The Farm

The farm… what images surge into the memory, mostly ­forgotten faces and
moments now recalled and bittersweetened by the impending sale of the old
place. Watching the three cousins run into the old house, out to the big
shed, over to the huge old cottonwood that now shelters the Boys’ Club, down
to the riverbank, one thinks of other pictures in earlier years…

Marty riding out into the hills on her horse after school, big dog by her
side.

Janet and Ellen giggling over girls’ secrets by the trumpet vine that ran
all over the old henhouse.

Petey peeing over the edge of the roof, the yellow stream falling just a few
feet in front of his big sister and her date getting romantic on the porch
swing.

Granddad walking out to the pasture with his huge hoe, declaring total war
on the last of the thistles.

Grandmom ringing the big bell on the hill so that the men would come in from
the fields for dinner.

The pig roasting under the lean-to all of one night, only to be declared
uncooked by the ladies, the following day. Pete and Jack, having stayed up
all night with the pig, not in a mood for raw pork jokes.

Four cousins marching in a file over the hill, none of them yet four feet
tall, a small militant army bent on the conquest of a summer morning.

Three city kids trapped in a barn by a bunch of hungry cows, trying to get
rid of them by throwing ears of corn down at them — they couldn’t figure
out why it didn’t work.

Granddad on the porch swing on a summer evening, telling stories about the
river, stories we’d heard many times before and wanted-to hear again.

Five cousins looking for snakes or river-pearls or fishooks or other
treasures along the riverbank, finding mostly mud.

Women in the kitchen, cooking and serving in the oldest dance, the arcane
rituals that determine who does what, partners changing with the
generations, equipment fancier, no more hand pump or flour barrel in there,
but the same purposeful bustle,the same loading of the table to its limit
with midwestern feasts.

You can see the new daughters-in-law, or the young girls, trying to work
their way in to this dance, anxious about it or not according to their
temperaments… this is one way a girl starts to leave childhood, at least
in our family, and starts to learn how to serve, the longest lesson and the
hardest we ever have to learn over and over and over again. The women new to
the family fit in here, in the kitchen, get over the surface politeness, do
one thing well and then find their place among the others.

It’s good training, because few of the men and none of the boys notice the
hours of work that go into these meals. It helps the young women to get
ready to raise their own kids, who won’t notice either what they do for
them, for at least thirty years (if then) after the violence of their
births. The women learn, and it is one of the sources of their incredible
strength, that you don’t serve for the recognition or the gratitude or to
get something back… you serve because that’s the way it is, the women have
got to care for the men, and the children too, and that’s how the world
runs. Hungry people need to be fed, and that’s what you do first, not second
or third or when you feel like it or when your self-actualization program
can schedule it in.

The kitchen at the farm has seen so many of these meals, seen the women turn
in their graceful minuet from stove to counter to sink to table, heard the
call to dinner, the chatter of the children arguing about where to sit, then
finally the silence of Grace as the table creaks under the good things and
the family eats together again, one more time.

Fire, air, earth and water were said by the ancients to be the primal
elements of existence. Are these why the Farm exerts such an attraction,
especially for small children? Many of the well­loved activities there are
actually quite uncomfortable: riding in the back of a bouncing pickup truck,
hiking through the stifling and scratchy woods, swimming in one of the more
polluted rivers of America, playing in buildings and corners beloved of
wasps and spiders. Why do so many children prefer the primeval discomforts
of Calhoun to the sophisticated pleasures of the suburbs?

WATER

Water is the River, the life, always there and ever changing, home to
myriad fish, birds, snakes, mussels, and even stranger creatures, especially
on the weekends: the waterskiers, houseboaters, and non-serious fishermen
who come out then to play on its waters. But its real work is carrying the
huge barges on its shoulders, pulling the solitary logs downstream,
supporting the ‘river rats’ who would do anything on or in or about the
water, as long as it didn’t seem too much like work. The River bounds off
this county on three sides, isolating it so that its identity is that of
another Kingdom, whose residents, most of them, are so independent in their
existence that they fiercely resist the building of a second bridge: the
bribe of mere economic prosperity is not at all worth having a Trojan horse
just to the south, a suspect structure that will bring in city folk and
other undesirables.

When the River surges out of its banks and sullenly invades the fields,
houses, and even the towns of the people of the Kingdom, it is treated as
the hulking unruly adolescent of the family. People don’t criticize it, or
even think it’s the fault of the River — it is there, to be lived with and
reckoned with, an elemental reality of their existence. Riding the ferries,
living out the floods, talking about the levees and the bottom land, that’s
what we do here. And you know you’re almost home when you cross the one
bridge, or pull your car onto one of the four ferries, and see the River
under you, flowing surely and silently in its power and constancy.

Water is also the pond on the farm, the spring, the old wells now covered
over where Granddad taught boys not to be impatient and drink the can of
water down, but to use it to prime the pump and have cool water, lots of
water, as much as you want on an August day. What a lesson. Did we remember
all that we should have of that one?

