Reflections on Ancestral Home While Sheltering In Place

My ancestral home, which my great grandfather had built in the late 1800s after a year of a good corn crop, was situated on two, park-like acres. A man named Botoner built the East Lake style house with its five bedrooms, kitchen, dining room (always used as a living room), and parlor. The kitchen was the main event. You entered the house into this enormous room through the back porch door.  Windows surrounded the room on three sides. Directly across from the back door was the front door, seldom used but always open in the summer. To the left were cabinets and a pump for water, on the south a wood stove between two windows, one lined with shelves of pots of coleus. A daybed built by my great-great-grandfather stretched under a west window. Did my grandfather die on that daybed? That sticks in my memory, but I am the only one who remembers it that way. A massive oak table that, with leaves, could extend the entire width of the room, dominated the middle of the room, serving as a counter, a catch-all for mail, storage for the sugar bowl, salt and pepper shakers, and sundry objects that collected there. A brown and gold mottled pitcher sat in the middle crammed with serving spoons and utensils. My uncle Lloyd once got a particularly large serving spoon caught in his mouth. When my sister Judy heard this story, she too tried it and got the same spoon caught in her mouth.

When you sat at the table in summer, you looked out the front door onto a concrete sidewalk through flowering bushes and beds of coneflowers and daisies, snowball bushes, and spirea, leading to a gate and then on to another lawn and the road and mailbox. My first memories of that lawn are of warm summer evenings and lawn chairs under pines and sugar maples and among the many flowering gardens of my grandmother. The talk of the day droned on as Judy and I chased each other through the lightning bug lit twilight. I don’t remember mosquitoes but we were warned about chiggers and told not to lay in the grass.

Our evenings now of shelter-at-home remind me of those times. Our family has sequestered on the ranch together. Evenings Casey and Melissa often come from their home at the road. We eat together, wash dishes, discuss the day. Play with Grace. The cooling heat drives us outside. We check the progress of the tomatoes. Set gopher traps. There is an attunement to what else lives here: the quail in the flower pot in the courtyard sitting on her large cache of eggs. The hawk hunting in the newly mowed meadow. The lavender just about to burst into bloom.

Sequestering limits our movements, reminding me of simpler times of smaller movements, when families visited evenings and Sundays, usually unannounced, often during Sunday drives. After church, my dad would drive slowly over country roads, comparing his corn to Muirhead’s and Baughman’s and Pistorius’. But our radius was small, as it has become now. There was that unspoken relationship to the earth, a given. The earth was feeding us and nurturing our souls.

My Grandmother’s Gardens: The Mother of All Gardens

The gardens of my grandmother were the Mother of all gardens. She had three distinct vegetable gardens: one for corn, one for potatoes, and one for everything else: peas, beans, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, onions (no garlic!), and, always, cut flowers. Petunias naturalized among the rows. Besides the flower beds along the front walk and across the front of the house, she had a long flowerbed south of the house and next to the field that extended from the potato garden to the front fence and was about fifteen feet wide. Here she grew perennials. About halfway, a path meandered through its width. Spring and early summer purple violets peeked through deep green foliage. These Judy and I were permitted to pick. 

The other flowers we were allowed to pick were bluebells that had naturalized in a garden between the back yard and the everything-else vegetable garden. The stalks of light blue bell-like flowers came early in May along with the asparagus which pushed snake-like heads through the garden’s bushy foliages. In the center of this garden was a volunteer white peach tree that set the gold standard for peaches for my entire family. My father would watch this tree, then pick the peaches at their prime, the flavor complex and sweet. The fruit was always dotted with bruises and peck marks. 

My grandmother wore bonnets covering her face, pale as china. Judy and I found her stooped over rows of bush beans or peas when we rode our bikes down to her home on late summer afternoons. She brought pots of the bounty to the well pump platform by the back porch, pumped cups of water for us, the best tasting water in the world even though we later learned it was growing e-coli. Later, when her sisters or my mother came to visit, she would hand each a bowl of peas to shell or beans to snap as they discussed the day on the screened back porch. Once when her sisters were gossiping on the back porch with our grandmother, Judy and I, bored, opened the gate and let the sheep out. Our grandmother and her sisters praised us for running wildly like sheepdogs, rounding the sheep back into their pasture.

The farm was the larger world to Judy and me. The “L” shaped driveway was the mirror image of the road, as my grandmother lived on the corner three miles north of town. On one end of the “L” were her home and gardens. At the corner of the “L” was the massive barn that stored hay, grain, the sheep in the dead of winter, and stalls for milking. The remaining leg of the “L” passed by the shed for steers, two corncribs, and, finally, where the driveway met the road east, an old scale to weigh truck and wagon loads. Here also was the ghost of the old house, the spot my great grandparent’s family lived until the new home was built. 

Judy and I rode our bikes through this world of cribs and sheds, past the horse tanks, one “new” and supplied with water pumped by a windmill, one “old” and abandoned behind it. We peddled past the chicken and brooder houses and the old garage, and on toward the road, the orchard,  often visiting our grandmother twice a day in summer or on weekends. We felt free and independent and reveled in the chirping of locusts (six weeks until frost) and the plaintive call of mourning doves.

This is what a self-sustaining farm was like. Everything was there: vegetables, fruits, eggs, meat. We raised cattle and sheep, chickens and a couple of ducks, corn and soybeans, wheat and oats, and, of course, hay and pasture. There was no need for much else, except sugar.

By the time I was of memory age, the summer kitchen, built from the wood of the old house and just east of the back porch, was a storage shed, full of rodents. In the old days, this is where all summer cooking was done so as not to heat up the house with the woodstove, which burned corn cobs. The cobs were stored in the cob house along the driveway, accessed by its own sidewalk. It was also a private passage into the everything-else garden, the path obscured by flowering stalks of volunteer hollyhocks. My grandmother’s sisters showed Judy and me how to make ballerinas by folding back petals and tying them with a string. They must have made these dolls in this very spot when they were our ages.

All farms in my early years had these same elements. All farms were mostly self-sustaining. But by the time I was seven or eight, it started disappearing. First, the milk cows left. My father’s arthritic fingers just couldn’t milk anymore, and the milkman was too easy. Then the wheat and oats left, then the chickens and the sheep, followed by the cattle. By the time of his death, all my father had left were corn and soybeans and rusty combines and augers, dying in unmoved grass around empty chicken houses and corn cribs. When the barn burned, there had been no need to replace it.

One of my last memories of the parklike lawn was in early June 2005. Charoula, the Greek American Field Service student who had lived with my family for a year in high school, returned to visit for the first time in 40 years. The morning my sisters and I picked her up at the airport, my brother took my mother to the hospital. We have a photo of that evening. Charoula, Judy, Mark, Shelly, and I stand in the front yard, the fence now removed, the gardens minimally managed, or completely mowed. The setting sun washes us in gold, the backdrop, the old East Lake house, its porch’s paint peeling. We stand, arms around each other, not wanting to know this was it. Our father had died ten months earlier; our mother would pass within two weeks. The house, so full of three generation’s stuff (as my husband put it, no one ever moved out), would be dismantled that summer. For a brief period, grandchildren would camp out there until it was clear that it had to be sold.

But the farm imprinted itself in all our hearts: a square of earth, self-sufficient and whole, beautiful and bountiful. That ancestral house with its gardens and barns, its large, generous rooms, built over a hundred years ago by our great grandfather, lives on, a blueprint within each of us of home.