Monday, August 4, 2008

Going Home

The hum of the jet engines pushed me closer to my destination, a midwest city that was home to a customer. Business took me to the town that was only an hour away from the birthplace of my mother.

I was hopeful that the meetings would conclude in time for me to make a pilgrimage to the old home place, and to visit another important plot of ground before the press of time pulled me back to the airport and busy schedules.

My mother was from a farm on the rolling plains of southern Iowa, near a small town named Humeston. Our ancestors had founded the little town, and generations of our family had lived and toiled in the surrounding fertile fields. Mom was born in a time when a family farm of 160 acres could produce enough income to allow the family to live a fairly middle class life.

The town now is much smaller than it once was…a victim of the economics of the modern age.

As a boy, the farm was one of my favorite places to be. My father was a minister, and we often lived several states away, allowing us to visit every other year or so. Nevertheless, I always loved going to the farm. I was a young suburban baby- boomer, and life on the farm was very different than my everyday life. I day-dreamed about what it would be like to live there all the time; I still do.

Much of who I am has its roots on that farm. In my office I have a jar that holds soil from the fields of the farm, and an aerial photo of the place taken in the 1950’s. This would be the first time I had been back since my grandmother had died five years before.

The two lane highway that led me to my destination was no longer familiar to me, even though it was on these roads I had first learned to drive. First as a young boy behind the wheel of the Ford tractor sitting on grandpa’s lap, and years later as a teenager learning to drive the old Plymouth on the crowned gravel back roads. To my embarrassment, I had to pull out the map from the rental car company that showed the route to the highway that led me to the farm.

I drove with an increasing sense of urgency, as the sun began to sink toward the western horizon. I had a small window of time, and I must hurry to complete my quest.

Weeks before my dreams had been filled with visions of the old place, after I realized my trip would take me near. I dreamt I took my family there and explained everything about that little place, and the memories that it holds for me…some experienced, and some told to me by my relatives.

They told of the winter the family spent living in the uninsulated clapboard garage because the original house had burned in a fire ignited by a gas stove that exploded. They told of snows that were fencepost high, of floods in the spring, and the year mom was homecoming queen.

They told of when rural electrification came, and farms were suddenly equipped with mercury vapor lights that shoved back the blackness of Iowa nights.

But the farm would have to wait. There was a hill that overlooked the highway that beckoned me first. The hill is opposite the highway where there is a small golf course with sand greens where I earned a varsity letter on local high school golf team. Many of my family can be found on this hill, and on this rainy fall evening, I found the plots that mark the final resting place of my grandparents.

Grandpa had passed first, a victim of many years of unfiltered cigarettes and riding tractors in the fields without cabs, breathing the dust and fertilizers and pesticides. Grandma lived to marry again and outlive her second husband, but is now resting by Grandpa, as it should be. The last time I was here I was one of her pall bearers, surrounded by family. This evening I was alone in the field of stone. We had a short talk, then I drove quickly to the farm before the daylight slipped away.

Southward I drove through the town. Past the little diner where grandma used to work, and where after golf practice she sometimes made me a cheeseburger. It is now vacant…a place once alive with a jukebox and dancing teens, now is a somber gray building giving no hint of its former life.

Outside of town, I looked for the familiar landmarks that would guide me the rest of my journey. There was the old electrical substation, and turning left took me past the farm of our nearest neighbor…now a quarter mile further and a right turn, and I was there.

Time is cruel to the memory of a boy who is now in middle age. Perhaps it is because I can still watch movies of people long passed on who still look young and vigorous on screen. I guess we allow ourselves to think we can control time, and it is disturbing when we have to face our foolishness.

The farmyard that once was, now only exists in my memory. The house, barn, and all the outbuildings were gone save one…that we used to call the machine shed. In fact the place is no longer a home for anything but curing round bales of hay.

I knew the house was gone…it had been thus when I drove past after Grandma’s funeral years before. More accurately it was a pile of rubble, recently torn down. A young couple had moved a mobile home onto the property, and apologized profusely about not having the remains of the old place removed when dad told them who we were and why we were there…which was to get my jar of soil souvenir.

