“It’s funny. We’re going to the farmhouse, and you’re going to America,” my mother says as she and my father drop me off at the airport.
It took me the longest time to understand that I come from a family of migrants. I never had aunts and uncles to send gadgets and treats from Canada or Australia, no distant cousins to be pen pals with. I was led to believe that I was breaking new ground in the bloodline, no pressure, no expectations, just an open road for my wanderings. I saw my parents as sedentary creatures, their move from farming lives to the big city not far or wide enough for me to recognize.
They moved for education, for work, for less hardship, from the cycle of seasons, toward what they felt they were supposed to do. They sent money back, returned to help with the land, learned to live with the guilt of leaving it. I have moved for higher education, for beauty, for love. I am standing on the shoulders of farmers, laborers, visionaries, nurturers.
It is taking me the longest time to reclaim the family homestead. My parents and my sister did so long ago. They atoned for the guilt, spent countless nights curled up in its corners, mourning the life that was gone, yet never abandoning it. They made it their own again, fixing up, clearing out the clutter as they wiped away tears, counting new kittens born in the crawlspace above the old stable, feeling sorry for the swallows who would be robbed of their nests now that the stable had to be locked shut.
It took ten years before I could finally spend a night in that house again, after my grandparents died. And I have only spent three nights there since. I was the only one who didn’t cry at the funerals, but I have been skirting, fleeing, evading, unable to make peace, unable to offer myself.
I see everything in double exposure. The way it is now, and the way it once was.
You live and die with your animals at the farm. You feed, raise, cull, and consume. You manufacture makeshift slings for broken wings that will end up in your soup. You cry when your prized bull is sold. You fawn over your newborn suckling pigs, then tear them from their mother and roast them for a family celebration. You de-worm, de-flea, collect the best bones and the best milk for the furry ones, but shoot them in the head if they turn rabid. Foxes are not wildlife, they are vermin killed with shovels. It is a cruel little world that you own, giving and taking life with the seasons, picking out the runts from the survivors, your hands shaking as you act God in this small universe.
All steads are the same. There is a barn, a stable, a corn dryer, and a house with thick walls, warm in winter and cool in summer. Sometimes a mill, sometimes a tractor, and trailers. There is land, and irrigation canals. There is a farmdog, blunt beast that has never seen a leash or a muzzle or had his shots, who knows his place underneath the table at lunch, and inside the tractor cabin come harvest time. There are between five and ten cats per household, but you always have that one favorite that is allowed into the bedrooms, and that leaves half-dead mice at the doorstep as tokens of pride and gratitude. You never see them die. They just disappear, run over by cars, burned out by the mating season, or too proud to bring their sickness home. They just make themselves scarce.
As a child, you are not your regular latchkey kid in the big city. You know how many eggs a hen lays a day, what real milk tastes like, and what blood pudding is made of. You are not squeamish. You pick the fleas off of cats and press them open between your fingernails until their white insides come out. Ticks go in the fire – you need to hear them pop inside the kitchen furnace, otherwise they live for seven years off of the blood they sucked. Pig slop is made out of corn starch, turnips, bad potatoes, greens, and boiling water. You stir it with your bare hands, and each box has its own bucket. Manure is collected in the back, behind the stable, to be used come sowing time. As a child, you are given boiled chicken legs and a spoonful of mashed potatoes with homemade cream as a treat. In the morning, you are woken up by the mooing of hungry cows, or the screeching of pigs led to the slaughter.
It is a brutal, beautiful life of absolute accountability. Hay can only be baled at a certain time. Winter firewood is only collected over a few weeks. Neighbors help one another to pick the ripe grapes before the starlings get to them. They nurse storks with broken wings who cannot make the yearly move to South Africa. Nature is unforgiving, and human farmers can only afford to be so much less so.
I walk the corridors and hear voices. I see animals running around the yard. I remember Christmases and laughter, and how little and wide-eyed I once was. I imagine them all roaming these rooms, my ancestors, parents and children, toilers, slaughterers, firemen, political prisoners, cheated-on wives, klutzes and loudmouths, those that I knew and those I never met. Their ghosts sometimes scare me, and sometimes give me comfort. I wonder if they see me. I wonder what they would think of me.
My sister and I light candles at the village cemetery. Four graves belong to my family, yet the wind won’t let us pay our respects and the wicks keep dying out. I watch a surreal scene across the street from this quiet resting place: a stork chasing a kitten down the asphalt road and into the high swamp grass, and look at my grandmother’s picture on the tombstone. She picked it out decades before her death, and us children grew up knowing we would once see it on her grave. She would be mourned in an open casket, in her own house, having died an unnatural hospital death, away from her animals, away from her husband, and I would not cry. The picture on her tombstone is black and white. She is young. Her hair is combed back, her shoulders clad in a dark high-collar buttoned-up dress. Well I’ll be damned. She looks like a flamenco dancer.
It has been twenty years now. I watched it all die in three months. Machinery sold, animals culled, crops and fields rented out. All that life, redistributed so quickly. There is new siding on the house and the stable now, and the old pine trees have been cut down. Neighbors are keeping their corn and hay in our yard, and their dogs and cats come to beg for food when we visit. I write this from thirty thousand feet up in the air, counting icebergs off Newfoundland, counting the minutes until I am in my other home, on the black water, among farmers and firemen, hunters and old souls. It lives. It lives.
My sister and I light another candle at the grave of our closest neighbor, barely a few years passed. Dogs bark and donkeys bray to the left and right of the cemetery – in the country, you live and die with your animals. In the evening, we curl up on old couches – beds that my grandparents used to sleep in, that we would sometimes sneak in to cuddle – wrap ourselves up in blankets older than ourselves. I shake off a tick that somehow made it into the house on my shoe. My sister picks it up, drops it into a beer bottle cap on the table, and puts out her cigarette on it.
My old "Reconnecting with ancestors" posts can be found here: