It was a Sunday afternoon in August when Pa cranked up the Willys car and we started down our tree-lined dusty road and headed south. We drove by Miller’s farm, our nearest neighbors and soon arrived at County Highway A, which had recently been blacktopped.
We crossed the hard surfaced road and drove past the Chain O’ Lake country school. Soon we passed the John Coombes place on the right and the Floyd Jeffers farm on the left. On top of a rise beyond the Jeffers farm, we turned on a road leading west and dropped down to go around Wagner’s Lake and Wagner’s farm, then climbed to the top of another hill where Pa stopped the car next to a clump of huge cottonwood trees.
“This was your Grandpa Apps’ farm,” Pa said as we climbed out of the car. Trees had grown up where the farmyard had been. The barn had disappeared, but the old house, long abandoned, stood tucked against an oak woodlot that led to a pond, a short hike down the hill.
The house looked like it had never known paint, but there was a certain beauty to the old gray boards that were cracked and curled from the years of blistering summer heat and frigid winters. The windows of the house were broken out, and the kitchen door hung by one hinge. A huge lilac bush stood to one side of the back porch — that’s what Pa said it was when I asked — and a tree had grown through the broken boards of the front porch.
For a long time we stood looking at the old house and listening to the summer breeze rustling the cottonwood leaves. I wondered why we were standing there, doing nothing. Yet, this is what Pa wanted to do. I stood next to him, holding his hand and looking. And wondering what he was seeing that I wasn’t.
Later I knew what he saw that I didn’t. He saw his mother and father. He saw his brothers Fred, Ed, George, and John and his sisters, Doris, Irene, Elsie and Minnie.
It looked like an old house to me and a forgotten farm with trees growing where once cattle grazed. But to my father it was much more. It was a place with meaning, a place with memories.
He didn’t say any of this to me that day as we stood looking at the old house, listening to the wind in the cottonwood trees, and smelling the smells of summer.
“Wanna go inside?” he finally said as he walked toward the old house. He pushed aside the kitchen door and we walked among the clutter of broken glass, fallen plaster and pieces of wallpaper that had come loose from the walls.
“We’re in the kitchen,” he said. He showed me where the kitchen stove had once stood, showed me where the stovepipe went into the chimney. He showed me where the kitchen table had been, and where his mother and sisters had washed dishes. He showed me where they kept the water pail for their drinking water and cooking, too, for this was a time when almost no one in the country had water piped into their house.
We made our way through the dining room and he showed me the stairway to the upstairs where he and his brothers and sisters slept — I didn’t know enough to ask how many slept in each bed.
And then we were back outside again and he began telling me stories about hunting squirrels and rabbits, and Canada geese and Mallards when they came down from the north each fall. He told me about hoeing corn and making hay, about milking cows and going to the country school. About digging potatoes and raising rutabagas.
For him this land, this old abandoned farm was much more than an unpainted house with a leaky roof and a tree growing through the front porch. It was more than tree studded acres that once grew potatoes and corn, oats and rye and provided pasture land for few skinny milk cows. He didn’t put it in so many words, but this land, this old farm was a part of who he was. It shaped his life in ways that he wasn’t fully aware, yet he knew, somehow of the power of this land and he wanted me to experience some of it, too.
I began to learn something about how a piece of land can shape a person, influence how he thinks and what he believes, what is important and what isn’t. That day I also began appreciating the power of story, and how stories can communicate well beyond the facts of the telling. Through his stories, my father was sharing something of who he was and how he came to be that way, and through the telling, I began to realize how the land had not only shaped him, but was shaping me as well.
Visit www.jerryapps.com for more about Jerry’s work.