose sheets and a broken binding in German. I was frustrated that the people who had studied or even spoken German in daily life couldn’t tell me what it was about. There was a large chest, falling apart, which I always hoped would have something interesting in it, though it never did. There was a closet with a few boxes that I was expressly forbidden to take anything out of, because of the brown recluse spiders that lined the joint where the wall met the floor. I always opened and stared into that one just to test my own ability to stand close to those tiny little spiders that the adults warned would do horrible things to you. There was a cylindrical container with white and red Lego-like blocks and a clay turtle that always sat atop the half wall next to the stairs on the porch down to the cellar.

I thought of bringing some of these toys home. I tried to get my mom to haul the piano, probably worth less than what it would cost to haul it back to Colorado and get tuned, for me to play with during my much more active real life. I would put the chest at the foot of my bed and the blocks on my shelf. The large book would stand alongside all my own books, and the turtle would look out my bedroom window. I even thought of convincing someone to lug home the rug that sat in the middle of the living room, a worn out beige rectangle of old carpet, but also the site of everything my brother and I built with those white and red blocks.

A lot of things did come out of that house, but now I’m glad about the things that did not. I’m glad to know all of those items are trapped inside a capsule of steadily progressing plant life and rotting wood. I’m glad it will all eventually collapse into a pile that other people will look at and see nothing but ruin. Back at home, the rug would have been trash. The toys would have been clutter to move out of the way and eventually store, we never would have pulled them out in our normal world of school and bikes and a computer and TV. I would have had to find something to do with the book and chest next time I decided to change the look of my room, and my mother would have been annoyed that I insisted on bringing them back. I never would have played the piano, although I think the turtle would still stand on my windowsill. It is good to let this world end.

Barn wall and roof with thin strips of light and holes in roof
Boards outlined in light
On this visit, it rained a lot, so we spent some time just standing in the barn. My grandfather built it from trees in the woods. It is large enough to make everything else—cows, donkeys, farm equipment, tractors- look like little toys. As a child, I always wanted to climb up into the hay loft. I would stand up there, looking around me, dreaming of what I would do if my mother didn’t always insist on coming with us into the barn. I would bring a book to read with me in the half light, listening to the bones and joints shift in the wind around it. I would climb up with my sleeping bag and listen to the night sounds of animals flying back and forth and scratching and scrabbling with their little claws. I would lay on my back, in a spot without any bat guano, resting my head on my arms, watching the sunlight leak in from between dried slats of wood, a stained glass burned into my retinas. A few years ago, they decided to let the barn go, the cost of repairing the roof too high, considering no one probably would ever want a building with so many different capacities, but with such small amounts of each. Now there are gaping holes in the roof to go along with the vertical lines of light in the walls. We stood there in the center, where the roof is still good, and listened to the water drip onto the wood and concrete floor. I breathed in the process of rot and decay. It is a sweet, vaguely bloody, and familiar smell, life being released again.

At my home now, I keep a package of Jell-O in a kitchen drawer, I keep dried beans in a jar that used to have cookies in it when we visited, and I have a whistling tea pot to remind me of my childhood visits to the farm. When I search through my drawer for a whisk or an ice cream scoop, I smile when I touch the box of Jell-O. It makes me think of how one of the first things I would do when we got to my grandmother’s house was look in the drawer to see what color we got to eat that time, before begging to be allowed to fix it. Even though I don’t keep cookies in the cookie jar, it still reminds me of how excited I was as a child to open up the lid and see what kind of cookies were in there. And even though I never drank tea at my grandmother’s house, the sound of a whistling tea pot makes me think of my grandmother sitting at her end of the table. I do hold onto pieces of that part of my life.

Honeysuckle bushes with a large oak tree coming out of what used to be an open yard
My grandmother’s yard used to be full of green grass and clover

As far as the rest goes, I decided that there is beauty in change and transition and movement, so that is why I’m okay with watching my family’s history pass away. We all have changed and moved on, so there is no reason to try and make the farm stay caught in time. My mother has a cousin who remodeled the farmhouse where she grew up and then filled it with items that have a story—that’s the bed so and so and his brother slept in, these are the chairs that were in that person’s house, these are the plates we ate off when we were young. I’m glad she and her husband came back to the farm to retire and that they didn’t fill the place with Ikea furniture. I used to wish that someone would do that to my grandmother’s house and farm, but now I’m okay with the fact that no one did. Instead, the yard is overrun with poison ivy and honey suckle. Somehow, poison ivy and honeysuckle seems like the perfect symbol for change; it brings both misery and sweet blossoms. I have my memories of my roots in rural Southern Illinois, and they are important to me. They are not important to other people in the future, and I don’t have the solid objects and places to help me try to remind them. My memories will be lost, and that’s okay. Something else will fill in the space where they leave off.