It was a shock then not to see the house, but at least there was still life on the farm. Now five years later, it shocked me again that it was nearly all gone. Nothing to indicate that a family was raised there, and that entire lives were spent scratching a living from the ground. It was also strangely small…a phenomenon I had experienced before when visiting places from my youth, but it always surprises me when it happens.

As I walked around the farm I recalled that this was the place where I learned to hunt. Behind the hen house was where I shot my first rabbit…the first time I ever hunted with a gun. Later that day I would also take my first pheasant in one of the fields behind the farmyard.

Along the side of the barn I had a rifle range where I learned to shoot a .22 rifle given to me by an uncle.

The pond to the left of the farm was where I spent many summer days fishing with grubs found under hay bales…and caught my first fish on a fly rod. I have a photograph of the six pound largemouth bass I caught there when I was five years old.

The steep bank that runs from the road to the yard was our sledding hill…though we used waxed feed sacks to propel us because we didn’t have a sled.

Grandpa had a couple of old cars that no longer ran on the edge of the yard. We cousins pretended to drive them after making sure the wasp nests were gone.

In later teen years I came to live on the farm, when my father was between churches. I relished it, though I know the times were financially hard on my parents. I had the run of the place on the tractor, and spent many days cleaning up damage from a tornado that had skipped over the place a year or so before. I explored the back forty, and the old barn. I learned the healing power of solace of the prairie when only the wind is there to answer your cries.

This day though, I was not alone on the prairie. My wife was there with me, if only by cell phone, as I tried to describe what I saw, and what I could see through the mist of time. Grandpa and Grandma were there too I think.

As I turned to leave, a small flock of Canada geese slid silently into the field across the road from the old home place…I think they were going home too…


Steph said...

Mark, this is beautiful. Written from the heart, so much that I felt I was right there with you.

Thank you for sharing your home with me... then and now. :)

James said...

Well, Steph said it best. It's nice to hear the joy's you had. Sounds like a wonderful place to have been and such a vivid picture you've painted from memory.

God bless you and yours.

MightyMom said...

OK, now a song stuck in my head.

"Who Says you Can't Go Home"

Bon Jovi

Mark said...

Steph, thanks for the kind words, I am glad you liked it.

James - word! LOL

MM - thanks for stopping by. If you need to get that song out of your head later, check my earlier post "What I like About Texas" for some good ol' Gary P. Nunn hill country pickin. It's not Bon Jovi, but it makes me smile...

Sara Lisch said...

Great blog posting. I almost felt like I was there, but then I remembered....I'm not as old as could I have been there ;-)

Mark said...

Sara...just think of me as a fine aged wine...
Expensive and unattainable ;-)

steph's mom said...

Mark, can I publish you in my newsletter? I think our class would love to read this story. It's beautifully written, touching and brings back memories of long ago. Well, more long ago for some than others. I would love to use the pic, too, if you don't mind.

Mark said...

Stephs mom...of course you may...I am flattered, and glad you enjoyed it.
I am contemplating submitting it to be published in a magazine at some point.

steph's mom said...

I think you should have this one published, for sure. This speaks to everyone's heart, home and family.

Can you email it to me in word format, along with the pic? This may be the cover story! Woo hoo. I know, no biggie. Not the serious writer's dream to be published in our bi-monthly newsletter with only 50 readers, but I appreciate your willingness.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Mark said...

Sure, have Steph forward your email address to me

Anonymous said...

Mark, your writing is moving and tender. Thank you so much for taking us there. I could feel the soil underfoot, and hear the geese honk as they flew overhead.

Just lovely.

You have a gift.

Mark said...

Aww... shucks :-)
Thank you.

Lumberjack said...

Mark, this has the makings of a great devotional!

Mark said...

I submitted this to Gray's Sporting Journal, but they sent me a rejection first! A badge of honor, I am told. I have another one in the works...