First Christmas On The Farm

JenTo my children, Ehmar, Jaedy, and Elcee,

Christmas is just around the bend now. We’ve put the tree up and I started cookie baking over the weekend. There won’t be a visit to Santa this year and I’m a bit sad about it. But 10-year olds, on the fence of believing, don’t feel comfortable trying to squeeze into the nooks of the big guy’s chair like they did when they were 5 and there was no protest when I suggested that maybe we wouldn’t make the annual trip to the mall in our reds and greens. Your ready acceptance of the change has made me nostalgic about this season more than usual. It’s as though I feel the ticking of the second hand like someone tapping me ungently on the shoulder to nudge me forward when I was hoping to linger a bit longer and gaze at the window display of sugar plums and soft curls that your childhood has been for me.

Days like this assure me that I was right to take a hundred thousand photographs along the way, that my love of capturing the details was not for naught. The photos and videos of your early Christmases will always serve as balm when Momma’s heart feels too tender about the drift away from the sleepless wonder and the rush to the bottom of the stairs and the squeals and ripping of paper on Christmas morning. Humor me on the days when I want to sit with you against me near and reminisce over them together, won’t you?

I’m thankful, too, that my own momma took photographs of our early Christmases, even as she wrangled 2 young children, a barn full of animals, and an old coal furnace that belched and burned hot through the deep winter months on our mountain.

I pulled out the shoebox today and found a handful of snapshots of our first Christmas on the farm. 1978. We’d only moved in some 4 months before and the front room still looks pretty bare. No drapes on the windows and just a few pictures on the walls. No porch swing hung yet but I see the pines in snow which was typical for Christmas mornings in central PA. I look at those photos and my heart feels like it might burst from all the memories pressing against it. Would you like me to share some with you?

Christmas Eve in the farm house

See the Santa hanging in the middle of the tree? My Great-Grandpa Frisk gave that decoration to me on my first Christmas in 1974 and your Grammy always placed it in the center of our trees. I have him still, the elder member of the Santa shelf here in our own family room.

See the silver foil star at the top with the colored lights? We never used an angel, always a star. Last year I found a similar one in the thrift shop and brought it home. It’s on the little tree in the dining room now where I hang all my childhood ornaments.

And oh, the toys! The green dragon hop-along ball that I spent riding for hours in the basement, around the rough concrete circle that took me past the belching furnace and Grammy’s wall of canned vegetables. There’s the play kitchen where I whipped up cupcakes for my dolls. And the Fisher Price school house with its colorful magnets and chalk board. Oh, and my first typewriter. See? My writing days started early.

Santa came!

Uncle Jason is there in his Poohbear pajamas that Grammy ordered each year from the Sears catalog. Santa brought BlueBear pillow that year and Grammy would spend the ensuing seasons stitching him back together until there was nothing left remotely resembling a bear. Pepper the riding horse is there and you, Elcee, would hitch a ride on him some 30 years later. They don’t make them sturdy like that anymore.

Little Brother Spies the Tree

And there’s my Momma, a young mother wrapped up in an apron, one eye on the toddler who’s too keen on the glass ornaments and the other watching the pot of boiling potatoes, taking advice from my Grandma Durandetta, most certainly about the meal that’s cooking in the kitchen.

The Busyness of Christmas Morning

The kitchen I remember so well, center of so much of our life on the farm, with its classic 1960s linoleum and highback red vinyl stools around the bar. And the chandelier above the dining room table that your Grammy always wrapped with tinsel, glass balls, and a hanging foil star. She never let us decorate anything until December 14th because Uncle Jason’s birthday is the 13th and his day was to be kept special for him.

Ready to Carve the Turkey

I see my Uncle John leaning on the wall where little pencil scrawls marked our growth in inches. You can’t tell, but he’s talking with Great-Grandma Long who always came to Christmas at our house from her farm just a mile down the road. And look at the Christmas cards taped on the wall. Grammy filled that space with holiday greetings every one of the 18 years I lived in the farmhouse.

And there’s my Daddy, a young father rolling up his sleeves, getting ready to carve the turkey that’s just now coming from the oven. See that barstool in front of him? I sat there on the morning of my wedding, eating a bowl of Cheerios and thinking how very blessed I was to spend my childhood surrounded by so much love.

