My husband and I live in West Philadelphia, but each week I make the eighty-minute train trip westward to my office, which is housed in a converted tobacco warehouse in downtown Lancaster.
As the train rounds the bend through Gap, the woods shift to open fields. Year-round, I pass the same Amish farms. Come spring, farmers driving four-horse plows wave in answer to the conductor’s whistle, and as April rains pound on the train windows, tiny shoots from spring planting carpet the fields in green. On wash days, clothing flaps high on pulley wash lines. If I catch the early train, I see children walking to the one-room school or gathering to play ball in their small diamond. In late morning, the schoolyard is empty and still.
Boarding the eastbound train at five o’clock, I watch farm fields and small towns give way to new construction, suburban developments and thin woods of Coatesville, Downingtown, and Exton. Minutes after the strip-malls of Philadelphia’s Lancaster Avenue replace the azalea bushes and stone houses of the Mainline, the Center City skyline lurches into view, and I feel a sense of home. But it is not the same feeling of home that the farmland, orchards, and windmills evoke in me. While Philadelphia is the home where I live now, Lancaster County will always have my roots.
Home for me was a dairy farm in western Lancaster County. The youngest of five, I grew up with grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles living nearby. My father was a dairy farmer, and a Mennonite minister. Our church family, blood relations, and the farming community all intertwined to make home home. The old cliché, You can take the girl off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the girl, may be a tired one, but it speaks to my story. In undergrad, a professor told us, “Where you are determines who you are.” He was talking about cross-cultural adaptability, and knowing how to respond in different cultural settings. But no matter where I am, there will be a barefoot, Mennonite farm-girl not far beneath the surface. These essays explore some ways in which, no matter where we find ourselves, our roots still feed us, continue to nourish us, and affect the flavor of the fruit we bear.
Much of this writing evolved during those train passages, and many of the questions that run through these personal essays continue to tug at me as I watch the view change, from farmers cultivating the land with horse-drawn equipment, to the Comcast tower glinting in the Center City sky. What is the role of place in forming individual and communal identity? What claims does a place or a community have on us? What claims do we want them to have? What is lost when an individual, or a family, leaves a house or moves away from a community to become part of another? How does our view of a place shift after we have left it? What is the role of community in preserving tradition? Of memory? How do traditions die? What is lost when they do?
Gone from Here
Erisman Road leads home. In northwestern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, it winds past the farm of Lowell Fry, whose grandfather and father shared hay wagons with mine. It runs between the old one-room schoolhouse where my parents were among the only five students in their grade, and the simple, red brick Mennonite meetinghouse where they later took my brother, my three sisters, and me to church.
My family shares Swiss-German ancestral roots with many descendants of the Mennonites who settled in Lancaster County in the early 18th century. If I am related to someone, my father can always trace for me exactly how. Mennonites call it “the Mennonite game.” Traditional Swiss-German names like Siegrist, Groff, Nissley, Stoltzfus, Bomberger, Burkhart, Metzler, and Shenk, roll easily off my tongue. They claim branches on my family tree and are painted on the rural mailboxes that dot the close-knit, farming community I call home. They are carved into the headstones that line the hill west of the meetinghouse on Erisman Road, where my father’s parents are buried.The cemetery borders church property to the west, and cornfields to the south and the east.On the north, where Mount Joy Road crosses Erisman Road, our family farm comes into view.Dwarfed by towering white silos, the white cow stable and barn hide the house behind them. As I cover the last half mile between the church and farm, the large white farmhouse comes into view. Wide open land radiates in all directions from the small cluster of out-buildings and tall trees.
I am returning home, but my family doesn’t live here anymore. And by next month, the house and barn will be empty again.Approaching the sharp bend just before the farm lane veers off to the left, I brake with a familiar ease. “There is a very sharp curve just before our lane, be careful,” we would say whenever giving guests directions over the phone.One night we came home to ambulance lights and the sight of twisted metal after two cars landed in the field across the road. I waited with my mother and sisters while my father walked over to the scene. The boy who died in that accident had been friends with my sister, Twila, and his older sister was my first grade teacher. My father did not cry, but I could tell he was grieved by what he had seen. When he is sad, his usual smile fades and his eyes look tired.
