Following the Setting Sun to Home

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.

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Uncle Donald, my father George on “Blinker,” and Aunt Helen. c. 1926

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.

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The farm with the original barn, purchased c. 1912.

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.

As it currently looks, with Frains Lake in back. Story has it that the kids skated on it to the two-room school house in winter. (It would have been faster to walk, but not as fun.)

As it currently looks, with Frains Lake in back. Story has it that the kids skated on it to the two-room school house in winter. (Surely it would have been faster to walk, but not as fun.)

Frains Lake School, built 1872.

Frains Lake School, built 1872.

DSCN4114I 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.

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The attic.

The workshop.

The workshop.

The haymow.

The haymow.

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.

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Milk wagon.

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The horse barn.

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The loafing shed. An original building with wood pegs and mortice and tendon joints where, I kid you not, the cows went to loaf.

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.

IMG_0590Of 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.

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The house.

The barns of

The creek and the barns of “Crick in the Back” farm.

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.

Uncle Donald.

Uncle Donald.

Uncle Donald on his 105th birthday.

Uncle Donald on his 105th birthday.

My father, the young man in the third row. Uncle Donald, tall one in the back row with the hair.

My father, the boy in the third row. Uncle Donald, the tall one in the middle of the back row, with the hair. Lloyd, the eldest, with the hair to the right of the back row. My grandmother, Ella Louisa Lucretia Goodell Staebler, floral dress in the center behind the row of children, grandfather Albert to the left over her right shoulder. Donald’s wife, Lena, standing far right; Aunt Helen next to her. Ruth, seated next to flag. The youngest, Melvyn, second child seated.

But there will always be the farm, and there will always be the recorded stories of life there.

My grandfather Albert Staebler

My grandfather Albert Staebler, whom I never met.

[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.]

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10 thoughts on “Following the Setting Sun to Home

  1. I am so sorry to hear of Don’s passing. He was such a wonderful man and left such a rich legacy. I have been on the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission since it started 42 years ago and was fortunate enough to meet him several times. I would like to write a story about his life and legacy for our Ypsilanti history magazine – The Gleanings. Would that be OK? I always meant to write it while Don was alive and somehow I thought that he would live forever. We hope that we will develop a park that will allow the legacy of your wonderful family to live on. Please feel free to contact me at janschuetz@comcast.net or phone me at 734-483-0294. Thank you for your wonderful memories or would you like to write the article yourself about Don and his family and the farm? With sympathy, Janice Anschuetz

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  2. Pingback: And Then There Was One | Daughter on Duty

  3. I grew up just down Ann Arbor Road from Don and Lena, and for several years Lena caught a ride with us to Dixboro Church. Don and my dad also served on the local planning commission together. My folks had great respect for both of them. (That photo you have of Don leaning against a door was taken by my mother as part of a photo project she did of 50 year farmers in Livingston and Washtenaw Counties. You’ve put together a wonderful tribute here.

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  4. What a wonderful bit of family history. You uncle was amazingly lucid at 101 in the interview. I would never have guessed his age within 20 years. I am glad you said yes to the short trip.

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  5. Splendid story! Glad you got to participate and then to write what so many times is held only in passing conversations! Much more active than passive! So alive!

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    • On the surface my family seems a bit dull; but dig a little deeper and it is a rich story. And now I want to write this memoir! My mother’s family story is pretty darn intriguing, too, but I would mostly have to make it up. This family has reams of written records and stories, as well as the physical place.

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