The cream and the butter and the green daisy Corelle plates have been set out. In just a few minutes, Grammy will be calling me with her familiar “Jennnnneeeeee” and Uncle John will be scooping up my little brother and plopping him into his high chair and we’ll be folding our hands to give thanks for the food and family and far-reaching Grace which has covered us all through the year 1978.

As far as I know, Grammy kept Uncle Jason from eating the glass ornaments on the tree that year. That’s more than can be said about your grandpa when he was a toddler. But that’s a tale for another telling …

Memories of the Fall

JenTo my children, Ehmar, Jaedy, and Elce

I watched a company of geese fly overhead as we raked leaves in the yard today, winging southerly for the winter. The oaks and maples have nearly finished stepping out of their amber and carnelian robes and soon will stand naked for the cold sun’s duration. The late autumn scene journeyed me back to a similar day which had taken place what seemed like ages ago. Watching the flock pass overhead and behind the tree line, I remembered another pair of wings that never found their way south. You’ve seen the pictures and you know the overarching storyline. But today I want to tell you the details about one of the hardest days of my childhood.

Baby robin

An orphan robin that we rescued last summer.

If memory serves, the scorching heat of June 1980 was mighty enough to burn even the most callused kid’s feet. Only a few times during that blistering summer did I make it into town where most of my friends lived. I spent those brief reprieves playing hopscotch at the park or sharing a bubblegum slush with my best pal, Holly, at the local ice-cream shop, The Blue Cow. The rest of my summer was spent on the farm. In retrospect, being raised as a country girl afforded me a wondrously enriching perspective on life that children raised in towns and cities lack. Years later, I am grateful and wholly indebted to my parents for their conviction to raise a family in the country. Now as I hurry between stoplights and fight through the mall traffic, I yearn for the simplicity and quiet seclusion of the open fields. But a spirited six-year-old would much rather spend lazy summer days splashing with friends in the West Branch of the Susquehanna instead of hoeing endless rows of wax beans. So while my friends delighted in the amenities of town life, Uncle Jason and I had to invent our own fun on the farm.

Insect hunts were popular. We would set out through the fields, competing to see whose butterfly net was fullest by the time Mom called us for dinner. Some days we would roll hulking rocks down the slope to the half dried-out pond to build steppingstone bridges from one muddy bank to the other. Sometimes on a dare, we would go into the chicken coop to snatch a nest full of eggs. By skillfully maneuvering a coffee can over the hen's head, we could safely plunge our hands into her downy warmth and make off with the goods. But our favorite and most compassionate activities always revolved around finding helpless creatures to save.  

Living on a farm provides many opportunities to experience life and death, to roll them around in your hands and inspect them at different angles. I can recall several instances when Uncle Jason and I saved a field mouse from the clutches of an evil tom cat or nursed the runt of the rabbit litter back to life. Many times our rescues were unsuccessful and we tearfully buried the tiny bundle of fur under the plum tree next to the countless bundles that had gone on before. Farm kids can’t help but have strong ties with animals and we felt a deep obligation to protect them in whatever way our child’s understanding deemed necessary even as the adults clicked their tongues and shook their heads at our efforts.

One rescue stands out above all others. It took place on one of those heat-heavy summer days when we had nothing better to do than wander the farm in search of some form of entertainment. I had been keeping an eye on a particular robin's nest in the grape arbor next to the garage. Grammy had told me to keep my hands off, but I was determined to get a glimpse of the tiny fledglings I knew were nestled inside. Every day I would sneak up to the arbor and climb the vines and every day the mother robin would be huddled over her brood, eyeing me with intense suspicion. Finally, with Grammy running an errand in town and Grandpa preoccupied with machinery repairs in the barn, I saw my opportunity. Making my way through the knobby grapevines, expecting to catch the usual glare from the feathered sentry, I found the mother robin curiously absent from her post. Gleefully, I assumed I had caught her off guard and peeked over the tangle of horsehair and sticks to see her babies. Instead, I let out a gasp, and my feet hit the grass as I ran to the house. A most terrible scene had greeted me ... the aftermath of a night-time predator; feathers chaotically strewn about the nest and a small clawed foot wrapped around twig. There were no survivors, only remains.

Perhaps a 6-year-old’s incomplete understanding of the finality of death lured me back. In any case, my fear was canceled by curiosity and I approached the grape arbor once again. As I stood underneath, mustering the courage to take a second look, a slight movement caught my eye. A tiny robin lay lopsidedly in the tall grass. Pinfeathers had barely protruded from his wrinkled skin and his wings were too weak to avail him. Immediately I scooped him up and made off for the house just as Grammy was pulling into the driveway. I ran toward the station wagon, one arm waving madly, the other cradling the tiny bird against my body.


Holding the baby robin I rescued.

"I got a baby robin," I exclaimed in a breathless rush of excitement. "It's from the nest in the arbor.”

Of course, Grammy immediately suspected me as the culprit and severely scolded me for disobeying strict orders to leave the nest alone. I somehow managed to explain that, no, I was not a villain but a heroine who had saved the baby robin from inevitable death. She firmly took my free hand in hers as we climbed the slope toward the arbor. Looking back, I don't think she truly believed my story of spectacular heroism. Until she investigated the scene for herself, she assumed I was making up another fantastic story to cover my mischievous tracks.

As we walked, I asked a myriad of questions: “What are his chances for survival? Will the mother come back to find him? What if she doesn’t? How will he survive?” I was feeling my way around the central question — whether or not I could keep the tiny bird as a pet. Grammy remained silent as she pushed through the vines and peered into the nest. I stood impatiently beneath her with the robin chirping frantically in my hands. I was waiting for an answer, but the solemn expression on her face as she climbed down hushed my incessant chatter. She took my hand again and we walked slowly toward the house. This time she held me more gently and explained that she and Grandpa would talk about the matter before dinner. In the meantime, I lined an old dishcloth with a handful of grass in the corner of a sneaker box and put the robin inside where he continued calling for his mother.

Some time later Grandpa came in from the barn and I listened to my parents' conversation from the other room. I couldn't catch everything, but I heard all the important details.

"David, I looked and there was nothing left. The mother must have been taken, too, because there were just feathers left in the nest. I don’t think there’s a chance of her coming back. The robin Jenny found in probably the only one that made it."

"I know, Carol. Even if she did come back, she wouldn't likely accept it. But I'm more concerned about Jenny. You know the chances of survival aren't very good. You know how she gets attached to animals, especially when she thinks that she can make them better. Is it worth that trouble? It might be better if I took care of it myself.”


With my brother and the baby robin.

Two months later the temperatures were as hot as ever. The forecasters talked of record-breaking highs and I believed it. As much as I enjoyed it, I was happy to know summer was winding down. Mid-August had arrived and with it, the preparations for going back to school. But this particular day I had set aside for working on new skills — Beebop's flying skills. Ever since that evening two months before when my parents had been discussing the robin's fate, I had been preparing for this day. Tearfully interrupting their conversation with promises of faithful caretaking should the robin live and quiet acceptance should it die, I convinced my parents to allow me to keep the rescued fledgling as my pet.

Finding an appropriate name was the first order of business. I decided on "Beebop" since that seemed to be the closest sound to a robin's cheery warble he could muster. Next, I moved him from the confines of the sneaker box into an inverted potato crate complete with an old chestnut tree branch which served as a perch. Because worms were hard to unearth in the dry, dusty clumps of sun-parched dirt, Beebop flourished under a regimen of chicken mash and milk, forced down his throat with a popsicle stick. As the weeks progressed, I realized his need for exercise. Daily, I would take him outside and encourage him to explore the nearby forsythia bushes. Grammy had explained to me that in the fall Beebop may begin to instinctually want to join the other robins in their journey south. It was part of my responsibility to prepare him for this important departure.


Beebop on a practice run.

We had been making great strides in independence over the last few days. Beebop would fly about for a few minutes or so before returning to my outstretched arm. Grammy and Grandpa commended me for my persistence, watching in wonder as I would toss Beebop into the air and call him back again from the maple tree. And I began to resent the coming of fall and his inevitable egress.

I remember the last weekend of summer. A cooler breeze was blowing across the fields, bending the Timothy grass in graceful arches. The trees had begun daubing yellow and red splotches along their stretched out arms. Already, a few of the less tenacious leaves had fallen to the ground. I squinted into the sun to watch a flock of robins surging up from the lower pasture. They were gathering for their journey south.