One summer, a motorcyclist was thrown from his bike and had to go to the hospital. At the scene of the accident, he asked my father to hang onto his bike until he could come for it. He left it with us all summer, and my brother took me and my sisters for rides around the farm. We rode that motorcycle, kicking up dust back the field lane and up to the tree line at the north edge of our property, back again to the end of the paved farm lane. It is the same lane where my brother, father, and grandfather drove their red tractors, and my sisters and I raced each other home from the bus, sometimes running backwards to keep the wind out of our faces.
At the end of the lane, next to the mailboxes, a tiny plastic “For Sale” sign flaps in the wind. On my right I pass the red brick ranch that once belonged to my grandparents.I can still see Grandpa Miller, with his denim work apron and thick head of white hair, kneeling in the dirt, digging potatoes out of his garden. I imagine Grandma standing there, using her cane to point out the ripest tomatoes to her color-blind husband. The flowering crab apple in my grandparent’s yard looks small now. I once climbed high up into it and was too scared to climb back down. I yelled out to my Dad, who was across the lane, disking the south field. After a few minutes, I gave up, and, trembling with terror, I half scooted, half fell, back to safe ground.
The cow sale is well underway when I arrive at noon. I park my car across from my brother’s old house at the corner of the lane, just up from the farmhouse. As I swing my legs out over the mud and lean down to change out of my office shoes and into brown work boots, I am greeted by driving wind and the din of auction-speak on the public address system. A spotty winter cover crop of alfalfa dots the mud. I walk across the field, toward the familiar site of the auction tent. Will anybody know that I belong here?
As I walk, I stare at the 1853 farmhouse that I still think of as home. I expect to feel something profound. Its old white face peers out forlornly over rows of cattle trailers and pick-up trucks. It does not follow me with its eyes.It just stares blankly toward the road.
Two years earlier, I stood looking out through the attic windows as wind carried the auctioneers’ gargling voices across the fields, ending an era for me and my family.We were selling the 85 acre farm that had been home for the Miller family since 1929. Knowing this day would eventually come, I’d been filming the home-place for the past four years. I lived with my parents for a year after college before moving to an apartment in Lancaster City, and I continued to return to the farm, always bringing my video camera with me.I had long been the unofficial family historian. I wrote down conversations. I recorded my nieces and nephews singing.It was only natural that now I had graduated to a video camera and was pointing it at my mother, peeling potatoes at the kitchen sink, or following my father as he wheeled the feed cart around the barn. No one seemed to mind.
We sold the farm, the equipment, and household goods through public auction.Tents were pitched in our back yard to shelter buyers from the March wind, and our house was exposed to the curious strangers who came to pick their way through our lives.They walked up and down the stairs.They peered into empty bedrooms and closets.They passed by me with pleasant nods, assuming that I too was there just to look around.This was the beginning of being forgotten by a place.These people didn’t know that I belonged here.Soon, the words, “I used to live here,” would weigh little, if anything at all, to the people who would move here after we had left.
After the sale, my parents, in their mid-sixties, retired to a 1954 red-brick ranch four miles away. Since the day my parents moved out, three different families have moved on and off the farm. The new owner, Mr. C., had sold his own farm and needed to invest in property. The Manheim Auto Auction had paid him two million dollars for his farm in order to pave it and turn it into a giant parking lot. Mr. C. rented my parent’s farm to a dairy businessman who rented the land and invested in a herd of dairy cows, and paid a family of tenant farmers to farm the land and take care of the herd. When I first learned about the complicated arrangement, it made my head hurt.
