The farm. That’s what we refer to the place of our childhood where we lost ourselves in cow pastures, fished in creeks, catapulted into the Kansas sky on a tire swing. The farm. Always said with a sigh of nostalgia. The Graber’s farm.
My Uncle John and Aunt Becka owned the farm in Kingman, KS. Their sons ruled its gold and green roost, the dilapidated sheds and small barn, the tiny one-bedroom farm-house. The four-legged Graber’s, Sam and Puggy, hunted, barked, lounged, and housed ticks while guarding the land. That was always a final chore before heading back to town, searching and burning ticks from the dogs.
There was a huge fire-pit area for fallen branches and other miscellaneous farm trash. An old grill, a basketball hoop attached to the barn, an above-ground swimming pool with only waist-high water due to the fear that a child might drown while the adults were playing horseshoes, fishing, shooting clay pigeons, or preparing the meal.
I can still hear the slam-bang of the screen door, smell the Palmolive dish soap mixed with a hint of mildew as you entered the small kitchen. I can’t recall if there was just one large room that also served as a bedroom. My memory is fuzzy in that aspect because we never spent time in the house. We were always outside. The only time I came in was to use the bathroom, preferring to perch upon that tiny, old toilet than squat in the high grass. The boys had it easy.
We would arrive in the morning, what seemed a million birds singing our arrival, the cows lowing in the distance, Uncle John checking on things while carrying a speckled-blue tin cup of coffee, Aunt Becka, always in curlers and scarf, cleaning and inspecting. We, my cousins and I, would tumble out of the cars along with the dogs, and head toward the tire swing, grab a basketball, a fishing rod, an old bicycle. The day was ours.
Sometimes Aunt Becka would pack us a sack lunch of PB&J, chips, and a soda wrapped in aluminum foil, and we would head out to explore. Climbing gingerly through barbed-wire fences, long sticks in hand to ward off the snakes, we walked through varying heights of grasses until we reached an area of interest alongside the creek. I remember Jerome packing a silver “cowboy” tincup and we took turns dipping it into the creek and drinking the ice cold water. When we would return from our adventure, we would be dusty, hair sticking to our sweating, red faces, our socks loaded with stickers, and starving.
While the older female cousins spent time sunbathing on the tin roof of the old barn, listening to the transistor radio, I stuck with my male counterparts. They were much more entertaining, blowing up cow patties with firecrackers when they weren’t chasing the cows, fishing off the old bridge, running from snakes. And besides, Uncle John was always near to protect us, severing the heads of snakes or shooting them off with his shotgun. He taught me to squish a worm onto a hook, and how to delicately pull the hook from the miniscule fish I caught. To this day, those small styrofoam coolers remind me of carrying Uncle John’s cooler filled with minnows. Sometimes as the boys fished, I would dip my hand into the murky, cooler water and let the minnows swim between my fingers.
Uncle John also piled us into the back of his old Charger and sped down the dirt road, all of us tumbling into one another, sliding onto the floor, seatbelt-less and giddy, yelling “Go faster!”
The 4th of July always brings memories of the farm crashing into my memory. I can smell the coals and toasting hot dogs combined with the bitter-smoke smell of fireworks. I can hear the mourning doves, the tumble of ice in an old Coleman cooler, the sizzle and crackle of Roman candles and golden fountains, and the hiss of sparklers tossed into a bucket of well-water.
I miss the farm, as do all of my cousins. It isn’t just the nostalgia of childhood, it is the freedom. There were no boundaries on the farm, no constraints, just blue sky, unending fields, lazy creeks, and each other.
The title of my post comes from a quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupey, “Only he can understand what a farm is, what a country is, who shall have sacrificed part of himself to his farm or country, fought to save it, struggled to make it beautiful. Only then will the love of farm or country fill his heart.”
I wish we’d fought harder to save it, in our soft struggle to make it beautiful, and our sacrifice is the inability to return, except in memory.
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Nat, great article you hit on right on the head with the smells.