A final photo with my pet robin.

Grammy and Grandpa had invited some friends over for a final summer picnic. As the adults stood around the picnic table talking about their usual adult things, I quietly slipped into the house and took Beebop out of his potato crate. Walking onto the patio, I asked if anyone wanted to see my pet robin fly to the maple tree and then back to my arm. Indulgent smiles turned my way as the grown-ups stopped their conversations and gave their attention to me. I took Beebop in my outstretched hand and with a powerful toss, propelled him heavenward.

Similar to slowly advancing a movie frame by frame, the scene that followed to this day plays through my mind. I still desperately want to stop the tape, rewind it, re-measure my steps.

All eyes turn up as I let Beebop go.

I hear a harsh crack.

Then a dull thud.

Everyone gasps.

All eyes turn away.

I stare wide-eyed and horrified as my little friend lies motionless on the concrete.

In my haste, I had carelessly misjudged the angle Beebop would take as he left my hand. I had propelled him into the patio roof, breaking his neck in the process. Our company shifted uncomfortably as Grammy bent down and picked up the limp body. Quiet conversation resumed as everyone tried to politely overlook the terrible terrible accident which had just taken place. Grandpa took me inside and led me to the couch where I sat in stunned silence, his face contorted between words of compassion and chastisement, his lips quivering with a thousand words, none of them able to connect with his voice. There was no need for discipline. I would handle the flogging of my heart just fine in the hours and years to come.

Later that evening, we dug a small hole under the plum tree. I held Beebop in my hands just as I had done the day I rescued him, tears from a torn heart soaking into the old dishtowel that we wrapped around his broken body before gently placing him into the ground. The dipping sun sent crimson rays across the fields and the shadows of Timothy grass bowed low as if in prayer as I finished scooping the dirt into his grave. I sat alone beneath the plum tree, my mind churning over the awful end of summer and all the ways in which I wanted to write a different ending. If only … if instead …

It’s been over 35 years since that fateful summer day but not a single robin warbles in our yard here at the end of the cul-de-sac without me once again returning to the grape arbor, patio, and plum tree. So why share a memory that has no happy ending, no hope for a turn around or heroic rescue? Why not leave the snapshots of a little girl’s innocence in the shoebox where none need know the guilt that’s written all over them in her adult mind? That would be the easy path to walk but I wouldn’t be sharing the whole of my life with you if I were to only pick the stories that end well and warmly. One day you’ll have your own chapters of sadness and regret and I want you to know that you’re not alone in them. They’re a common lineament to this life we live and they’re surmountable, survivable, if a bit scarring.


We continue to rescue the ones that fall.

I want you to know that yes, by all means, you must keep rescuing the ones that have fallen. The victories are so very worth the perils. Fantastic adventures often begin with a hand that’s unafraid to reach out. Just ask Grammy about the chipmunk. The one I rescued. The one who lived in the house with us for 6 years. But that’s a tale for another telling.

First Farms: Grandpa's Dance

JenTo my children: Ehmar, Jaedy and Elcee,

Life is so good and beautiful here at the end of our cul-de-sac north of the city, and I truly have no reason to wish it any other way. But there’s a thin strand of regret, longing perhaps, about the fact that my children won’t know the joys of living on a farm. You’ve visited your great-grandfather’s homestead and Grammy’s county fair, and you’re quite comfortable picking up a chicken or toad or butterfly. All of that tickles me to no end! But the memories you’ll have are scant in comparison to the years of waking up and falling asleep to the hum of country rhythms that I have stored away in my mind, and I’m a bit sad that I have a gift I can’t pass down to you in full.  

I want to share with you some of my memories of growing up on our family farms, the ones that stand as the ballasts to my country upbringing. I want you to one day inherit the boxes of old family photos and be able to say as you sort through them, “I remember the story Mom told us about this one.” Just promise me you’ll tuck them away in a pocket of your affection so you’ll always carry a few bits of hay and a pinch of long dirt road with you, no matter what corner of the world you find yourselves in.

So where to begin? Perhaps at the beginning with my earliest farm memory.

Lane To Barn
The lane from Grandpa’s house to Great-Grandma’s barn.