On a clear day I can see from my parents’ backyard the gleaming windshields of hundreds of new cars parked at the sprawling Auto Auction. I think of Mr. C. and his farmland, now pavement, and it makes me nervous.Lancaster County has the third best non-irrigated soil in the world, but strip malls and suburban sprawl are beginning to dominate the landscape. My one consolation is that my parents put our farm into the agriculture preserve program, confining the zoning of that land to agricultural use only, no matter who should buy it someday.
Now, two years later, the dairyman is selling his herd, and Mr. C. has put the farm back on the market. This time, I am not standing in my farmhouse attic, looking out over the south field at gleaming hoods of cars and pick-ups. My car is among the rows parked in the south field, and I am not invited to go inside the house.Again, cows are filing out of this barn to be sold, the tenant farmers are preparing to move away, and the house will stand empty, waiting to be sold. Like all people who leave a home they love, I want our house to be owned by someone who will also love it, care for it, and watch over it. When my parents first returned to the farm the spring after they moved away, my mother noticed immediately that all of her daffodil and tulip bulbs, planted around the barn and along the sidewalk by the house, weren’t blooming. On closer inspection, she saw that they had been mowed over or plowed under. Someone even put up a satellite dish on the corner of the front porch.
My parents both grew up without locks on their doors, and I grew up the same way. But television to them was an unwelcome intruder. My first memory of watching it came when my brother Lamar moved out and got married. It was the same month that I turned five. Lamar and his wife Tricia bought a blue double-wide trailer and had it hauled and crane-lifted onto a newly built foundation waiting at the corner of our farm lane. At five, I was thoroughly impressed by this: One day, no house, the next day, a house. But this was nothing compared with what came next. They bought a television. The television became a particular obsession for my older sister Julia and me. We would come home and read the TV schedule in that day’s newspaper, then call Tricia and drop hints until she invited us to their house to watch our show. On Monday nights, we were given permission to go to Lamar and Tricia’s house to watch Little House on the Prairie.However, with extra strategizing, we would also manage to get permission to head up there on Friday nights to watch The Dukes of Hazzard.
Whenever Lamar and Tricia planned a vacation, we would beg our parents to let us offer to “look after their TV” for them while they were out of town. My brother would carry the television down the farm lane, follow us to the appointed surface that we had eagerly cleared for it, and plop it down. To my parent’s chagrin, what followed was a three-day marathon of every possible daytime or primetime moment that one could squeeze out of NBC, ABC, and CBS in 1981. There was nothing on Sundays except for cooking shows and fishing shows, but we watched those, too.We would bargain: “If we shell lima beans during the show, can we watch Wheel of Fortune and The Price is Right?” We would try conversion: “Look Mom, you should watch this, you’d really like it.” And we would straight out deceive: “Mom, why don’t you go to the meeting with Dad, Julia can watch me. No Mom, she won’t let me watch bad things on TV.We know better than to watch bad things.”
The obsession simmered down when the television was out of the house again, but that did not stop me from making the discovery that NBC frequencies were coming through on the left-most end of the FM radio dial. I am one of America’s few children who listened to Diffrent Strokes before ever seeing it on television. However, my burgeoning TV knowledge began to score me social points at school. I finally knew what everyone was talking about, and no longer had to fake it while my friends talked about their favorite shows, even if I had only heard it on the radio.
The summer before I began the sixth grade, my parents finally broke down and bought a TV. Although we had rabbit ears and could only get three networks, being recruited for barn-work put a serious cramp in my after-school TV aspirations. Donna and Julia, sisters nine and five years older than me, made up a protest song to a tune borrowed from their elementary school Christmas cantata. “Barn, stinky barn, stinky barn, stinky, stinky, stinky barn,” Julia would chant, tying her hair shut with the biggest bandanna she could find.Donna would chime in on the high note, “Pee-ew, sing pee-ew, sing pee-ew,” while pulling on a pair of barn boots.Although the song had been banned from the house by my mother, I still cued it up now and then.When my mother overheard me, her exasperated sigh was enough to shut me up.
