I didn’t grow up on this farm, at least not for most of my childhood, yet it’s still a place of warm memories, comfort and safety – even all these decades later.
When I opened my Mom’s “Suitcase of Life,” I expected to find the photo albums and scrapbooks I had looked through as a child and perhaps a few other things. Mostly items reflective of her life before me. What I didn’t expect to find was a photo of the farm that my step-father owned more than two decades before he and Mom married.
This aerial photo looks a lot like the farm I came to know and love, but on closer inspection, there are several differences.
It’s a “younger” farm than I remember. The giant maples that held the rope swing for my children in the 1970s and 80s are maybe 20 or 30 years old in this picture, to the right of the house.
The well pump tower is visible between the house and the tree outside the back door, minus the windmill. Upon closer inspection, I can see that the tower sported a TV antennae, which answers the question about whether or not the house had electricity. Truthfully, I think the antennae tower simply shielded the pump out back. I only thought it was a “well tower” built for the windmill because there was no antennae by the time I was introduced to the farm – and there was a windmill.
The chicken house behind the garage, had, well, chickens running around, and the chickens were also milling around the garage. A few chickens had taken shelter underneath the propane tank on the north side of the house. It looks like there were chickens everywhere, probably escapees from the chicken yard.
By the time I knew the chicken house, this particular chicken house had been replaced by a much larger one, but chickens were only a memory. The chicken house was used to store “stuff” and ferns were growing under the propane tank known as a “pig,” not to be confused with the pigs that lived in the barn and maternity hog houses in the fields.
The one-car wooden-shingled garage that was barely large enough to hold a car was just like I remembered, some 30+ years later. If you had a passenger, they had to get out of the car before the driver pulled the car into the garage, or you couldn’t get the car doors open. Passenger or driver, your choice, could exit inside the garage – but not both! Actually, that was just as well, because someone had to slide the garage door open, which slid to the right on a track, so the passenger clearly needed to get out of the car anyway.
The outhouse, shown in this 1970s photo, was hidden behind the garage but there was a well-worn path. By the time I lived there, we had an inside bathroom but still used the outhouse for spillover. It wasn’t bad since it was seldom used. There was never any waiting out there and no one cared how long you stayed!
The house itself was built by the Amish as a simple square, maybe 30 by 40 or 50 feet, long before my step-father’s first wife’s father purchased the farm about the time they married. The original front door is still visible and was never removed but was slightly covered over later, both inside and out.
The window to the right of that old door was my bedroom, and the room to the left was my step-brother’s room. The original house was small. I think my room had been the original living room.
It’s difficult to tell if the kitchen I knew had been added in this picture. There appears to be something behind the main roofline, but the chimney is in the wrong place. It could be a small porch. Come to think of it, I don’t know why there’s a chimney in that location at all, because the “stove” that heated the house was elsewhere.
The original part of the house had an upstairs that was “heated” by a simple vent between the first floor and the second. It was sweltering in the summer and freezing, literally, in the winter. The steps going up were extremely steep. No one ever slept there when we lived in the house, but it had clearly been bedrooms at one time. Amish families tended to be large, and I’d guess this large two room “attic” had at one time been the children’s bunkhouse rooms. One for boys and one for girls.
The four original downstairs rooms were the living room, the kitchen, the parent’s bedroom and perhaps a second bedroom, or the living room originally extended the width of the house. It’s difficult to tell what was meant to be a bedroom, because none of the rooms were built with closets. People used chifforobes and dressers. Dad build a closet in his and Mom’s bedroom.
The large addition, probably 15 by 15 feet, extending to the south (right) was the living room and judging from the roof, wasn’t new in this photo. The porch looked the same years later, even down to the white spindles, although by the time I lived there, the porch had shifted with time and listed a lot to left. On farms, the front porch didn’t much matter since the front door was never used anyway – but Mom opened it once a year or so just to be sure it would still open. The old stove used for heating used to sit in the corner that had been the original kitchen, I think, in the “old” corner of the “new” living room.
