Today, we’re on our way to the farm. Some days that could mean the funny farm, but today its a real place, a happy place I remember.
Northern Wisconsin has a slower pace. People talk slower and shake hands longer but they usually move fast when there’s work to be done. It seems bigger there too. Barns are big. Plants and animals need space.
My great-grandmother on my father’s side had 13 children. Three of them died in infancy. Of the ten children who thrived, eight were boys and two were girls. One of the girls was my grandmother, Dora. She was eighth in line. The other girl was Elsie. Elsie was the second born. I don’t know much about Elsie, and what I do know comes mostly from my mother who married into the family, knew the art of asking questions and was/is exceptionally intuitive. At some point, Elsie left the farm in northern Wisconsin and had a teaching job in Chicago, so she was not present for this picture.
And at some point she was asked by the family to leave that job and come back home to care for her ill mother. Their dad lived elsewhere at that time. When the mom and dad parted, Dora was told to stay with her dad and the rest went with their mom. Dora married and had children, the others were male, so Elsie answered the need and moved back home. There is no written record of dates or facts or feelings; but I imagine she was not particularly excited to move back, especially considering the circumstances, and that it was slim pickins for husband material in that lightly populated farm area. And by the time her mother died, Elsie had given her prime years to her mother and brothers, sealing her fate to live out most of her remaining days in that small community.
Two brothers never married either and stayed living in the farmhouse, so the three siblings somehow managed to live together…although family members have commented that they mostly co-existed, not communicating much at all.
My father loved his aunt and uncles, and while I was growing up I saw that the farm seemed to draw him there. I wondered from time to time how my father had formed close relationships with them while he was growing up with so many miles between them. I’ve now seen pictures of my Dad at the farm as a young boy, so my grandma and grandpa obviously traveled the 250 miles northward from their home to visit grandma’s birth family as a regular pilgrimage to connect with them. I wonder how long that trip took back then. My dad is shown front left in this picture.
My grandma is on the right of my dad in the picture and my grandpa, her husband, is shown holding Dad’s sister. I notice how comfortable they all look together.
The farm was an interesting place for a city girl like me. We usually went up in the spring when the sap began to flow and drip into the pails that were hung on the carefully placed taps.
My sister and I would help gather the pails and empty them into old milk cans which were carried on a trailer pulled by a tractor.
Bigger folk would then pour the sap from the milk cans into the vat where the boiling began, and lasted for a looong time.
There is a distinct smell while the sap is becoming syrup and the steam surrounded us in the shanty that held the equipment. It was usually more pleasant out in the woods if you didn’t mind shivering from the cold.
We were always sent home with mason jars of that homemade syrup. It was a treat on pancakes, but my dad also loved it on ice cream.
Those uncles thought about us city girls even when we weren’t there. When they would come across something unusual while working in the woods, they would save it for us. These prized gifts. given to make us feel prized ourselves, were taken to our school classrooms to share. It was like taking back a piece of the farm to live with us. I particularly remember a portion of a tree with a woodpecker hole in it, and a crazy formation of wild mushrooms that had grown on part of a tree stump. They kept track of where my mom could find the prettiest mayflowers so she could carefully dig them up and try to get them to thrive in the landscaping back home. And when we’d go back to the farmhouse, Dad would tinker with their woodburning furnace in the cellar to make it run better, or he’d patch an area of the roof for them. They lovingly traded the work of their hands and the stories of their hearts.
In the kitchen, the wood burning stove had a special smell that warmed you even without the heat it offered.
We were fascinated by the victrola that sat in one of the bedrooms.
It was a big event when one of the uncles arranged to get plumbing – a toilet and bathtub that sat open in the corner of a bedroom. We never used those though. There was a little house out in the yard for that! If you couldn’t stomach the smell there, you took your chances elsewhere outside. I preferred the back of the barn, until one day when a sauntering skunk scared my 8-year old self back to the outhouse. When their mother was ill, a bed was moved to the living room and it stayed there as what seemed like a memorial after she was gone. In earlier years, there were chickens, pigs, cows and a horse on the farm. In later years, one of the bedrooms was kept orderly and clean for when Dora (whose husband had passed) would visit. In the rest of the house, there were stacks of newspapers piled everywhere….and cats. Always there were cats. More cats meant less mice.
Pictures of the farm fill my senses with memories of smells and sounds and tastes that comfort me like a hug from an old friend. That’s what it feels like – my old friend, the farm. I suspect it’s no longer there, likely torn down for the barnwood or as a safety measure or to offer more land to grow crops. It still exists in pictures and in my memory. I hope I’ve taken you there as you’ve read this and that it causes you to think of a special place from your past, warming your soul with the memories it created.