The one goldfish lived in the water tank for the cattle, staying there
through several winters, eating Lord knows what, until another Lord knows
what ate him. Water is running down to that brown river after haying all
day, jumping off the dock and into delicious coolness.
Before air conditioners, jumping into the river water was about the only
alternative to the tropical heat and summer humidity that sometimes engulf
the valley of the Illinois.

EARTH

Earth is the farm, the rich black dirt of the bottom land, the fine gray
glacier dust that just covers the limestone hillsides. It is learning the
abacus of hoeing a field, stacking hay, plowing. The mingled terror and
exhilaration of learning to drive a tractor, then a truck, then even a car.
Granddad teaching as he walked about the plants, the birds, the Indians who
were not so long gone from the land.
He could find more arrowheads than all the rest of us put together, could
fill his hat more quickly with berries, could capture the mushrooms
single-handed. (He said it was because we made too much noise in the woods,
and the mushrooms heard us coming and hid. We knew that was ridiculous,
being teenagers by then and too grown up for many of his stories; but
somehow our sophistication didn’t help out there on the edges of the old
orchards, when we couldn’t find a single one and he came home with pounds
and pounds of them.)

Understanding the lot of the farmer, the despair at falling prices or
drought that burns up the young plants… the fierce pride of not having a
boss or a time clock to punch. Nobody tells you what to do, and you can work
18 hours a day for less than the minimum wage, with zero benefits, to your
heart’s content. That’ll show ’em. But Granddad did know how to stop and lie
down in a pasture with his hands behind his head and look at the cloud
shapes for a while. (Did this have anything to do with his living to age
98?)

Cattle are of the earth, beautiful in their way, stupid also, interested
mostly in eating. We saw Granddad bang their horns with a shovel when they
started pushing too close around the feed wagon. But when he went to move
them to another pasture, he stood by them and called. Then waited. Then
called again. Then waited. They looked up him from their grazing, then
returned to it. He called a last time, and started walking, not looking
back, and they followed. We boys wanted to drive them, with shouts and
sticks at least (lacking horses). But he didn’t have to drive–just called.
Wish we’d all learned that lesson,too.

FIRE
Fire is another thing we learned at the Farm. Building them on the beach of
Rocky Bar, whether for a family meal or to burn up the trash down there or
just to have a fire. The family fish frys were an intense kaleidoscope of
experiences, rides in the boat, jumping off the dock, smelling the fish and
hotdogs as they were cooking, eating watermelon on the beach it was OK to
spit seeds at your cousins then you threw the rinds into the river. Dozens
of people around, most of them relatives, but others too, because neither
Grandmother nor her daughters could stand to let lonely people sit home by
themselves. Afterward, much later, it was time to roast marshmallows, burn
yourself a bit too, turn them into glorious carbon torches and protest that
you liked them that way. Then you’d see an aunt toast one to a perfect
golden brown and think ‘I can do that’ and try it, and realize that there
are levels of patience that lie beyond, far beyond, where you are or even
want to go.

Fire was fireworks on the Fourth of July, on a lot of other days too.
They’re not too legal on this side of the state line, but Missouri is just
across the other River. Boys don’t make jokes about Missouri, knowing full
well that God put it there because of the Cardinals, Jesse James, and
fireworks stands: Missouri is necessary to existence.
After all, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn lived just over thataway, didn’t they?
At the Farm the boys get to light their own fireworks, girls too, if they
want to. None of this watching distant displays, or infinitely worse, having
your parents do it while you have to stand so far away that you can’t feel
the sting of the fuse burning near your hand.

The Pied Piper and the Fourth-of-July uncle, who was born that day and
appreciates its essence more than anyone else, combine their considerable
energies on the Fourth to produce wondrous bags full of enough bombs,
rockets, flares, candles, sparklers and other explosives to supply a
hyperactive army. The air is thick with smoke and explosions — must have
been like this at the Battle of Gettysburg. The rocket’s red glare is no
longer just a phrase in the old song, but reality as one zips past your ear.
Finally, after your head is ringing and your hands slightly burnt, peace
comes again to the Farm, broken only by the mothers’ sighs of relief, and
the plaintive eternal lament of the kids, “Aren’t there any more
firecrackers?”

Rifles fire. And the Farm is where you got to learn to fire them.
Granddad and the fathers and uncles suddenly serious, no longer tolerant of
any horseplay at all, the weight of the gun heavy on your mind. Once more
the crack of the explosion, the smell of powder, the small burn as you pick
up an ejected shell too quickly. Power… the main interest of boys. Power
and adulthood all wrapped up in a rifle.
You start to get convinced of the destructive capacity of that thunderstick,
as cans and bottles and targets are pulverized. The Farm is where you learn
about fire.

AIR

Air in your face as you zoom down the highway, hanging onto whatever seemed
most solid on the old tractor… after a long hot day in the field, looking
forward to the big oval table covered with serving dishes, proud inside to
be counted as one of the working men of the family, no longer just a boy.