Dad always used to say that you could tell when farmers had a good year by the room additions.
I don’t know when this house was originally built, but it looks “old” in this photo, labeled October 1955 on the back. When it was originally constructed, there was no inside plumbing or electricity and it had a hand-dug dirt basement under only part of the original house.
Dad concreted part of the basement floor and installed a shower head in the basement wall. If you weren’t afraid of spiders or creepy crawleys, it was a cool place to shower in the summer. The basement had two small ground level windows, and yes, I caught my step-brother’s buddies spying on me once when I was showering. Little did they expect a furious, dripping-wet female to emerge and administer a sound verbal thrashing, threatening to kick their behinds, as they quickly departed running down the road with their tails between their legs. They even left their car behind. Compared to what my Dad did when he found out, that was mild indeed. Hell hath no fury like a man who catches males peeping into his windows at his naked daughter. Let’s just say they never came back and a shower “surround” was installed in the basement. Their disabled, abandoned car sat there for months as a silent reminder to anyone else who might get any bright ideas. Dad finally hauled it, or what was left of it, up to the road with the front end loader, and one night, it disappeared.
The barns and farm part of the photo look much the same as it did when I last saw this place as I drove away for the very last time in 1995. My last good memory was Father’s Day 1993 when I surprised Dad by arriving unannounced. That was just days before our life would change dramatically, once again. After Dad’s death, the auction, and Mom’s move to town, I swore I’d never go back, because the leaving was just too heart-wrenching and painful. Four years later, my step-brother, Gary, would die there, in the kitchen the day after Thanksgiving.
My step-dad, Dean, married his sweetheart, Martha Mae, on July 5th, 1950 and three years later, Gary was born. In October of 1955, when this picture was taken, Gary would have been a rambunctious toddler, in the midst of the terrible-twos, and probably raising Cain. I feel obligated as a typical sibling to say he never really got over that raising Cain part, and maybe not the terrible twos either.😊
As the airplane flew over on that October day, Martha Mae had probably finished feeding the chickens and was cooking lunch, the biggest meal of the day on the farm. Judging from the mist and shadows, it looks to be morning.
It’s fall and harvest had begun. The wagon filled with corn is standing next to the fence in the few rows that have been combined and my Dad’s tractor can be seen in the distance. It looks like he has been out feeding the livestock, perhaps, or doing something in the “back 40.” I’d wager he was riding that same old red International Harvester tractor that he was still patching together and repairing 40 years later. And it wasn’t new in the 1950s!
The hog houses were in the fields in just about the same configuration as I remember them years later. The hog houses and the fields planted in corn and soybeans were rotated. Cows were standing beside the back barn. Dad’s truck was angled into the front barn and even the gas pump and tanks were in the same location.
This photo was taken about 15 years later, in 1969 or 1970, and shows Dad standing by the back door. That extension is the kitchen and mud room.
Little changed on the farm in 40 years – except the people.
The River of Life
In October of 1955, I was just a baby and lived with my parents in town. Mom’s life would come unraveled a few years later and my father would die. In another world, 20 miles away, Dean’s life would lay in tatters too.
In the fall of 1955, Linda Kay, his baby girl had yet to be born. She would arrive in July of 1958 and grace this farmhouse full of love.
Martha Mae was 35 when Linda was born. The family was adamant that “nothing was wrong with Linda,” but she was never able to hold her head up, sit up or function as a normal baby or child. Mother said that judging from the photos that Linda might have had Down’s Syndrome. Linda contracted pneumonia, was taken to the hospital on Christmas Day and died on December 27, 1959, just 17 months old. The day after Dad’s 39th birthday.
My Dad was devastated. Heartbroken. By the 1950s, antibiotics prevented many childhood deaths. No one expected children to die anymore. But his baby girl died anyway.
