Ten years ago I flew from east to west, coast to coast, to say goodbye to my Aunt Helen. She died a few weeks later. I was grateful I had said “yes” to a long quick trip. This weekend, I flew west to east to say goodbye to her brother Donald. Another last minute “yes” to a brief trip. Unlike Helen was, Donald is not actively dying—the fact that he has spent the past five weeks (save for a couple nights) in the hospital not withstanding. Still, at 105, it seems unlikely that I will see him again in this life.
When their little brother, my father, died, I hadn’t seen him in more than six months. He was not dying, either actively or passively. He was only 78. I didn’t get to say goodbye. The opportunity to see his siblings and wish them Godspeed on their journey home has helped ease the pain of his unexpected departure.
My grandparents bought the family farm outside Ann Arbor, Michigan, when Donald was a year and a half old. Except for a couple of years after he and my lovely Aunt Lena married, he has lived on the farm—a century on the same plot of earth. He has worked on the farm since he was ten years old—the age at which the six children each learned to milk the cows—and has been the care taker of the house, the cow barn, the pig shed, the horse barn, the chicken house all of his adult life—his siblings scattered across the country—while also working as an engineer and an educator. My Aunt Lena made it possible for my grandmother to remain at home until her death at 96.
They raised first dairy cows, then beef cattle (all named by Aunt Lena) when it became more profitable. But, Donald says, the richest crop the farmers on Ann Arbor Plymouth Road ever grew turned out to be houses. McMansions populate the road now, the farms sold for astronomical sums. But not 7734. The red barn is still on the left traveling from Ann Arbor to Detroit; the white farmhouse with red shutters on the right.
I went there many times as a child, to visit my grandmother and Lena and Donald, who had no children, but loved their ten adoring nieces and nephews. I played with the kittens in the barn, petted Sophie the cow, and climbed into the hay mow. I slept in the west bedroom, where my father had slept as a boy; clawed through the trunks and suitcases in the tiny, stifling hot attic room trying on the moth-eaten bearskin robe that was worn in the horse drawn sleigh in the winter; and watched old slides on Uncle Donald’s self-invented projection screen with Pallie the cat warming my lap. I swam in the lake at the neighboring farm and skated on Peaceful Pond as an adult, an addition to the property when Uncle Donald said “yes” to giving gravel rights to the highway department to build the interstate beyond the trees behind the barn. We rode on the tractor, listened to our elders tell stories, ate fresh sweet corn, spit watermelon seeds, and looked out the west-facing dining room window where legend says my father stood and told his mother someday he would go west until he ran into the ocean.
Fifteen years ago, Uncle Donald eschewed the offers his neighbor farmers were accepting for their properties and said “yes” to a less lucrative offer from the county to purchase the property and, when he was finished with it (surely they had no idea it would be so long), develop a park and museum farm open to the public who wished to experience what life on the American farm in the 20th century had been like.
I already know. I was lucky beyond measure to have spent time there and to hear the stories from those who lived them, and to have taken my children there for family reunions. It is our heritage, that farm. It is the country from which I come. And now it will be there for my grandchildren and theirs and theirs.
The flight home on Sunday began as the sun was sinking into the horizon. It continued to set for the next four hours as we flew west; pink until we crossed the Cascade range, where I blinked and it was gone.
Of the six children of my grandparents, and their five spouses, only Donald, his sister Ruth, and my mother are left, (along with my Uncle Lloyd’s second wife who joined the family three years before Lloyd died, and who has been Uncle Donald’s housekeeper and caregiver for twenty years). Considering their ages, perhaps I should say, “astoundingly three are left.” They keep the memory of my father alive. Uncle Donald has kept the farm alive; or, like my mother and the property I now share with her, perhaps the farm has kept him alive.
My parents’ families are a long-lived bunch: I’ve had three nonagenarian aunts and uncles and one centenarian (three are still living, including my mother’s sister), two nonagenarian grandparents; and, of course, my mother. It has been a long goodbye as the sun sinks and sinks and sinks. In a blink, the generation will be gone, and the witness of their lives will shift to memory.
But there will always be the farm, and there will always be the recorded stories of life there.
[I am pleased to say the recording of stories began with a request from me that my father and his siblings write them down, for my compilation. You can see Uncle Donald in action at 101, telling about life at Crick in the Back Farm, in an interview here.]