June 3, 2010

His Father Died 75 Years Ago Today

Today's date was simply a random date between Mother's Day and Father's Day for me. Nothing jumped out when I looked at my calendar this morning.

For my father this was a day of sadness and regret.

His father died seventy-five years ago today, when my father was four years old. His father was fifty-three, the age I will be in a few weeks.

Dad doesn't remember much about his father, just a fleeting moment sitting on the floor near his father's sick bed, playing paper cowboys and Indians with his eight-year-old brother. Dad told my brother and me that he remembers his father's coffin being lowered into the ground at the Davis Cemetery. This image of the four-year-old boy watching his father's casket slipping into the ground has always haunted me.

Like many other people who grew up with a single parent, my father was cheated. He did not have what I had, two parents there every day of my childhood, prodding, pushing, laughing, pitching endless wiffle balls, signing report cards, making homemade ice cream.

His mother promised her husband on his deathbed that she would "keep the farm" for his boys. She kept the farm until my father was sixteen, and circumstances forced them to move to a small town six miles away.

The life they lived on the farm was born of promise and fear -- my strong-willed grandmother chose a difficult path in keeping her word.

The choice she made was not the easiest, as a single mother in the depths of the Great Depression. There wasn't much money for extras, and in fact, my grandmother didn't want to spend money as rural electrification moved through central Indiana.

So if the windmill did not blow, the boys, their teenage sister, and my grandmother pumped the well by hand. They carried water in metal buckets into the house for cooking and bathing. Without heat they lived in a few rooms in the winter, nurturing a wood-burning stove.

The family had a tabletop radio. If the married older sisters living in town had not visited recently and brought batteries, the radio sat unused.

As tractors dotted the surrounding farms, this farm was plowed with the team of Judy and Ginger, with my grandmother, uncle or aunt at the helm. This was the way things had always been done. That was the way my grandfather wanted them done.

While there was no lack of love from their mother, the absence of their father had long-term consequences in many ways.

How would the lives of my father and his siblings have been different had their father lived?

My father and his siblings were cheated. My grandfather died of heart disease, probably the consequence of a high-fat diet. During butchering time, my grandmother cooked steaks for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There was always plenty of butter and eggs and lard. Today my grandfather would be put on a statin and advised to change his diet.

My father has been hungry for information about his father all of his life. He was the youngest of six children, and his father was one of nine brothers. Due to his early death and dad's position in the family, he knows little of the man or his place in the world.

All they share is a name.

Recently my father's first cousin gave him a copy of their father's grandfather's Civil War record. Seems that this man, who was the original owner of the name before my grandfather and father, served admirably in the Ohio Regimen. He was a flute player, in fife and drum. My father's first cousin has the flute.

What an amazing piece of history. But it is a static history, like some tale from a Civil War era novel. While I am grateful for the knowledge, I wish my father had something more intimate of his family history.

I wish he could have stories about his own father, why keeping the farm was so important to him. What made him laugh? How did he feel when his first son, my uncle, was born after four daughters? What did he love about my grandmother? Did he read, and what did he read? Was he a Republican or a Democrat?

A year ago September my father, mother, and I drove from their present home out to see the site of the farm. More than sixty years passed since my father lived there. It gave me such a eerie feeling to walk around. The only way to identify where the farmhouse and the outbuildings stood is by a small ridge and a stand of trees. On this soft, early fall day, the breeze nipped through the wildflowers and the weeds.

This was now a very peaceful place, with no hint of the ghosts of the past.

UPDATE: This post was honored with an Editor's Pick on Open Salon on June 3 under the title "Please Save The Farm for my Boys."