When my mother asked me to help at the barn, I complained. I had enough sense not to complain directly to my father, the man who rolled out of bed every morning before dawn and made his way down the stairs while we all slept. From my bed, I heard the heavy wooden barn door sliding open. Next came the clanging of the latch on the milkhouse door that never clicked properly into place. If I lay awake, listening, I could hear my dad clearing his throat as he took down the milkers from their hooks and began to carry them over to the stable. Finally, the milker motor would begin to hum, and with it the half dozen Westfalia pulsators would kick off on the down-beat, working in tandem to pump our family’s lifeblood through the six rubber arteries and into the milk pipeline, finally emptying into the 1500 gallon stainless steel tank.
My father often did the morning milking alone, and I never once heard him complain.When my brother was busy with evening fieldwork, or away, leaving my father to do the evening milking alone, my mother would handpick one of her four daughters to help. When I offered my weak reasons as to why it was not fair that I had to help, I never had a case, and I knew it. My real motive was laziness and after we bought a television, the faulty structure of my arguments grew all the more obvious. I was like an addict, inventing rationale as I went along, willing to be a very pathetic person so long as it got me to my desired end—the unhampered ability to watch TV.
But if I ditched my father at the barn so that I could sit around and watch TV, not only would I be a pathetic couch potato excuse for a daughter, but my father would know that I was, and I cared too much what he thought of me to push my case. So by the time my mother was ready with the big ammunition of, “Daddy works very hard and the least you could do is help him in the evenings once in awhile,” I was already walking over to the drawer that held the large bandannas that we used for “tying our hair shut,” as my mother put it.
Although I disliked being torn away from the house, once I was sliding open the heavy wooden cow stable door, I was glad for my mother’s power to convict. Not only did I take pride in my deft ability to wield the long-handled manure scraper, but some of my best thinking happened while scraping cow manure and sweeping barn walkways. I liked the physical work. There was something very satisfying about returning to the house, peeling off my barn clothes, and seeing the healthy flush in my face as I glanced in the bathroom mirror.
Every evening, Grandpa Miller would walk down from his house at the end of the farm lane and go into the barn to see my father.First he would come through the back kitchen door to bring us the daily newspaper, minus the coupons that Grandma had clipped. “Well, what’s new?” he would say, rubbing his hands together expectantly, the rolled up newspaper tucked beneath his arm. Out in the barn he would rub the cows’ backs, talking to them gently. My grandfather was a small man, with piercing blue eyes. This had been his farm, once. My father was born here.
When my grandparents retired from dairy farming in 1960, they built a red brick ranch house at the end of the lane and my newly married parents moved onto the farm. One story I loved to hear my grandparents tell was of the blinding snowstorm in 1977 when over seventy people ended up stalling out or getting stuck in the snow on their bend in the road. Earlier that afternoon, Grandma had baked bread and Grandpa built a fire in the basement fireplace. When the first stranded travelers entered the warm house that smelled of fresh bread, Grandma was already peeling potatoes for a pot of soup.As people continued piling into the house, they pulled out as many blankets as they could locate to accommodate their unexpected guests. Most people left to continue their drive by ten o’clock at night. One man stayed overnight. My grandma said, “I’m just sorry we couldn’t get everybody singing.” They did sign a guest book for her.
Because they were so close, my grandparents often looked after us. Sometimes, I was sent out to help Grandma dust the furniture or carry full canning jars downstairs and place them on her basement shelves. Grandma smelled like dried apples and baking bread. Sometimes she called me to thread her sewing needle when her eyes began to go weak. As long as her eyesight allowed her to, she read aloud to me. I would sit on a little stool and she in her rocking chair.
During bad weather, my sister Julia and I would shelter in our grandparents breezeway to watch for the bus. Our grandparents had just finished breakfast, and we would hear them reading the Bible or singing hymns after their breakfast. I can still hear my grandfather’s voice quavering off-tune, and my grandmother leading with her deep alto, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.” My grandparents lived at the end of the farm lane until the summer I was eleven. Grandpa was getting sicker with colon cancer, and Grandma was moving with him to the Mennonite Home, a nursing home where he could receive round-the-clock care.On the day that they sold their red brick ranch house, a large crowd turned out for the auction of their household things. My older sisters and cousins held up quilts, dishes, and furniture in front of the crowd as each item came up for bid. Grandpa stood with my father and uncles, looking very thin and very pale. Next to a table full of her old china, Grandma stood inside by the dining room picture window and cried.
