Monday, November 24, 2008

These things do not remain

Maybe it is the coming on of Thanksgiving, or the thought of how much has been lost and gained in the last year, but I find myself searching through landscapes and buildings that exist only in my mind these days.

I was a child in the late sixties and early seventies. First generation off the farm on dad's side of the family, an extra generation removed on mom's side. A city playground was exotic to me, but a barn, a chicken coop, a dynamite shack - all abandoned - were my familiars.

Suburban homes are tombstones to those places, now. It's not worth grief or a maudlin sensibility but it comes to me that my children haven't the faintest notion of these places.

My grandfather quit farming sometime before I was born. The father of eight, but only two boys, no body wanted his farms. My aunt and her family lived at one but didn't farm it, Grandpa and Grandma retired and lived at the other. Some of the land was used for gravel pits, some for shacks that were specially built to store dynamite road crews were using to carve new roads into the limestone bedrock of the state in the 1950's. Snowmobiles, old cars and furniture were stored in the barn.

I don't know how many years passed between the last cow to have lived in Grandpa's barn and the time that I came to know it. Great big hewn log beams were still whitewashed down below by the cow stalls. Hay decayed on the dirt floor. A manure smell still clung to the timbers, with a topnote of dust and straw. That barn and the dairy barns of today have little in common.

At some point in the middle of the last century, the old highway that passed just outside Grandpa's front door was moved. They ran it along side the railroad tracks that divided the farmhouse from the barns. The new highway was just feet away from the big red barn with the "King Midas" flour sign painted 20 feet high on the eastern side of the barn.

There were 1000 abandoned acres for playing in. There were those dynamite shacks I mentioned. They were gunmetal gray and had no windows, but one small tightly locked door. The rumor was that if we searched the area we might find a stick or two of dynamite that fell off a truck once upon a time a long long time ago. Never did.

The gravel pit had giant piles of gravel. I've never slid down a mountain scree, but as a child knew how to slide down gravel. It gave way under your feet, you dig your heels in a little, bring your feet to parallel with the earth, not the hill. Were the gravel was dug were ponds. We were told they were as deep as 90 feet. Swimming was not allowed. I remember being with my dad on at least one occasion were strangers had to be yelled at, told to get out of the ponds before the sheriff was called and trespassing was charged. There was never any real trouble.

At my cousin's house there was a chicken coop. Plastic forts and 'play structures' have nothing on the beautiful simplicity of a chicken coop for a playhouse. The scale was perfect for little girls. There were windows, both at our eye level and up near the top. An old abandoned silo housed only bats. Dares were made about who could go in and for how long.

Old cars were another thing. There were abandoned cars to make forts out of everywhere. Like skeletons, the stripped out cars didn't offer clues about what they had been if a former life. But I'm guessing old Buicks or DeSoto's from the thirties. They were so commonplace then that it is sometimes catches me that my kids have never been in an old stripped out car. There were at least two in the woods behind my house. There was a junk pit next to my friend's house. In that was a Volkswagen Beetle. At the edges of my memory are so many old trucks. Some working, others not. Cracked leather over horsehair seats, dust and grease. If you bottled the smell, I'd buy it and sit on my porch remembering a child's eye view petulant gear boxes, cigarettes, rolled up sleeves, itchy seats where tears showed springs and stuffing. Rust and hope.

There were cellars. In cellars were salamanders and low ceilings and dark corners. At one farm of a not-relative but damned close, the men spent parties down in the cellar, near where the farmer put up wine. Nobody drank that wine, we heard it was godawful from our folks. But down there inside the cellar built up of field stones, ones that actually did come from out of the fields the farmers tried to coax from land poured over by glacial till, there was a smell of grapes and yeast and lime mortar and dirt. And that night's spilled beer. Kids liked to hang off the wooden stair rail and eavesdrop on the men. Until we gave up trying to translate their stories or spot the funny part of the story that got them all laughing. Then we'd run outside beneath the halogen light that formed the big greening circle around the yard, the darkened edges of it evoking mystery and danger. Run, run out into the dark, it is time for 'moonlight starlight'. A million places around the farmhouse to hide in the dark, listening for Olly olly ump ump free.

And we ran.

If I could find the road back to a soft June night, under a farmyard light inside its circle, outside of it beneath stars, pumping my legs and screaming and running back to 'home', right now I would take that road. I would like just a little visit back. Only for the evening.


Joe said...

That was beautiful. I could really see and smell those places you wrote about.

You remind me of the way my bride talks about time she spent with her grandparents when she was little.

Comrade Kevin said...

What a great series of memories. Thanks for sharing!

Sorghum Crow said...

That's a masterpiece.

As for a visit to simpler, more fun times? Me, too.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking me back to the barns and meadows and creeks of my youth. What a beautiful piece of writing.

dguzman said...

Jess, you brought tears to my eyes and memories to my mind's forefront. Beautiful and haunting.

Fran said...

In both style and content, this is gorgeous writing. So evocative and moving, it really touched me.

Thank you.

Distributorcap said...

i love your writing...... and i love how your bring things to life......

and dont you miss those times....... when it was easier - or so it seemed.

Dr. Zaius said...

This is great, Jess.

Anonymous said...

I thought your story was going to end with you and family meeting at the old farmhouse for Thanksgiving. You have such wonderful memories. I enjoyed it. And it did remind me of visiting a farm in Michigan years ago where the heirs to the Estate told us to take what furnishings we wanted that were left in the old barn. I spotted an old Hoosier cabinet and spent the summer refinishing it. Today it is my proudest piece and sits in our kitchen nook.

Suzy said...

Lovely, Jess. I suspect that many of us have some memories like that tucked away. I look around at my city and I am saddened by all that has been lost.

Have you read the book Last Child in the Woods? Our children have missed out on something essential.

The Cunning Runt said...

Jess, the road back to a place which exists only in your memory is through the words you so eloquently use to describe it.

What was our past has changed so much that our recollections of it may not now be accurate, but they're still valid as a way to contextualize what we know.

This is a beautiful piece of writing.

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Damn girl, you took me back to my childhood in Howell, Michigan. Thanks for writing such a beaitiful eloquent post.

Dale said...

How appropriate for dynamite shacks to be gunmetal grey. I want to slide down gravel now too. Such visual writing, I loved it!