Monday, January 4, 2010

Keeping Vigil

I haven't written much about our neighbor Ida and her farm because, well, I'm probably leery of writing too much about other people here or their stories. Or perhaps it is because I have not wanted to intrude or that it is all just too close to home in the literal sense. PHOTO–Ida has always been proud of her hollyhocks and blackberries. These have always flourished on the east side of her house and she made sure I got some seeds this summer.

We we took a real shine to Ida when we first met her two years ago in her board-and-batten farmhouse across the road from our doublewide farm property and the "knob piece." My husband, being a generally more knock-on-the-door and say "Hi-ya" kind of guy than I, paved the way for our friendship.

"House when new" and Ida's sister, Maythel, c. 1940 (not certain of photo dates)

Mr. and Mrs. Walter (Bannie) Dye (Ida's parents) and their three youngest children (some of Ida's siblings): Pete, Dickie and Maythel with the guitar.

She immediately reminded us of our dear neighbor and friend, Dot Grim, who had lived across the street from us in New Hampshire (and sadly died only a few weeks before we moved to Kentucky). They were both feisty women in their late 80s who lived their lives their way, inspiring in me a kind of awestruck admiration. One day, during the fall when we moved our things and I was cleaning house in advance of the moving truck, Ida brought me a pile of huge tomatoes that she had grown as a housewarming gift. "How are you today, Ida?" I asked. "As mean as ever!" she said with an impish grin. It seemed you always knew where you stood with Ida and that's a rare and welcome thing.

Ida's brother Dickie with his horses, Dock and Dan and Ida's mother, Bannie Dye.

Another time I was sharing with her some concerns about someone who was always talking about how Christian they were, but yet there was something I didn't quite trust about them. Ida's answer was the wisest counsel I've heard on the subject: "Do they walk the walk?" I said I wasn't sure–I only knew them at our house when they did some work on the place. "Well, that's what matters–if they spend too much time talking, they probably aren't doing a whole lot of walking!" Ida told us how the three Baptist churches on the ridge used to baptize people down on the creek below. I always looked forward to spending more time with Ida but in this past year she has been in Tennessee for much of the time. She was independent, too, and you have to respect when someone wants to do for themselves so we tried not to intrude too often, and usually only when asked. This fall she often liked to spend time at my husband's shop having coffee with him. She loved it when our boys mowed her lawn and insisted on paying them something, even if they refused.

"Stock barn and Pap's wagon" [sadly, we had to tear the barn down last year as it was ready to fall down and needed too much work to be righted again.] We will one day build our farmhouse to the rear left of it. Now, with the barn gone, the famous "short-core" apple tree is in full view, a kind of indigenous old heirloom apple that even Kentucky novelist Janice Holt Giles wrote about.

In 2008 before Thanksgiving and after we had been here a year, Ida's daughter–who lives out of state and had bought the farm from her mother about ten years ago–approached us about buying the farm from her. We couldn't believe it as we'd often thought to ourselves, "maybe one day, wouldn't it be nice..." So much land here is sold at "Absolute Auction" where it is subdivided and often split up in rancorous battles between families, which is sad and demeans the spirit of the land. We had left our own family farm situation back home in irreparable shambles after trying to carry on with the legacy, and yet had purposefully left the land as intact as we could, even getting protective conservation easements. We sensed that Ida's daughter wanted the same kind of thing for her family farm and have come to know that with certainty.

"Dempsey Dye–their home place at the end of the long field."

Ida's daughter knew we were planning to have a cattle farm here and she came to the realization that, apart from the occasional visit, she would not be living here enough to justify owning it any more. As her daughter had done, we gave Ida life estate of her home and nearby in the past year we have built a shop and woodshed. It is on her farm where we will eventually build our own farmhouse. The land sits across the road from our knob pasture and doublewide home and so we've joined, effectively, two old ridge farms together.

"Brooder house and Grandma's (Bannie's) chickens across the drive near the corner of road and drive." (person unidentified–our shop is now at this location as the brooder house is long gone)

When we saw Ida on Saturday, in a local nursing home, I was stunned by the change in her, and so quickly. We last saw her two months ago, before she returned to Tennessee where she has another house, and the place hasn't been the same without her around. All she could say when she saw us was, faintly, "It's all going to be beautiful." And she said my name, repeating it as if to place me. She smiled when I told her that our boys were there, too, and that they'd been taking care of her golf cart. And yet I wasn't certain she knew who we were.

"Grandma's (Bannie's) chickens and yard (and) barn before wings were added."

Before Ida headed south for the holidays two months ago, my husband drove her around the farm, showing her what we had done to restore the fields and hedgerows. She told him, repeatedly, "Pap would be so pleased with what you have done." Over the past two years she has pointed out old places, like the "pennywinkle spring" (pennywinkle is another name for vinca or myrtle which grows wild in the woods here) where the neighbors used to gather for water and gossip, the various houses on the ridge where she has lived, of the ghosts that have visited them from time to time. In the past few years Ida has shared many stories about the farm and I always wanted to hear more (fortunately some are written down and my husband has a great memory for the spoken word). She told us how they stored the apples from the "short-core" tree out back (under where our dog Lucy is now buried) in the haymow and how they kept through the winter until the spring. She shared some darker stories, too, of harder times and circumstances. Ida did not always live on the ridge, and for many years as far away as Chicago, but she came home to it again. Her brother Dickie, for a time, lived up the road in a small house on the farm.

"Dock and Dan and Pete?"