My parent’s youngest and fifth child, trailing five years behind my sister Julia, was not planned.To my mother’s delight, she had another little girl who could wear the dresses she had sewed for my sisters, learn from her and keep her company during the day when the others were at school. My father had another daughter to read to, and eventually to teach how to feed calves, watch the horizon for storms, and hold the light when the veterinarian came to operate on one of the cows. I helped my mother to can peaches and pears. My chubby fists fit inside of the jar’s narrow mouth, and I was able to neatly stack the slices of fruit inside. I watched as she placed the packed jars in boiling water and listened with her for the telltale ‘pop’ of the lids that meant they were sealed.
My brother Lamar was fifteen when I was born.When the call came from the hospital that I was here and I was a girl, Twila, the oldest, then twelve years old, ran out through the field to tell Lamar, who was beginning spring planting. “Good, it’s a girl.” he said. “Now I can have the farm.” My brother still dreams of owning his own farm. He has been renting land in upstate New York for the past six years because Lancaster County land prices are soaring. My brother works harder than any farmer I know, but struggles to run a profitable business. After running himself ragged to farm hundreds of rented acres, a few dry years sunk him into debt and got in the way of his dream.When the family farm went up for sale, he simply could not afford to pay anywhere near market value, and my parents could not afford to give it to him. Lamar fell in love with farming as a child, and fertilized and harvested most of the crops alongside of my father. My sisters and I did not do much fieldwork. We occasionally helped our brother plant cauliflower. One of us drove the tractor in first gear while the others rode on the planter bed, dropping seedlings into the incisions the planter had made with its slow, mechanical claws.
The summer after my parents sold the farm, I took my boyfriend Hans to see it.Although our relationship was new, our friendship was not. I showed him the dirt floor and thick stone walls of the cellar where I hosted my friends for a New Year’s Eve candlelight coffeehouse my senior year of high school. I showed him the slope of the attic roof and the meat-smoking room at the north end of the attic. He smiled as he studied the exposed plaster of an unused storage room on the second floor where someone had written:
“Sept. 7, 1918.First aeroplane flew over here today: Great. Exciting!”
I knew that he would appreciate this. As a house carpenter, he scrawled poetry on the studs of the old houses that he restored.
Downstairs, behind the laundry room, I pulled back the folding doors to reveal the tiny summer kitchen with its dirt floor and yawning hole where the wrought iron kettle had been.The summer kitchen had not been used in years. I repeated my father’s story of how my great-grandmother used to fry donuts here, whenever she would sleep over on winter mornings. The smell of donuts would fill the house at five o’clock in the morning. One winter, after being snowbound during a blizzard, Dad and his brothers drove the tractor to Sporting Hill to buy yeast so that their Grandma Miller could make her doughnut recipe. After the sale, I secretly tracked down the antique dealer who had bought the iron kettle, and wrote to him, offering to buy it back for ten dollars more than his purchase price. Regretting that they had agreed to auction off the kettle in the first place, my parents met me with grateful surprise when I showed up in their driveway, the old kettle in the backseat of my Volkswagon.
Kneeling on the floor of the unused closet next to the summer kitchen, I removed several short floorboards to reveal a hiding place. I had told Hans about the time capsule my family had hidden here. I drew out the round red tin and handed it to him. He looked through its contents, mostly photographs, each with identification on the back:My father and his two younger siblings: “Andrew, Ruthanna, Daniel, 1952.” My mother and father holding their firstborn: “Lamar, 1961.” Two of my older sisters and I holding puppies. “Donna, Julia, and Karen:1979.” We put the tin back and replaced the loose boards.I showed him through the rest of the house, the barn, and led him up to the woods that border the property on the north. It was like taking him on a tour through my soul.
