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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Capturing Words

I tore the boxes open with haste, because I could not wait to see in black and white the six years I have lived with my children. The idea was given to me by a high school friend’s mom. I had run into her at Blockbuster (remember those!) just weeks before we were all leaving for college. She told me she was making finishing touches on a journal she had kept for her son. She wrote him letters, from the time he was a baby until now, as he was being launched upon the world at eighteen. I stored this thought in my mind, and nine years later put it into practice. I had just come home from the doctor’s office, having watched on a flat screen against the wall the little kidney bean that was new life inside me. I watched that little bean intensely, like a seed planted that would break forth in life and beauty, as the sound of rapid heartbeat filled the room like music. I ran by Barnes and Noble on the way home to buy a journal, broke its binding at my desk, took up my pen and began my first letter to my first child.

Now seven years, two more children, and twenty-five letters later, these books arrived at my door. I hadn’t been able to keep up with hand writing all the letters, so I had moved to a digital format. The company I was using to print them is going out of business. I had to order quickly or lose all my work. They arrived, and I read through them and as I read, hundreds of forgotten memories became crisp and clear, almost tangible. I could hear my daughter’s two-year-old voice, reliving some of the most special moments of her youngest years. In that way, the books are gifts to myself as much as they are to my children, maybe even more so.

And this is one of the reasons I love to write. If I work quickly, I can capture a moment in my mind and let it spill out in language that years and years later can transport me back to that place and time. I can hear and see and feel all the things for as long as I’m able to read. I have been studying haiku….not my favorite type of poetry, but every style of writing has it’s advantages, and this one to me is like having a camera at the ready. It reads like a snapshot. I have been teaching myself to play the piano, and it is slow going. Music theory is hard enough, not to mention making my hands do what my mind is learning to read. My kids are completely satisfied with hearing “Lavender’s Blue” or “When the Saints Go Marching In” or “Greensleeves,” but I am not. So for our ten year anniversary, my husband got us tickets to one of the Van Cliburn performances. It was beautiful and exhilarating to hear this master play Bach and Chopin. There is one image from the night that has stuck in my mind, and with a haiku I am able to take a snapshot and relive the music.

Night with Richard Goode

Ten fingers leap like
two spiders dancing ballet
across ivory keys

And Mrs. Rainey, you are a gem. You had no idea in Blockbuster that you were planting seeds in me that would bear fruit for my own children. Thank you.