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That Sense of History

That . . . Sense of History

A story

Turning off the main road onto the little blacktopólane, almostóI felt immediately as though I had passed through a portal of time. In the distance was the river, barely visible through the trees, and hills rising beyond it. The bottomland was broken up into little plots, some planted, some gone fallow, some overgrownótaken over by nature to do her own thing. Everywhere was this sense of history, of things and places that once had been something different. A field with little clumps of young willow trees growing here and there, a couple of dead corn stalks leaning against one another in a corner near what used to be a fence line, a rusted pickup truck with no wheels or glass, almost hidden by vines and brush.

I stopped my bike and stood there for a while taking it in. Iím a city boy. Iíve never touched a plow or a rake (other than the garden kind, with a painted metal handle and foam rubber pads to keep a city boyís hands from blistering after an hour of work). I could imagine this valley a hundred years ago, busy with people working, growing food for the county. On Saturday mornings there would be trucks heavy with vegetables lumbering up the steep grades out of the valley, headed for little outdoor markets in villages and towns nearby. My city boyís imagination gave it a romantic glow. I rode on, smelling the late summer life, a thousand unnamed scents of trees and plants, all those spores that give people with allergies such discomfort and pharmaceutical manufacturers such joy.

Here were a couple of small farms, sitting side-by-side between the road and the river. The one on the left was apparently a working farm. In the field behind the house grew something low and green, maybe soybeans. In the little patch between the house and the road was a vegetable garden, heavy with produce. It was too steep to work with a tractor, its rows of plants following the curve of the land, like the stripes of a slowly furling flag. Two people stooped near the center, unmoving.

I turned my bike down the dirt driveway, thinking to speak with them when I got close enough. But then I realized that they were praying. Standing together, heads bowed, they reminded me of a Renaissance painting, perhaps something named the Vespers. I rode silently past them down to where the driveway simply disappeared into indifferently mown lawn at the side of the house.

Around the house and the nearby barn were relics of farm life. A foot-powered grinding wheel, obviously not used in many years. A cistern pump, one of those sheet-metal once-modern-looking things with rounded top and a crank on one side to turn the sprocket wheel inside that lifted the little buckets on a chain from the water below. A rusted childís wagon, missing its back wheels. Off to the side, almost in the bushes, sat an ancient automobile, sans wheels, sans hood, its running boards almost hidden by grass. The engine stood proud, even in its silence, reminding me of brown stone monuments to pioneers that one sees on the prairies west of here. Three clotheslines stretched between a pair of tee-shaped poles made from steel pipe. Bright purple morning glories bloomed over a fence.

A medium-sized dog trotted around the corner of the little barn toward me, her tail wagging, followed immediately by a young woman in shapeless jeans and a manís shirt. "Howdy," she said. "Help you?" She carried a bucket filled with some kind of plants.

I let go of one handlebar to reach down and let the dog sniff my hand. "I donít want anything, really," I said. "I was about to chat with the folks in the garden, and then saw they were praying, so I didnít want to disturb them."

She smiled. "They do that every day of their lives. They wouldnít mind an interruption." She set the bucket down. There was water in the bottom of it, but the plants didnít look too healthy. I didnít ask what they were.

"Actually, I stopped because this place just pulled at me, for some reason. I donít know." I felt foolish.

"You grow up on a farm?"

"No. But it just feels solid here." It wasnít the word I was searching for. "Most places I know donít look as though theyíve been lived in more than a couple of years."

"My dad used to call places like this Ďfender farms.í" She gestured at the old car. "My grandparents had this place forever. When they passed on, Mom and Dad moved down here from Eaton to retire. They donít make any money on it, but they donít care."

"You moved down here with them?"

"No, I just come down to help Ďem out once in a while. I live in town, but I like the quiet here."

"I donít mean to intrude." I turned my bike around.

"Itís a real museum. Nothing much has changed in fifty years. Want to see the inside?" She picked up the bucket of plants and started for the house. The dog, which had lain down in the grass nearby, got up to follow.

"Sure," I said, setting the kickstand under the bike and falling in line behind the dog.

The screen door spring squealed when she pulled the door open. A rubber ball swung from a little chain near the top of the door. The threshold was worn round from countless feet crossing it. I let the door close gently behind me, remembering the sound from long ago of screen doors banging behind children flying from the house in their play, followed by cries from inside, "Watch the door! Close it quietly!" The little swinging ball was there for an old reason, to prevent the slamming of the screen door, because kids never learned.