Now, two years later, I step out of the wind and into the yellow and white tent where trios and quartets of teenage boys, young farmers, and old men sit on straw bales and folding chairs. The few women in the small crowd are seated next to their dairy farmer-husbands. Holding my camera, I feel exposed as an outsider, a curious spectator imposing on the locals. I want to tell the sea of strangers that there is a fire-orange, twenty-five cent child’s flip flop buried in the cement foundation of the building next to this tent that’s mine. When my sister Julia and I were playing on the site of the new barn construction, she dared me and I stepped squarely in the wet cement, one flip-flop the poorer.
I scan the small crowd for my father, spotting my cousin Paul with my uncle David. Unlike most of the men under this tent, they are not reading their green buyer’s guides, studying the pedigrees of each Jersey, Guernsey, or Holstein for sale.Like my father and me, they’ve come back to observe. As I greet my father, he re-introduces me to an old friend, Richard Burkhart. When I was thirteen, Richard and his wife Ruth gave us one of their newborn lambs whose mother had rejected it.We bottle-fed her and named her Mary. She came running when she heard us call her name. When Mary outgrew us, we gave her to a kind shepherd who welcomed her to graze his meadow. It was a sort of retirement community for sheep.
I watch the auction with my father. He fills me in on Horace Backus, the man who is reading the pedigree of each cow.Horace Backus. I like the sound of his name. He is, according to my father, a renowned dairy cow expert. He does cow auctions across the country. I watch Mr. Backus as he holds the microphone against his chest, burrowing his chin into his black and white checkered scarf, announcing the DHIA pedigree of each cow.A bug-eyed Guernsey halts and starts in the coral, staring nervously out through the green bars at rows of farmers. “Look at the udder on this one,” the auctioneer says into the microphone. “She’ll be a good lactater,” he adds. Along the outer edge of the tent, the flaps flutter in the wind, rhythmically smacking a row of Amish men in the back of the head.
At the back, standing next to his older brother David, my dad is watchful. As I walk up, Uncle David is asking Dad if he remembers the 1952 photograph of David, seated on a tractor, pulling a sprayer over this field where we now stand. I look at our feet. My brown boots look just like theirs. I remember something that a Mennonite farmer’s son who, like me, had gone onto college and to graduate school, once said: “We forget that one generation back, we all have shit on our shoes.”
“Come and visit us sometime,” Uncle David urges me on our way out of the tent. I follow my father to the barn cellar.Its sturdy stone base and deep windows have not changed. “May I help you?” The polite voice of customer service brings my attention to two smiling women sitting in the glow of their laptops, poised to register us for the auction. “We’re just…” my father begins. “I lived here for sixty-five years,” he says. “I was born in that house.” Dad points through the barn cellar window.This room was his workshop. The junk in the corner is his old junk. In the back corner, baby food jars he’d designed to store hardware still hung from their wooden rack. I used to bring my bikes in here when their tires were flat and my Dad showed me how to run the big air compressor. The motor oil and cold earth smells of this room belong to my family.
With the auction still droning on in the distance, we make our way past the smiling ladies and their small talk and ramble up the familiar two flights of rickety wooden steps that lead to a dimly lit room.White aluminum siding has been nailed over the open windows where I used to lean out to dump the stale water before turning the reluctant spigot to give the rabbits fresh water.Julia and I carried buckets of cow’s milk up these steps to feed puppies. We carried greens and pellets for our pet rabbits, and for Lamar’s guinea pigs.My brother bought twelve guinea pigs to raise and within twelve days, all but one of them were dead.We think they had a disease when he bought them.
