Landmarks

Thirty-three years.

That’s how long it’s been since I’ve lived in my hometown.

I’ve been back to visit of course. And I’ve stayed for a period of time. But I haven’t been here to LIVE for thirty-three years.

Things look the same. I study the houses as I walk my dog. I know who USED to live in them. I recall babysitting for families in some of them. I know whose grandmother I visited in that one and wonder if she is still alive. Probably not. The “new” housing developments from the eighties and nineties are now graced with mature trees.  And the “newer” development north of town encroaches on the farmland that has always separated the interstate from the city limits.

I often walked past my Aunt Helen’s old house that had two bedrooms and one bathroom.  But the bathroom was nowhere near the bedrooms. I remember thinking that was a looong way to go if you had to get up in the night. Further down the same street I walked past the house where I used to babysit my youngest cousins, and the house where my Aunt Mae moved after Uncle Clarence died. In the next block I passed the house where my great grandparents lived for as long as I knew them. They had a player piano in the sunroom/parlor and we’d get to pump the pedals as soon as we were big enough to reach them! My Aunt Amy and Uncle John moved into that house eventually, and the lot where their trailer house sat at the end of the same street is now overtaken by two new homes!

One street with so many landmarks! I talked to my dog about them all and she sniffed her way right on down the street as if to say, “Keep moving! Time goes on!”

One Saturday afternoon I decided on a whim to take a drive into the country and explore. I wanted to remember—retrace my childhood footsteps in a sense. I wanted to jog my memory and savor some of those ancient childhood memories.

Before my great Uncle Earl and Aunt Mabel lived west of town on the pavement, they lived south of town on the gravel. I decided to start there. Aunt Mabel was the family measuring stick. She was the shortest of all the great aunts and our first growth goal was to “beat” her in height. Honestly, it didn’t take much to be taller than Aunt Mabel, but it was still fun and she always played along.

I remember bouncing into her farmhouse kitchen in the house south of town in anticipation of being taller! Shoulder to shoulder we’d stand, and my mom would announce the verdict. I was in fifth grade when I stretched above her petite statue! My cousin was next! But once she started growing, Aunt Mabel was just a passing number on the yard stick. One by one, all of my cousins grew taller than me, but I always knew I was still taller than Aunt Mabel.

My grandfather farmed with his brother Earl the whole time I was growing up. They didn’t own land together, but they shared equipment and crews! If one was baling hay, the other was right there to assist and visa-versa. If the other was tagging calves, you could count on the brother to be right alongside. It was a lifelong partnership that lasted as long as Uncle Earl was alive. After that, my grandfather depended more and more on his son and together they developed the same farming rhythms I remember on the farm growing up.

I knew if I drove south out of town on the pavement I could look east and see Uncle Earl’s big grey barn. He was the only one I knew with a gray barn. Every other barn was white or red. But not this one. It stood tall and proud on the west side of the property. Just past the barn was a big square white farmhouse. When I was little my mom would drive our 1957 turquoise green Chevy (the one that was so spacious I could stand up in the backseat and still not hit my head!) out on the pavement, and then take the first gravel road back east. I would fix my eyes on that gray barn. We’d pass the first driveway, then turn into the second drive for the house.

On this given day I drove south one mile, then turned onto the gravel. I could see the barn, but it seemed much smaller than it had when I was little. Still, I fixed my eyes on that barn and drove right toward it. But there was no driveway turning into the barnyard. And there was no big square house on the farmstead.  

In its place was a gravel pit. The first driveway was blocked off with metal bars and a padlock. There was a gigantic hole in the earth where the house once stood.

One landmark was left standing to show me the way. But the way had changed. It no longer led me to my great aunt’s kitchen. My tool of measurement came up short at the end of the original barnyard drive. It seemed a little crazy to keep exploring, but it was rare I had a Saturday afternoon away from being my mom’s caregiver.

My grandfather had six siblings. Pearl died in childhood, a death my grandfather never really stopped grieving. She was two or three when she died, and he told me over and over what a sweet child she was. When I was born I, seven of my great grandparents were still living! My first recollection of a family funeral was for “More” Grandpa and I was in fourth grade. I was an adult before I realized how precious those generational connections truly were! I have vivid memories of all of my great grandparents and great aunts and uncles and treasure them to this day!