The smell of the kitchen was right out my nostalgiaóthe faint scent of kerosene, of burned sugar, of bacon fat, of a thousand different foods. A linoleum rug covered most of the floor, and cracks separated the boards around it. In the center stood a heavy table with turned legs, and three old ladderback chairs. A huge stained glass chandelier hung directly over the table. The white enameled cast-iron sink was brown with rust under the twin faucets on the high backsplash. A soap dish hung on springs between the faucets. Over the sink, the wooden double casement window stood open, and I could see past the soybean field to the trees lining the river. The dog nuzzled my hand.

The woman set the bucket on the drainboard and moved toward the opposite door. "I spent a lot of time on these floors," she offered.

Following her into the parlor, I smelled pipe tobacco. Two overstuffed chairs dominated the small room. A library table stood against the front wall, adorned by a crocheted doily and another stained-glass lamp. A rack of smoking pipes hid on one back corner of the table, and a thick book dominated the other. Opposite the chairs, a small television set, on a stand made of bent brass-plated tubing looked out of place with the rest of the room. An old rug covered the floor to within a foot of the walls. Next to the kitchen door stood a china cabinet with a curved glass door and carved feet. Inside were dishes and teacups, and a tall silver tea pot. Each of the shelves was lined with a white linen doily with crocheted edges, and dotted with porcelain Hummel figurines.

"Looks like what youíd expect down here, doesnít it?" She gestured toward the cabinet. Her voice had just the slightest Midwest twang.

Just then, an older man and woman steped up onto the front porch and kicked off their boots. As they entered the parlor, each carrying handfuls of vegetables, they smiled in greeting. Both of them wore old bib overalls and wide-brimmed hats. "Howdy," he said. "We saw you come in."

"I donít mean to intrude," I apologized. "Thereís just something about this place thatóI donít know, reminds me of home, or something. And I never lived on a farm!"

"Itís old." The man seemed well beyond retirement age, but had that sunburned look of a farmer. "I grew up here, and I hated it as long as I can remember, till I finished high school. I bought a car and got a job and only came back on holidays. Níthen, when my folks died, I couldnít bear to sell it."

The woman set her vegetables on the kitchen table and took off her hat. "I talked him into moving back down here." She raised her voice as she moved about the kitchen. "I always loved it."

"How long have you lived here?"

"Seven, eight years. When I retired from the company, I didnít know what to do with myself in town." He handed his load to his wife, wiped his hands on his pants, and took off his hat. His close-cropped gray hair rose out of pale skin just above his hat line.

"We used to come down on weekends, and kept a little garden here." She returned from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel. "One day we just decided to stay."

The young woman was watching them, her arms folded in front of her. "I tried to get them to fix the place up, like at least put in a new kitchen."

"Heck no." He grinned at his daughter. "Everything works. Even the oven. Why throw stuff away, just because itís old?"

"Okay, okay," she gestured with her hands. "Itís your place." Turning toward me, she added, "Truthfully, I like it, too. Like you said, it feels like home."

"I donít keep up the place the way my dad did. All that brush along the fences? He kept it tidy. I donít mind nature doing her thing with the place. Sheís doing her thing with me, too." He laughed.

"How old is that old car out there?"

"That was mine. Bought it when I was in high school. I always intended to restore it. Itís a twenty-nine Hudson. Used to be a real caróeven a curtain you could pull down between the front and back seats. Had those big spare wheels in the front fenders, like in the old gangster movies."

He paused, thoughtful. "Some things just donít get done in life."

"Ainít that the truth?" His wife shook out her long gray hair, twirled it again and tied it back up on her head.

"Momís a musician," the daughter offered. "Taught it in high school."

I looked at her in a new way. "You donít play?"

"Not any more," she said simply.

I began to feel the time. "Iím sorry. You all have things to do. I really enjoyed meeting you." I moved toward the back door.

"Stay for supper?"

"No, but thank you very much."

My bike had fallen over in the back yard. As I picked it up, the man stepped out onto the porch. "Come on by anytime."

"Thank you. Iíll do that."

I walked the bike up the steep drive. Looking back, I saw the man and his daughter, an arm about each other, watching me go. I waved, and they both waved back.

 

February 15, 2003

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