As my father snaps on the switch, the light reveals an empty room with empty wooden pens and mounted cages.The familiar graffiti is still on the walls.On the wooden posts, green spray-paint bears the names “Lamar” and “Twila” On the far wall is a drawing of a fat rabbit with a very tiny head.The drawing is labeled:“Rabbit.”There haven’t been rabbits up here for years.The puppies that used to nip at my bare legs as I sat in the pen and played with them have by now been buried by their new owners.The eleven-year-old boy and his eight-year-old sister who snuck a can of green spray paint up here, are now forty-five and forty-two years old.We stand silently in the dim light of the room for one still moment before turning matter-of-factly to descend the staircase.
Downstairs, we step into the crowd that gathers by the concession stand that a local church youth group has set up next to the old chicken pens.Teenage Mennonite girls in head coverings sell ham and bean soup, hot chocolate, and whoopie pies to red-faced customers, seeking shelter from the wind. “May I help you?”asks the woman who is in charge of the stand. The Marietta Mennonite Church youth group is doing this as a fund-raiser, she tells us. My father asks her name, figures out how she is related to someone we know, and tells her that he is from this farm.
As I eat chicken corn soup out of a Styrofoam bowl, I overhear an elderly Amish farmer ask, “Where are you from?” Then I hear, “Oh. This used to be your place.” Then, “Do you know, are there many Amish up this way?” Later, as we duck inside the cow stable for a moment, Dad talks to the man who stepped inside just before us. “Where are you from?”
“I’m a Kline, from Myerstown. How ’bout you?”
“From here,” my father points to the ground. “This farm.”
I stick close to Dad, counting on on him to let people know that we both belong here. This is my father, I want to tell everyone, This man unloaded those bales of the hay he planted, raked, baled, and hauled, into the mow on the other side of this wall. He pitched silage into the troughs of the hungry heifers below where you all are standing. He climbed and fixed the silos that loom above this building. Day after day, knelt next to cows, faithfully drawing from them the milk that would support his children.
Year after year, and child after child: 1961, 1964, 1968, 1971, 1976. This is the man who struggled in the rain and the mud two nights before my wedding, to help put up a tent in a Lancaster County Park. He is the same man who preached from the pulpit every other Sunday, his tie and jacket disguising the dairy farmer who, three hours earlier was racing in from the cow stable, preceded by shouts from his wife to their daughters to clear out of his way. “Girls! Daddy’s in! Get out of the bathroom!”
Coming home after church or school board meetings, he would go out to feed the cows one more time before heading to bed.One night, when I was living at home for the summer, I saw a light out in the pasture. Sliding into shoes, I went out to see my father returning from the barn with a digging iron and chains. He was muttering in frustration with himself for being away that night. One of his best cows had gone into labor, and now her labor had stalled, with the back legs of a breech calf, probably dead, protruding between her hindquarters. I stood where he told me, and watched in semi-disbelief as he fastened the chains to the slimy calf ankles and for leverage dug the iron hard into the ground.At this, the cow lurched forward, and in one violent, wet blur, the rest of the calf was born.I was there to catch it and guide it to the ground. The mama cow bawled as steam rose off of her motionless calf, into the summer night air. My father was immediately on his knees, cleaning the afterbirth away from the calf’s nostrils, putting his head real close to its mouth. He leaned back, took off his cap, and smacked it angrily on the grass. “Why didn’t I check her as soon as I came home?” he berated himself.Then, almost imperceptibly, the calf’s side moved. I will never forget the sight of my father, driving his fingers into the calf’s nostrils to plug its nose, and placing his mouth over its slimy, newborn mouth.Not trained in CPR, my father blew into its mouth until it began to cough amniotic fluid. An hour later, that calf was standing in the pasture, suckling from its mother.
Two years ago, the night my family all gathered at the farmhouse one last time, I looked around the kitchen at our wind-burned faces. My parents had been going non-stop, sorting through things, cleaning and painting the new house, cleaning and scrubbing the old house. My father had worked so hard cleaning out the barn during the weeks leading up to the sale that his hands had swelled up for a day and he’d had to prop them up above his head. That day, it was finished.
