Friday, April 13, 2007
Since my marriage I have lived about thirty minutes from where I grew up and where the farm is that my family owned for many years, and now doesn't. I was meeting two friends for lunch today--the same two with whom I was volleying e-mails yesterday afternoon--an impromptu gathering which is often the best kind [we ate at Aylmer's Grille in downtown Jaffrey and if you are ever looking for a great place to have lunch in the Monadnock region, this is tops: bistro-like, fine fare, great place to gab]. Arriving in town a bit early, I decided to drive past the farm for the first time since last summer--perhaps the longest time I had ever been away from it. I drove down by the lake, where my brothers and I would ride our bikes and swim or visit summering family friends, up through a dense cluster of houses, and on to the farm.
There was a time when we would approach the farm each summer in the glittering dawn, after coming across New York and Vermont from Ohio, in our nocturnal journeys by station wagon. We would load the car after dinner in Akron, the luggage stored somehow in the hull, two twin mattresses placed in back. With my father at the helm and my mother by his side pouring coffee, we would sleep. The bumpity-bump of the cement thruway would lull us as we ventured, bleary-eyed and in our pajamas, back to New England. In the morning, we'd wake up, still miles away, anticipating each landscape feature until we crossed the New Hampshire state line. First Mount Monadnock would rise in the distance, the farm still several towns away, and then the Cathedral of the Pines, and at last the long sweep of hill down to the farm. We would see the mountain again, a constant fixture in our region, as we descended the hill. My heart would quicken as the farm soon emerged in its little valley, shrouded in early morning light and mist. Our grandparents, early risers and farmers, soon opened the big red door to greet us as we tumbled out of our packed car into the best place on earth.
Today I was able to drive by the farm and feel attached but separate from it. It was an odd sensation, as if driving through a dreamscape, much like I feel when I slow past the house where I grew up in Akron or by the homes of friends or family who no longer live in them. While we are trying to sell the remaining land so that the fields remain open, I realized in passing through this former mill village and on out to the turnpike that so much of my childhood landscape had already changed, I just hadn't seen it before.
The old Cape across the street--for decades the home of Mrs. Waty Taylor who always wore an apron, baked pies and beans, and had the most lovely laugh--now has a new tract house in the woods behind it. The farm up the hill has been subdivided into haphazard house lots in the last thirty years, the road in front was moved, the land behind it now cleared. The area north of a former saw mill, and still an industrial zone, has been cleared but not well and appears choppy. A manufacturing company that came to town in the early 1970s, on the corner by the turnpike, has enlarged over the years. Recently, all of the white pines along the road were cut down so now the building is more visible from either direction.
The neighborhood has transformed--while certain houses and owners are the same, their complexion is different. Most houses have seen many owners in my lifetime. The land has changed, too, and is more congested, not quite as rural, less like the home I remember. Now when I drive through my New Hampshire hometown, often on errands, I know the farm is there, I still feel its presence, but it is in a different backdrop--a hollow ghost house, that although now occupied by a new family, was in a way abandoned, a body with a different soul. Isn't a house just a well-joined fusion of boards and nails? If it were only that easy to rationalize a place that has been occupied by a family--a home that has witnessed love and loss and sorrow and moments of great joy.
When I moved back to the farm with my mother and brothers in 1974, my grandfather died several months later. Soon after that I had a dream in which he visited me and said, "Don't sell the farm!" I told my mother about it and thought he had meant the message for my grandmother and mother. In second grade I wrote my grandmother about a nightmare I had (I still have the letter to her) in which I described a yellow school bus arriving at the farm from Ohio and my grandmother denying me entry into the house. In the dream she didn't recognize me and didn't want me there. She wrote me back a reassuring letter: "Precious one, I will always welcome you here." How could I know in my first decade of life that both of these dreams were somehow prophetic? That my grandmother would one day develop Alzheimer's and not really know me, that I would ultimately be the one, through a complex unraveling of good intentions, to sell the farm?
I can visit my hometown now without the blur of nostalgia because I have the visual and heart memories that sustain me from a place well loved. I know that the people in my life that once shared this farm are either gone, or have moved away, or have moved on from this place. I have, too, and that is both liberating and sad because I have had a part in its undoing. But I have finally left home.