Air hammering your body as you hang on for dear life to a towrope behind a
speedboat, trying to stay upright as most of your relatives watch your first
try on waterskis… the tremendous pull of the centrifugal force as you dare
to go outside the wake for the first time, arms surely ready to come out of
their sockets by now, finally getting upright and running and a little
confident, managing a wave to the folks on shore, then whap! the skis hit a
submerged stick and you flip end over end onto the unforgiving surface of
the water . . . but the family forgives.

Air of a soft breeze coming off the river at dusk, the colors of the water
changing as the sun sets behind the ancient bluffs, air gently stirring the
ashes of a dying campfire as the conversation, no more confrontational or
even teasing, slides toward reflection and longer thoughts.

Air of a sudden summer thunderstorm jumping over the western ridge, coming
at you with the unexpected force of a freight train arriving on a quiet
track. The smell of the rain stronger at the Farm than anywhere else in the
world.

The Pied Piper is a personage of indeterminate age who lives somewhere near
the farm, owns lots of fascinating motorized vehicles, and is ever ready for
Adventure. Parents are always uneasy in his presence, sensing with their
God-given radar his lack of concern for Appearances, Standards, Rules, and
Seriousness. Not that he’s a bad person: he worked all his life, provided
well for his family, ushers at church, votes Republican (says he does,
anyway), belongs to the VFW… it’s just that parents know that certain
guys, or gals, that their kids want to hang out with are not bound by the
regular conventions. Nor certain uncles. Sometimes parents are wrong about
these things, but more often than not, they’re right on target.
Because the Pied Piper is serious about play. He learned about it early
(from his father?), and, contrarywise to other adults, never forgot how.

Kids know this, somehow, because they have radar too, and will follow him
anywhere. Especially, but not only, the boys. Funny that someone who deeply,
naturally, instinctively in the fiber of his very being understands boys so
well never had a son; or was this deprivation God’s giving, and his, to so
many nephews, cousins, boyfriends of his four daughters?

Would you like to go hunting frogs at midnight? Shoot a chicken and barbecue
it at 2 A.M.? Go to a ball game in St. Louis? Have a real good argument? Do
donuts on the ice in a pickup truck? See how close you can come with your
motorboat to a moored barge? Race a heron across the river? Just jump in the
truck or boat or on the tractor or whatever, and we’ll go try it! Bedtime,
dinnertime, sadtime, all evaporate in the presence of the Pied Piper …and
he’s one of the reasons the kids love this place.

Water, Earth, Fire, Air — the elements of existence. On the Farm you learn
about these things in ways you never can in the cities, or in the ‘burbs.
The limits imposed on children in civilized places necessarily fence them in
closer: you swim in a pool, build a fire in a fireplace only, drive when
you’re 16 and not before. But protecting children from these things just
postpones the inevitable: isn’t it better for them to learn the true limits
a bit earlier, surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins and Farm? The
nagging and persistent rules that so hamstring children seem to be fewer at
the Farm, mostly, and there’s an air of freedom to go hiking, rivering,
discovering.

Family — the fifth elemental reality. At the best of times, our family has
been marked by acceptance — something we learned (or were sposed to) from
Granddad. You could go there, and there was no school, no homework, nobody
caring how you dressed (except for Church, that was another elemental
reality the children had to reckon with, and Grandmother who in some
undefined way seemed to be in charge of Church, not just for us but for
everyone else on Sunday morning too).

At the Farm you were home…you belonged, because you were part of the
family, and you felt in some way that the house and the barns and the land
and the river beach all belonged to you, too, and to the whole family. You
never felt like you were intruding on someone else’s space or time or
program… this was a place where there was space and time for kids, in ways
that didn’t exist back where you had just come from.
You were accepted at the Farm because you were you, no other reason, that
one was good enough, really it was the best one, in fact the only one that
counted. There was no place else in the world where you had that feeling,
and sometimes you needed it, and missed it, pretty badly in fact.

Sometimes our family forgets the how and the why of unconditional
acceptance, and the dark tensions, unspoken hurts, half-understood
aloofnesses can make the Farm a place to flee rather than to want to come
to, a Victorian pressure cooker rather than a homely house of refuge. Are we
already starting to forget what Granddad taught us, not in formal lessons
but in aimless talk around the table, in smiles, in greetings, in hugs? When
the Farm is sold, will we retreat into our own spaces and times, and reach
out even less?

Steering a truck down a country lane for the first time, in the lap of his
father who has his feet on the pedals and his hands an inch from the wheel,
an eight-year-old cries “Yippee! I’m a man!” He realizes in his mind that
it’s not true, he’s a long ways from there; but there’s a feeling you get
when the limits are pushed back, when you can do things unthinkable in other
places; when the fear is moderated by the security of acceptance: that’s the
feeling of pure joy that seems to be resident more at the Farm than anywhere
else in the wide world

Water, Earth, Fire, Air — and Family. They exist everywhere, there’s
actually no escaping them anywhere. But they swirl together and meet in
different ways on the Farm… the bluffs and currents form a vortex for
growing up not just fast, but well. The best crop at the Farm is children.

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