I watched my father as he looked around the room at his five children and their spouses. Twelve grandchildren.Julia pregnant with one more grandchild on the way. Our whole family was there, except my sister-in-law Tricia, who had lost her battle with breast cancer four years earlier. At Tricia’s funeral, my father wept until his shoulders shook, shaking the bench where I sat next to him.I saw my father weep again that night after the sale of the farm.“Well, we have a lot to be thankful for,” he began.He pulled out his giant red handkerchief from his back jeans’ pocket and took off his glasses and began to weep. Then we all began to cry. Someone started a familiar hymn. Singing made us cry harder.
We spoke memories: My nieces making applesauce with their grandma, my brother smelling the fresh paint when our mother repainted the woodwork in the kitchen, some thirty years ago. I remembered canning summer vegetables in this kitchen, and all of the meals eaten together right here, where the table used to be. Silently, I remembered the fights between us. These walls that echoed with our singing tonight had born witness to some hard words. We had hurt each other, in turn. But that did not matter now.
I stayed to the end, going through boxes of items leftover from the auction. When I was left alone, I went back inside of the house to say good-bye. I went through the house, turning on a light in every room. Lines from Kate Long’s song, “Homeplace” had been resonating in my head almost constantly in those final weeks of cleaning and preparing the house for the sale. “Who’ll watch the Homeplace when I am gone from here?”
The wind had been strong all day. The night sky was clear. An astronomer’s dream. Outside, as I walked around the house, the light from the windows spilled out over the lawn. I passed the windows by the living room where the piano used to be, the room where, sixty-five years ago, my grandmother bore my father. Crossing the front walk, I could see Julia and me as little girls, sitting on the steps, playing school. I saw us coasting down the lane together on our green banana seat bicycle, our bare feet lifted high. I walked through the yard where my mother and I collected English walnuts every fall, where I pitched softball with my father, and laid out blankets to read to my little nieces who are now teenagers. I looked up toward the window of my old bedroom and stopped. It was like circling the coffin of an old, beloved friend.
Inside, as I moved from room to room, switching off the lights, I felt almost matter-of-fact. There was only this last detail to take care of—saying good-bye, before there was nothing more to do, but to go.I pulled the string attached to the light bulb in the empty storage rooms, darkening the words: “First aeroplane flew over here today.”
Click, I snapped off the light in my old bedroom. Downstairs, by the dining room doorway, I looked one last time along the thick door jamb that doubled as a growth chart where Mother had tracked our heights in pencil. Donna, 63” 1979. Before I shooed the light from the playroom, I noticed new chalk drawings on the old blackboard nestled in the playroom wall. The drawings were all signed by my nieces and nephews.Someone had drawn a tree. Someone else a flower. Another, a house.“Good-bye house. We’ll miss you. Love, Jonathan.”
The entire house was dark now. On my way out the lane, he water pump groaned in the dark.The cold well water ran over my hands and splashed into the pump trough as I took one last draught from the well. I got into my car. The sight of the house in the rearview mirror finally broke the dam. Turning right onto Mount Joy Road, I hit the gas.
In our apartment in Philadelphia, my husband Hans and I collect our coffee grounds and food scraps in a large stainless steel pot that we keep in the kitchen.We are both marathon coffee drinkers. Hans says that the worms in our compost are all jacked-up on caffeine. Sometimes as I’m emptying the cucumber peels and lettuce heels and slimy unrecognizable rotten things that have gotten stuck on the bottom of the pot, I see my younger self, barefooted, crossing the farm lane, pushing through itchy rows of corn with a garbage pail swinging from my arm. I think about how my calloused feet fell into step with four generations of Millers who walked out into that field to pull weeds, pluck Lima beans, scatter grass clippings, and chuck corn husks and melon rinds between the cornrows.
It’s been two weeks since the cow sale. I still need to clean my boots. But I don’t want to. The same soil that now clings to my boots holds the compost of seventy-five years of Miller family meals. That dirt on my boots leads home.
from my series of 3 essays about place, home, and family: Gone from Here ©2008