Gary would have been 6 when they buried his little sister and probably didn’t understand what was happening.
Dad could never speak of Linda without choking up and gave me her little bedspread from her crib when my daughter was born. This is one of the gifts I cherish most – given straight from his heart.
Dad and I always had a special bond. A man of very few words, he once told me that when he married my mother, he got his little girl back.
For the next few years after Linda’s death, Martha Mae became increasingly ill, and finally, in about 1966, she was diagnosed with a rare disease. At that time, very little was known about systemic Schleroderma. For years, Dad carried an article about it around in his wallet. He explained to me that “she petrified from the outside in.” Those years were horrific for him – helplessly watching his wife perish slowly from an unknown demon that he had no weapons to fight.
Just over 40, Martha Mae lived in incredible pain. That’s when Dad added the large indoor bathroom in the corner between the kitchen and bedroom. It was a very early version of a handicapped bathroom, because he built wooden frame “aids” and helped her in and out of the bathtub.
In addition to farming, he also began cleaning and eventually, cooking and taking care of both Gary and Martha Mae too.
The medical profession didn’t understand nor have the drugs to treat the disease, and in 1968, Martha Mae lapsed into renal failure. Dialysis didn’t yet exist, so eventually she became comatose and on July 25th, passed away at 45 years of age, leaving behind a grieving husband and heartbroken 14-year-old son who had spent his childhood witnessing his mother die terribly.
Within a few months of Martha’s death, Gary was hospitalized for what was then called a “nervous breakdown.” That pattern would punctuate the rest of Gary’s abbreviated life. He died younger than his mother, not from the same disease, although Schleroderma does appear to have an autoimmune genetic aspect.
The farmhouse became a place of loneliness and sadness for Dean, haunted with broken dreams. In the space of a few years he had gone from living his dream, down the road from his in-laws on his own farm with his wife and two children, to a widower raising one desperately ill teen.
I’ve often wondered if the disease that took Martha’s life was actually beginning before Gary was born and affected both of her children – the younger child, Linda, the most.
After Martha’s death and Gary’s institutionalization, Dean joined the Parent’s Without Partner’s Club in town where he met Mom. I met him about 1970 or 1971, and Mom and Dean were married on September 22, 1972, four years and a few months after Martha’s death.
When they married, Mom sold our house in town and spent the money to “update” the farmhouse. Let me translate. She painted, paneled the plaster walls, had central heat installed and the rooms wired with more than a single lightbulb hanging from a wire in the middle of the ceiling. Drapes, curtains, light switches and light fixtures were added. The kitchen had wooden cabinets installed and the metal ones were reused in the mud room where a washer and dryer were installed. The uneven wooden floors were carpeted and linoleum laid in the kitchen, bathroom and mudroom. Mom bought a modern stove and refrigerator for the kitchen. A microwave was considered a luxury and wouldn’t be added until I bought one years later as a gift.
Mom lovingly packed up both Linda’s and Martha Mae’s clothes and things (at Dad’s request) and stored them away for Dean and Gary. Dad just could never do it.
I remember first meeting Dean and how desperately lonely he was. He spent his days farming and the rest of his time volunteering and helping others.
The man who married my mother had changed dramatically. He was happily smiling, beaming with newfound love and welcomed us into his life. So did Gary, who was home again by the time Mom and Dad married. Even Dad’s dog, Spot and our cat, Snowball got along, or at least agreed to ignore each other. Mom and Dean merged lives and homes, including two teenagers. Miraculous that any of us survived, but we not only survived, we thrived. We all needed and wanted a family again, although the transition wasn’t without a few, mostly humorous, bumps in the road.
My Dad had a wicked sense of humor and was the silent prankster, always looking for an opportunity.
