Returning to my childhood farm in Minnesota

I spent a few days at the beginning of my vacation with my Dad on the farm where I grew up.  It’s always good to return home.  The pace of life is slow there now.  My Dad is 91 years old and retired.  The house and barn hold many memories for me.

Open door to the old red barn

Latch to the barn door

Worn barn door and metal latch

“Life in the barn was very good — night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days.  It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm, delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.”
     — from Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White

West side door to the barn

Interior of the barn, now used for storage instead of cows

Light filters into the hayloft through holes in the siding.

Hayloft

Barn door and hayloft stairs

Last year, one of my absolute favorite book finds was The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings by Kaylynn Deveney.  This slim volume of photographs captures the ordinary life of an elderly Welsh widow, Albert Hastings.  Hastings wrote the accompanying captions to the photos; his handwritten text graces this book and makes it a true collaboration with Deveney’s intimate photographs.

I’m inspired by Deveney’s thoughtful photographic approach to this project: “I often seek in my photographs the banal moments of the day — the experiences not usually considered significant enough to warrant a snapshot — the quiet clean up after the birthday party ends or the hour before we go to bed.  I look, too, for domestic patterns and arrangements, practiced daily routines that make us feel at home … I believe photographs of our possessions and domestic patterns can be portraits, just like photographs of our faces … the images of Bert’s folded pajamas, nightcap, space heater atop a biscuit tin, and the simple apparatus he engineered to hold a broken daffodil up straight in a shallow teacup, all speak to me of him.”

What follows is my attempt to present a portrait of my Dad inspired by Deveney’s photographic project.  My Dad is a 90-year-old retired farmer, recently widowed, who still lives in the old farmhouse of his childhood.  This is my tribute to him on Father’s Day.

Dad cooking breakfast of sausage and eggs

Dad cooking breakfast of sausage and eggs

Every morning of my recent visit, Dad made breakfast for us — either homemade sausage and eggs, bacon and eggs, or his specialty, pancakes.  He always adds oatmeal to his scrambled eggs and pancake batter.  The bandanna (always red or blue) hanging from his pocket is his handkerchief.  No disposable tissues for him.

Instant coffee

Instant coffee

Dad's favorite, stained coffee cup

Dad's favorite, stained coffee cup

Dad makes himself a cup of instant coffee three times a day, with every meal.  He heats the water for exactly 140 seconds in the microwave.  Although the cupboard is full of coffee cups, he uses the same stained and cracked cup for every meal.

Dad's kitchen countertop

Dad's kitchen counter top

A small, black radio sits atop the microwave, tuned to the local radio station.  Dad listens to the obituaries every day.

Pegging the laundry up to dry outside

Pegging the laundry up to dry outside

Dad hanging his laundry

Dad hanging his laundry

One man's laundry

One man's laundry

Monday is Dad’s laundry day.  He still uses the old wringer Maytag machine in the basement.  And although he owns a dryer, he never uses it.  In winter, he hangs his clothes on a wooden rack and clothes lines in the basement, and they slowly drip dry over several days.  Other seasons, he hangs the clothes on lines outside.

What a change from laundry days of my childhood, when Mom did laundry twice a week to keep up with the demands of our family of eleven.  Then multiple clothes lines could hardly hold all the laundry.  Now, Dad’s few wet clothes fill only half of one of the outdoor lines.

Halving a chicken with a vintage saw

Halving a chicken with a vintage saw

Getting the grill out of winter storage in the smoke house

Getting the grill out of winter storage in the smoke house

Basting the chicken

Basting the chicken

The mid-day meal is called dinner, and it’s eaten at 11:30 a.m.  (We call the evening meal supper, and it’s at 5:30 p.m.) When one of his children visits, it’s not unusual for Dad to prepare a special dinner of chicken on the grill.  He has several chickens in the freezer that my brother raised and butchered.  A whole chicken is too much for Dad to eat on his own, so he doesn’t cook them unless he has company.