With those thoughts close at hand, I drove back to town and started a new journey down memory lane. I knew it was silly at the time to go back to town and start over because I knew there was a way to get from Uncle Earl’s farm to my Aunt Mae’s farm directly. But Mom never drove that way. She either left for Aunt Mae’s house headed East out of town by the cemetery, or she took the pavement and came back west only one mile on the gravel. It depended on the car. In the old 57 Chevy she took the gravel with the windows rolled down.  I remember because my brother and I, and whatever children my mom was babysitting that day, would have to sit low in the seat so the dust would roll over our heads. But after Dad traded the Chevy for the red, four-door Mercury, mom took the pavement to “keep the car clean”. We could easily get six or seven kids in the backseat of that car!

Back to town I went. I headed East around the cemetery and came to the intersection I remembered being the way to Aunt Mae’s farm. I followed my gut and was sure I’d was going the right way. I made it all the way to the pavement on the other side of my memory, but didn’t find the farm. Obviously, I’d made a wrong turn.

I talked to my nurse and knew I still had a window of exploration! I pulled on to the pavement and drove North to a familiar landmark. I stopped there and recounted the route via memory. I knew to watch for a big red barn on a curve, then mom would tell us to keep our eyes out for a row of ginormous pine trees all in a road. We turned back West at the grove of pines. Surely the pine trees were still there!

Aunt Mae’s house was the epitome of an Iowa farmhouse. As a child I loved that house and sometimes wished we could live there instead of residing in our three-bedroom mobile home. Uncle Clarence and Aunt Mae didn’t have any children as they’d married later in life. But they had this massive four or five bedroom home. They didn’t even use their upstairs except for storage!  The master bedroom was on the main level and all the other bedrooms were upstairs, empty except for the “Christmas Room” where Aunt Mae kept the plastic, light-up Santa and Reindeer yard display and all of her other Christmas décor! I remember getting to peek into each of the bedrooms on a couple of occasions when Aunt Mae would need to retrieve something from upstairs, but mostly, the bedrooms doors were kept closed and the door to the stairway was also shut. To a child who shared every inch of living space with her brother, parents, and six or eight day care children, Aunt Mae’s house was an underused mansion!

It was as mysterious as it was intimidating because Aunt Mae also had lot of breakables and keepsakes. We had to behave at her house and there were rules about not running and not being loud in the house! But just the same, the house was enchanting too. The farmhouse kitchen was complete with floor to ceiling built in china hutches with glass doors. Behind the glass was the biggest collection of Fiestaware I’ve seen even to this day! I loved the colors and the grandeur. At big family gatherings with all of the great aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, the Fiestaware would make an appearance! Complete with matching glasses, cloth napkins, and coffee cups with saucers, every course would be served around the table. We never ate buffet style at Aunt Mae’s house! We dined together, passing the food around the big tables. The adults usually sat in the dining room while us kids sat at the kitchen table. But that table was just as big and ceremonial as the other one! Aunt Mae is the reason I have Fiestaware in my own home!

The East side of the kitchen was all glass windows with the first set of French doors I’d ever seen. There was one at each end of the wall and they opened to a east-facing porch. When all the windows were open, the breeze would blow through Aunt Mae’s kitchen carrying the aroma of fresh baked goods way out into the farmyard. It was along that east wall that I learned to grow African Violets. “They don’t like to get their heads wet,” Aunt Mae would tell me. “Water them from the bottom in a shallow tray and they will bloom year around.” There was this mysterious crystal bowl next to Aunt Mae’s sink. I was small and round with a piece of glass protruding from the middle. One day I watched her take off her wedding and engagement rings before doing dishes. “Always take off your rings before adding soap so your rings don’t get damaged or lost down the drain,” she said. At my wedding shower, Aunt Mae gave me a set of African Violets and a crystal ring holder. I still take my rings off at the sink, and I still have African Violets!

This farmhouse had a parlor with big couches and sitting chairs. Aunt Mae served coffee in there when we’d go visit. She had a formal dining room with way too much furniture! A massive buffet and a huge rectangle table graced the room with sofa than laid down into a bed. One time in my young life I got to spend the night at Aunt Mae’s! I’d dreamed of getting to sleep upstairs, getting one of those big, massive, bedrooms all to myself! But alas, at bedtime, Aunt Mae laid that old sofa back and covered it in clothesline-dried bedsheets. Disappointed, I didn’t sleep a wink on that sofa! Above my head was a coo-coo clock that ticked on every minute and cooed on every hour and half hour. The shadows in that big dining room haunted me all night long! Which is probably why Aunt Mae put me there instead of leaving me all alone in that big under-used space upstairs behind a closed door!

