OK, I’m back. Quite nearly everything is still terrible, but we have no alternative except to go on.
You expect at least one moony and reflective thing to appear at this blog in October, and here it is. I wrote it in June and have been sitting on since then. It’s about half-again as long as I like the typical piece at this blog to be. It also has nothing to do with the ostensible subject of this blog, although some amongst the readership have told me they like this sort of thing.
On a sunny morning, I walk into the dooryard of the house I grew up in, which is shaded by two tall trees. I remember when they were planted, years ago, and how I told Dad, “Those will be really nice someday.”
“Maybe,” he responded, “but I probably won’t be around to see it.”
“Sure you will,” I said. “The summer before you turn 100, I’ll be 72 years old. I’ll wheel you out under those trees and we’ll enjoy the day. Or you can wheel me.”
I walk toward the southeast. A couple of scraggly peony bushes still bloom near the road bank, although a DirecTV antenna now sprouts incongruously between them. The asparagus patch is still there too, gone to seed for the season now. Mother has been cutting asparagus there for nearly 60 years, since before I was born.
East of the dooryard was where Mother once had her garden, although it’s been a smooth expanse of grass for many years. The apple and pear trees, the blackberry and currant bushes, all are long gone. Several family pets were buried under the pear tree. Now certain pets, including my favorite dog from childhood and two cats Ann and I have owned in adulthood, are buried nearby, on the other side of the fence in a corner of the cow pasture.
The chicken house is a few steps north of the old garden. No chickens have lived there for nearly 50 years, although in more recent times, it’s been home to a couple of Shetland ponies belonging to my brother’s in-laws. In 1958, after the old house was torn down, Dad and his parents lived in the chicken house for a time, while the new house was being built. I am guessing no chickens had called it home yet.
Along the pasture fence, rhubarb still grows, as it has for as long as I can remember. I walk along the fence toward the old corn crib. At harvest time, ear corn would be unloaded from wagons into an elevator that carried it up to the bin doors on the roof. In the evenings, we liked to climb the elevator and sit up there, masters of the autumn landscape, at least until Mother spotted us. I notice that there’s still some corn in the crib. Whether it belongs to Dad and my brother or to the neighbor who rents the pasture, I don’t know.
I cut over past the cow yard and toward the barn, but I am not going inside on this day. Since Dad sold his cows more than 20 years ago, the main part of the barn, where they were milked twice every day amidst the racket of machinery, the radio, and boys playing, is too empty, too quiet, too sad.
I walk around the south side of the barn and toward the upper level, which we called the haymow (pronounced so that it rhymes with “hey now”). My brother and I spent uncountable hours in the haymow. When it was full in the fall and early in the winter, it was a high climb to the top of the stacks and an adventure to build forts and tunnels out of 50-pound bales of hay. When it was emptier late in the winter and in the spring, it was a wide-open play space. I slide the door a crack and peek in. I slide the door closed and remember searching for kittens.
Next to the haymow entrance is a large, tapering bin that was used to store ground cow feed. It frequently figured into our childhood imaginations, since it has a ladder on the side, and because it resembles a rocket ship.
I walk a few steps to the west and look toward the stand of willow trees a few hundred yards to the north. You might be able to find the remnants of a tree house there, built over 40 years ago. In the early spring, snowmelt would drain from the fields above and down through the willows, and we would play in the stream, just as Dad did when he was a boy.
I have been wandering for a while now through one of the most familiar places in my world, and it has finally occurred to me what is so different. It’s the grass. Grass is growing in the driveways, peeking up through the gravel and dirt. Grass that never had a chance when this was a busy working farm can now take hold in places grass never did. The lane that runs to the willows and the fields beyond is completely overgrown. The neighbor renting the cropland has no reason to use it. If I wanted to walk down to the willows, I’d have to blaze a trail through knee- and hip-high weeds.
I turn one more time, walking east again. A long, grass-covered knoll by the side of the road was our football field, even after Mother insisted on putting a rock-ringed flowerbed in the middle of it. The nearby machine shed was blown down in the Palm Sunday tornado of 1965 and rebuilt a year or two later. There is a home movie of my brother and me pushing our tricycle off of the new concrete foundation and hoisting it back up with a rope, again and again.
Now I am back in the dooryard, and back in the shade of the two tall trees. The summer before my father’s 100th birthday is only 15 years away, close enough to imagine in a way I could not imagine when the trees were planted, many more than 15 years ago.
I know all about the relentless passage of time, and that is it not only normal and proper, but in some ways inspiring and even glorious. But it does not feel very glorious on this day. The vigorous young farmer who made this place his own is now an elderly man who seems to grow ever more frail, and I wish he could be that young man again. If I could give him some of whatever vigor I still possess—give him some of my years—I would.
But he wouldn’t take them, because that’s not how it’s supposed to be. The days come when we must pass what we have, and what we are, to a new generation, to make of that legacy what they will, until it’s their time to pass it along. For this place and the current generation that has called it home, those days are here.