Living room window

Living room window

Dad reading the local paper

Dad reading the local paper

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The mail comes around noon, Monday through Saturday, delivered to the old mailbox at the end of our long driveway.  The local paper is a weekly, and it comes every Thursday.  Dad looks forward to the mail, even though so much of it is solicitations.

Dad working a crossword puzzle

Dad working a crossword puzzle

Dad with ubiquitous toothpick

Dad with ubiquitous toothpick

Crossword puzzles

Crossword puzzles

Dad takes time most days to work his crossword puzzles.  Other daily rituals include an afternoon nap, attending five o’clock mass, a bottle of beer before supper, watching the six o’clock news, and then watching Wheel of Fortune.

Cracked paint on the east side of the house

Cracked paint on the east side of the house

Window and iron bed frame in upstairs bedroom

Window and iron bed frame in upstairs bedroom

Upstairs storage closet with extra bedding for company

Upstairs storage closet with extra bedding for company

Someday the old white farm house will be torn down.  My youngest brother now owns the half of the farm with the house, barn, and other buildings.  He plans to build his family’s retirement home there.  My oldest brother owns the other half of the farm, and his family already has a house there.  For now, I’m thankful that my old childhood home still stands, and that Dad is able to live out his old age there.

Dad's worn blue jeans hanging in his closet at the end of the day

Dad's worn blue jeans hanging in his closet at the end of the day

Spring in Minnesota is a few weeks behind Seattle’s, but the early harbingers of a Midwestern Spring are every bit as miraculous and entrancing.  I’d like to share three signs of Spring from my Dad’s farm.

Baby chick

Baby chick

While I was visiting, my brother received his delivery of 50 baby chicks. They stay under a heat lamp for the first few days until they gain strength.  The chicks are not farm pets.  They are destined for the roasting pan, feeding the family for a full year.

Trio of eggs in a robin's nest

Trio of eggs in a robin's nest

My brother showed my sister and me this hidden robin’s nest with its trio of eggs.  I was stunned by their rich blue color.  Until now, I had thought robin’s egg blue was a pale, pastel color, based on a few broken egg shells I had found. Perhaps the shell fragments had faded because these living eggs were a deep blue-green. 

Hanging the laundry outside

Hanging the laundry outside

My 90-year-old Dad does his weekly laundry every Monday.  All winter he hangs his clothes to dry on clotheslines strung across the dark basement, and they slowly drip dry over several days.  The Monday of my visit was the first time all year he hung the laundry outside.  The spring wind was steady but mild, and the clothes dried in no time.  I love the smell of sun-dried laundry!

Deep Roots

May 8, 2009

Rustic birdhouse

Rustic birdhouse

I just returned from a trip to my childhood home in Minnesota, the family farm which was my universe for the first 18 years of my life.   

Seattle is my chosen home now.  My husband and I moved here over 30 years ago, drawn by the mountains, lakes and Puget Sound.  We live in a house that’s over 100 years old.  Until our daughter started college, this was the only home she had known.  So my home here is rooted in memories and meaning.

I will always have another place I can call home, my birth home in Minnesota.  My 90-year-old Dad still lives on the farm where I was raised.  It’s a “Century Farm,” one that has been in the same family for over 100 years.  Dad’s grandfather homesteaded the land after buying it in 1871 from the St. Paul and Sioux City Railroad for $1,160.  The farm passed to his son, Dad’s uncle, who sold it to Dad’s mother and father in 1932 for $6,000.  My grandparents began renting the farm to my Mom and Dad in 1949.  When Grandma and Grandpa died in 1961, my parents purchased the farm.

I know that I am fortunate to be able to return to my childhood home, sleep in my old bedroom in the white frame farmhouse, and walk the land where I first played and worked together with my family.  And although I’ve lived in Seattle for more than 30 years, I will always feel “at home” in Minnesota, land of big skies, tall cumulus clouds, black soil, rolling hills, wind, and mosquitoes.  I am rooted in two special places, one urban and one rural, one in the conservative Midwest heartland and one in the liberal and diverse West Coast.  Somehow it feels natural to me to hold both homes in my heart.