I don’t remember ever sitting in Aunt Mae’s living room. That was reserved for her and Uncle Clarence in the evenings. They would watch tv and the both of them would keep their hands busy doing needle point. Dish towels, tea towels, pillowcases, they would sew and sew together. Uncle Clarence was one of the biggest men I knew, and his hands were always so calloused from farm work and wood working. It was always a surprise when I’d see him working a needle and thread with such delicacy and skill. I have some of his handywork in my cedar chest for good memories. I always thought they should open the curtains in the living room to let in the natural evening light. I was a high-schooler before I realized the curtains were open! It was the overgrown shrubbery on the outside that kept the light from reaching the room! And they left them big and bushy on purpose to keep the house cooler at night!

All of these memories were coming back like a flood as I searched for the gravel road to take me back west to their farmstead. I passed the red barn on the curve, then spotted the row of pine trees still lined up straight and tall. I turned right. Recollection told me to watch for the drive between the Century-old barn and house. I used to play with my cousin in the fallen needles under the fur tree next to the driveway.  Eyes peeled, I watched for the tree, the barn or the house.

Nothing. I saw some buildings, but not like I remembered.

Disappointed, I drove on west knowing I could find my way back home if I paid attention. I traveled past the rock quarry that now existed where Uncle Earl’s house had once stood. When I arrived at the pavement south of town, I decided to go find my brother as opposed to going on into town. I found him in his shop, working on an old hay baler that had seen better days. I wished for him to have a farm partner like my grandfather and great uncles had to help him with upkeep and ongoing farm tasks.

I explained my adventures and watched my brother’s eyes darken as he worked. Once his thoughts were formed, he looked out across the countryside as if he could see those landmarks as plainly as me. In great detail he explained when the rock quarry took over that entire part of the county, buying out family farmsteads as it expanded. And then his thoughts turned to Aunt Mae’s place.

“It’s still there,” he said. “But the house is gone. Only the barn and outbuildings are still standing and they could use a coat of paint. The current family took out the old mansion house and built a Morton-building type house that attaches to their shop.” His hands kept working as he talked. “That was a great house!”

Time passed. Eventually he looked me in the eye. “If you want to find Mae’s place, you have to look for the barn. You were probably on the right road, but looked for the wrong landmark.”

Today I retraced my route from town. I went east out of town past the cemetery and turned left. I followed the road past the Patience farm like I remembered and kept going until a familiar curve came into view. I slowed down and looked closer.

Sure enough. The Century-old barns and buildings are there. The chicken coop area is still there. As a kid I hated “chicken day” when all the family would gather to slaughter chickens for the freezer! As an adult I missed the opportunity to eat chemical-free chicken and finally understood the value and purpose to all that hard work on the family farms!

Uncle Clarence’s wood shop was still there and the garage where Aunt Mae would park her fancy car was still standing. I wondered if the four-foot deep cement Coi pond was still there (my guess is, probably not). The driveway was the same. The barn was the same, standing as a reminder of all that used to be. But the house of my memories was gone. Buried under the earth where it once stood.

Landmarks are there to help us remember. But there are also a guiding force. Some things stay the same while everything changes around it. New memories are made. Experiences are savored. And time marches on whether we are ready or not.

Published by Judith Kay Writes

Judith Kay has spent her life observing, listening, questioning, accepting, challenging, and wrestling with life’s toughest questions. Her writings reveal the answers, enmeshed in the tangled, sometimes messy analogies from everyday living. Judith Kay’s rural Iowa upbringing planted deep roots in core family values, a solid work ethic, and a humble spirit. These traits are personified in characters with deep convictions and heartfelt struggles. No stranger herself to disappointment, struggles, and grief, JK presents characters that wield their way into your heart, inviting you to seek your own answers along their journeys! Moving fluently between works of fiction and non-fiction, life-changing implications draw you into Judith Kay’s stories—sometimes challenging, other times affirming. Her quick wit and keen sense of authenticity keep you engaged. Her characters stay with you long after the story has ended. Her stories speak into your own life and resurface in your personal experiences.

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