Here’s Dad “pregnant” (in orange) at a fundraiser in 1978. Let’s just say Dad wasn’t above wearing a stray bra left behind in the bathroom as earmuffs. That was his tongue-in-cheek, or maybe better stated, ear-in-bra-cup way of reminding you to pick up after yourself. Dad had never lived with a teenage girl before and I had never lived with men.
Happiness had returned to the farmstead in Indiana, although it would be episodically punctuated by crisis’ caused by Gary’s illness. That too, we faced as a unified family.
Fruits and vegetables were once again being canned in blistering summer heat, laundry was hung on the clothesline to dry in the breeze and lunch was being cooked for Dad and whoever else was working on the farm that day. Church was on Sunday.
Family and neighbors came and went up and down the driveways. The family dogs barked both a warning and a greeting. We could often tell who was arriving by the sound of the vehicle and the dog’s voices.
I helped Dad tend the livestock and worked the fields. I loved our solitary time in the barn together, the tractor, and walking the freshly plowed furrows, looking for rocks and arrowheads. He liked the company and showing me how to do things.
The chickens were long gone. I loved the shuffling animal noises and soothing clank clank of the barn. I adored the cats and the critters, along with my Dad’s barn workshop and handiwork. I swear, that man could build or fix anything, generally out of scraps from something else. It might not look great, but was quite functional. On the farm, that’s all that mattered.
I didn’t realize it then, but that time spent alone with Dad was golden. No one ever intruded into our barn world. Few words, sometimes an easy silence – but I’d often catch him watching over me and looking at me dotingly when he thought I wasn’t looking. I would smile and so would he. Pure, unvarnished adoration for each other. There is no truer love.
Soon, Dad walked me down the aisle and I added grandchildren to the mix, as did my half-brother and step-brother.
The winters were cold with mountains of snow, and the summers hot. Dad grilled burgers on the old barrel that served as a charcoal grill, ice cream was cranked and kids played in the hose.
Life was no longer bleak for our blended family. The seasons drifted one into the other.
Life was good and no one thought that it wouldn’t last forever. In the winters, we looked forward to spring. In the spring we looked forward to school being out for the summer. In the summer, we looked forward to carving the pumpkins we planted in the spring and had watched grow, inch by inch, and ripen throughout the summer. In the fall, we looked forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas when our family would gather. Then, we looked forward to the warmth of spring and flowers all over again as the seed catalogues arrived with their tempting pictures of perfect gardens.
The maple trees had grown and once again held a child’s rope swing with a board for a seat, providing shade for peals of laughter. We planted the garden, weeded the rows, then snapped green beans sitting in the shade on the metal glider outside the back screen door. If you let that door slam, the next thing you would hear from Mom inside the kitchen would be, “Don’t slam the screen.” Everyone else laughed, but not loud enough for Mom to hear!
The blue glider and Dad’s chair have long been “retired” on my patio, one of my two purchases at the end-of-the-road auction. Their mere presence makes me smile, reminds me of Dad and brings me comfort – although there was never anything comfortable about sitting on them except that family was sitting right there next to you, equally as uncomfortable. A lot of talks took place in those chairs.
You Can Take the Girl Off of the Farm, But You Can’t Take the Farm Out of the Girl
Martha Mae’s purple Iris, growing beside the garage and driveway had become Mom’s Iris. One of the neighbor boys got too close with the tractor and plowed them into oblivion. Mom was furious, seeing the shredded bulbs laying in the dirt. Dad was sad. I’m sure he remembered far more about those Irises than he said. A little bit more of Martha Mae was gone. I wish I had bought some replacement bulbs and pretended that not all of the Iris had been killed, but I didn’t realize at the time.
Dad’s ferns, plentiful, but not visible in the farm photos, now grow in my garden, as do his phlox plants, below. I’m now passing them on to the next generation as well.
The farm may be a memory now, but a whole lot of the farm lives on in me. Someplace along the way, I became a farm girl – and Daddy’s girl. I will always carry those wonderful sundrenched days on the farm with my Dad etched into my heart.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.