A Rusted History

I spent last week at the farm. Each morning began with making my way through town, trading the softball fields for corn fields. Every now and then there would be livestock, but mostly field after field after rolling field of corn, sometimes bean. The farmers were out planting, so though the first day looked like an abandoned mess of dead stalks, by the end of the week each field bore signs of purpose and hope with their uniform rows. When I return in summer, the brown soil landscape will be green and spurting “knee high by Fourth of July” as my grandma says. As I turn from the paved road to the gravel one, I pull over. I can see my destination in the distance, which means they can see me. So I stop, take some deep breaths, before going on.  I drive these familiar roads like they are maps of my heart. I drive with windows down, cool morning breeze blowing my hair, rock pounding underneath, dust billowing up behind me, as if making the declaration, “Here she comes!” I pass lines of evergreen from memory. I pass the cemetery. I crest each hill with the tension of not seeing down the other side. I drive free, the only way you can in a car that isn’t yours but is as old as your license: I drive with no assumptions, and when I arrive in the gravel driveway, I put it in park and turn it off with grateful thanks.

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This place. Its field of dandelions: wishes or weeds? This place is both. As I walk the grounds in morning dew, memories flood me, bringing a confusing concoction of emotions. Every breath takes in youth, wonder, happiness; every exhale anger and betrayal and shame. I feel them all at once. I am a patchwork quilt. So my steps are slow and my breathing regulated, letting things sit in me just as they are. Letting these antitheses exist in me side by side. Letting go of being able to categorize each memory, each person, each part of me. I let them sit and I listen to the birds.

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I reach the top of a neighboring hill and look down. It is an empty shell of a place from long ago. Its fields sold, to be toiled and cultivated by other hands. The animals are gone- the barn housing only a riding lawnmower, old hay, broken glass, a creature in the back corner that was too shy to show himself to me. The hen house has broken windows, the clothes line is bare, the garden, a wasteland. I pass areas unmowed that hold rusted tractor equipment and burn piles, and I feel sorrow over the passing of this place, like the death of my childhood. I mourn as if the land was an appendage of my own body.

How did this place come to mean so much to me?  I did not grow up here. I grew up a thousand miles south where the weather is warmer and “everything is bigger,” even though the trees are not. My parents were born here- my dad growing up in this very house. This is where my family, as I knew it, began. We made trips- once, sometimes twice a year- back to my grandparents’ farm. When I was eight, I started flying here alone, to spend a week or so with them every summer. I adored everything about the farm: the smell of the animals, the reaping of what was sown, the sun shining off tall green stalks, grass blowing in the wind like waves across an ocean. The hymns, the strawberry jam, creaky stairwells, carpet from the 70s. It was the essence of summer, the essence of childhood. Each day was a wide open door: freedom and adventure beckoning me to bound through the threshold.

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Each day I walked this land alone, growing more and more at peace in the conglomeration of all it represents. I could close my eyes in the barn and breathe in my grandpa, nearly see him out in the distance working the land. I could stand at the kitchen sink, imagining my grandma bent in the garden looking up and calling, “Kati! Come see this cucumber!” I sit at their headstones and simply say, “I loved you. And I loved this place….except when I hated it. But you are what made it beautiful.” On my last day, before heading to the airport, feeling the suffocation of the city approaching, I took one last turn about the place and said goodbye.

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There is only one man
In the world I would follow
Into a corn field

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We’ve so much to say
That words could never convey
So we speak volumes
(without them)

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I’ll walk this gravel road with you
all the way to
the cemetery

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Elegy to Innocence

Life doesn’t thrive in darkness
which is maybe why you feel dead.
Dark eyes in a dark room doing dark deeds.
The only light, a computer screen.
Dirty mattress on the floor,
bars over windows, locks on doors.
You wait to be seen.

Led down a staircase, tripping
over a shoelace you are
too young to tie.
You brace to meet the face
of your next admirer, knowing
it’s no use to cry.
His erected affection leaves no
room for objection.
This is subjection of the basest kind.

How to breathe? How to swallow this
air of dirt and sweat and fear?
So you close your eyes, remember:
A time where no shadows blocked the sun.
When you ran and sang, and what was that word?
Fun? Brothers, friends, mama, hens…
flash through your days of old, and then
it is over. He’s done. A tear falls, he runs.
You close your eyes, whisper:
Goodbye.

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Grandpa George

I still think of you when I taste
the tart of a fresh raspberry.
Imagine it covered in cream and sugar
until it’s so sweet you could drink it.
You left memories with all of my senses
So that I can close my eyes
and remember you with my whole body.

Tight smooth skin when I reach
the shine atop your head,
the unassuming blue
of kind eyes,
Or nuzzling in the crook
of your neck, breathing in
sweet tobacco and sweat, the
ripeness of a day’s labor.
And with my head against your chest,
the beating of a pacemaker
tapping the tune to your song
as you rock me slowly to sleep
singing “bye oh bye oh baby bye oh
bye oh bye oh baby bye”

I grow taller as you bend over
under the weight of ninety-four years.
The last time I see you, you’ve traded
your overalls for a black suit.
There are potholes in your skull
breaking smooth lines.
Your blue kindness hidden
behind closed lids.
Tobacco and sweat erased by
formaldehyde, and in the silence
I strain to hear your song, but it’s gone.
Because you’re gone.

So I repeat our last conversation,
where you told me good-bye, with a smile
I asked if you were scared, no
sad, no
ready, yes oh yes, so tired
So I pretend you lay your head in my lap
and I rock slowly,
sing you to sleep.

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