This morning we learned that Ida's grandson had been visiting before we were there on Saturday. He was telling her about the farm and commented on the changes we had made and about the fencing and cleaning up here and there that we'd done this fall. So Ida's daughter believes that she did know who we were and that she was talking about the farm when she said, "It's all going to be beautiful." I'd like to think, too, perhaps, that she might have already been catching glimpses of a world beyond as I've seen it in people before they pass on, as if they are straddling two realms of existence. Now her family waits by her side or in their thoughts and prayers. As her daughter said this morning, "Mother has always known how to live her life." But it is never easy to let someone go and getting older myself doesn't make that any easier.

"Front yard looking east." Apart from the gate and the tree in the foreground, this view hasn't changed at all.

Today, in a strange kind of epiphany and after a week of some occasional doubt and a bit of holiday homesickness, I realized why we are here in Kentucky (a question people often ask of us): I believe now it is to keep Ida's home fires burning, even if we could not tend to our own, try as we might, back in New Hampshire. This was a gift, beyond any measure or real estate transaction: Ida and her daughter have allowed us the opportunity to create our own family homeplace, our own roots on an old family farm in Kentucky, a place where only a few years ago we knew no one. It is our own slice of heaven in a strife-filled world–without the chords of upset and baggage, while cared for with our best intentions.

Dear Ida–we will miss your spirit and your warm welcome to our family here on your ridge: to your land, your farm, your Kentucky homeplace. We will always try our best to honor what you and your family have kept here–intact and well-lovedwhile cherishing it ourselves. We now have a chance to be caretakers of another family legacy, while also making it our own. This I am sure about–we never really own the land beneath us, except on paper, but the land has a way of binding us to it.

Postscript. This morning, Wednesday, I learned that early Tuesday evening, January 4, 2010, Ida Elizabeth Doyle, passed away. She was 88. Here is her obituary and it reads, in part, "She was born on her parents, Walter and Bannie Dye, farm on May 23, 1921 in what is now Nancy, KY and returned back here in the 1970s. Ida was widely traveled but loved the home place best, perhaps because she intimately knew every tree, stone, spring, and field."
The Gift Outright

The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years

Before we were her people. She was ours

in Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
~ Robert Frost
NOTE on Photos: To best appreciate this you have understand that my office is an absolute wreck and I'm not kidding (think Hoarders kind of wreck). So today, when thinking about blogging this entry as I do not have a photograph of Ida, I remembered the copies of old photos of the farm that Ida's daughter had given us and I thought, "Where must they be? I only saw them a few weeks ago..." But a few weeks in a cluttered office, especially at the holidays, is like a small epoch. Before two minutes had passed I had found them: my intuition told me to look in a box to the right of my desk, and there they were. In another pile I have transcriptions of many of Ida's old farm and ridge memories that her daughter wrote down several years ago. With her daughter's permission, I might share some of them here from time to time.


Jennifer Dee said...

I just love this post, so much so that I have saved it for the times when I need to be uplifted by the kindness of people. What lovely photo's and Ada sounds to have been one of those rare people. It is so sad when people like Ada are no longer with us; who have so many stories left to tell.

Sarah said...

What a lovely, lovely post. I can truly sense the past farmers of my land, but to actually have known someone is so neat. I also remember my Grandfather talking about the ghosts visiting his farm in Kentucky. Finally, I'm thrilled to read the Robert Frost poem. Happy New Year.

a Cupcake near you! said...

Oh Catherine, do you think Dot Grim and Ida will find each other somehow? Well, they both found you. What a lovely piece -- I can't wait to see a picture of her at some point, but the ones you have here of the farm are just wonderful! Sending lots of love down Kentucky-way...

ephemeralist said...

A beautiful tribute, Catherine.

Catherine said...

Thank you all for your kind words. I just learned, from a missed voicemail message, that Ida actually passed last night, January 4, around 7pm.

And yes, Edie, I think that she and Dot will meet up there! [And imagine me, without a photo of Ida in my huge arsenal...this winter I had wanted to do some portraits of her but she didn't let the grass grow under her feet, that's for certain.]

One of the harder things about middle age, I'm finding, is losing the dear older people in our lives with increasing regularity.

Knowing Ida was a great gift to us.

Love, Catherine

Nan said...

I am speechless at your beautiful writing and story. Wonderful, Catherine, and thank you.

a Cupcake near you! said...

What a beautiful tribute to a very unique individual.

I'm so glad I got to meet Ida last April. She was, indeed, delightful. No doubt she's already in cahoots with Dot--and Nellie!

My condolences to all who loved her.


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful tribute to a beautiful lady of the land! She was fortunate to have you to share her memories. You were fortunate to have her land and memories. I am so touched.

Yosemite Cat House

Suze said...

This is an amazing story and thanks for sharing it.

Catherine said...

Thank you all again for your kind remarks here today.

I just updated the blog with a postcript and a name correction: Bannie Dye was Ida's mother (not Bonnie).

Also I linked to her obituary and here is an excerpt from it (her daughter wrote it):

"She was born on her parents, Walter and Bannie Dye, farm on May 23, 1921 in what is now Nancy, KY and returned back here in the 1970s. Ida was widely traveled but loved the home place best, perhaps because she intimately knew every tree, stone, spring, and field." "

Tipper said...

What a wonderful post-with the most amazing phots-I'm glad you found them.

I'd say you and your family are blessed to be where you are-but I would also say Ida's family is blessed that you are there as well. I bet she did recognize you-and what you were doing.

Scott said...

Ida was my great aunt she was a very special person.