It’s around 1978 or so, which makes me about 4 years old. I'm with my Grandpa Durandetta at his mother Louise's barn just a short walk down the lane from his house on Bloomington Hill. Though the farm was largely retired by then, Grandpa’s brother still pastured a herd of cows there, and since the barn was a stone's throw from his house, Grandpa regularly went down to feed them. On this particular day, Grandpa allowed me to follow him onto the barn floor and watch him push the hay flakes down to the racks below. I can still hear the lowing and cud-chewing sounds as the cows worked through their feed, but I was too afraid to get close enough to the chutes to actually see them. I do remember watching Grandpa straddle the holes in the floor as he dropped the hay down into what seemed a hundred-foot abyss. I watched with my heart pounding as he leaped from one beam to the next with the pitchfork in his grasp and thought how he must surely be the bravest man in the world.  

Hay Season
Hay being moved into the barn in the early days of the farm.

Grandpa and his brother, Alex, were well acquainted with that barn and every pasture and dell on the wide expanse of their land. Decades earlier, when they were just teenagers, they had convinced their father, Neno, to buy the farm for them so they could work it after school. (Uncle Alex did go on to have a dairy farm of his own. Grandpa went on to be a teacher and eventually a school administrator.)

Neno Louise
My great-grandparents, Neno and Louise.

Both Neno and Louise immigrated from Italy in the early 1900s, and Neno made his living, as did many Northern Italians who settled in central Pennsylvania, in the stone quarries. So sandstone runs through the Durandetta bloodline, much more so than grain. But Grandpa and his brother saw an opportunity to carve out an honest life on a good piece of land, and eventually Neno joined them when the quarry work became too taxing.

Great-Grandma Louise as I remember her.

Neno died in 1949, just shy of his 60th birthday. Great-Grandma Louise went on to live another 30 years, relying on her determined and independent will to see her through the widow’s ache and the advancing pallium of old age.

Louise and Jenny
Great-Grandma holding me as a toddler.

I do remember Great-Grandma although she passed when I was only 5. So it was near the end of her old age when I went with my grandpa up on the barn floor to watch him feed the cows. And although I have many clear memories of time spent in Grandma Louise’s house and around the yard, I only have that single memory of being in the barn.

Two summers ago, during our visit back to the mountains, I called up my dad’s cousin who has lived on the farm since Grandma Louise passed away. Yes, he said, I was more than welcome to visit and spend as much time walking around the property as I’d like. And so I set off with Grammy in tow on an unseasonably cool, bright July afternoon to see if it might be possible to wind back a moment, to discover if it was a real memory or just a memory of a story or a photograph, as so many of our earliest recollections really are.

Barn Bridge
The barn bridge as it looks today.

We pulled up to the bottom of the barn bridge and walked up the grassy slope to the heavy wooden doors. One side had been blown off during a winter storm and was now fixed tight. Together we tugged on the other side, and it creaked as the pulleys scraped across the metal track at the top, eventually giving way enough for us to walk through.  

In my memory, the hay chutes were to the left, along the loft wall. I was surprised and confused when I realized that the floor was solid and there were no holes to speak of. I peered over the loft wall, thinking they might be farther back, but the floor was covered with a full layer of loose hay. No evidence of chutes there either. I moved to the right side wall and checked there, but that side of the floor was empty except for a few rusty oil drums and an old riding mower that was parked along the loft wall. For a moment, I despaired that perhaps my sure memory of watching Grandpa’s brazen dance along the barn beams had been nothing but a figment of a child’s wild dreaming.  

And then I caught sight of the pitchfork.

Hay Chutes
Where Grandpa danced over the hay chutes.

It was stabbed into a stack of hay at the back of the barn floor, just as if Grandpa had been there earlier that day though he has been gone for more than a decade. I walked toward it and suddenly, there were the chutes, just as I had remembered seeing them some 35 years before. There were more than I remember, perhaps a dozen running along the back wall of the barn. It was simultaneously thrilling and paralyzing to stand at the edge of those holes. I felt small again and fearful even though I could see to the bottom, a drop of less than 10 feet. Still formidable but not the crevasse I had imagined as a child. I took a step onto the beam that Grandpa had so elegantly bounded onto and found that my feet felt like cement. Grammy had to come over and give me her hand before I could manage to step back onto the plank floor.

Barn swallows
Barnswallow mud nests.

We spent an hour or so walking through the different parts of the barn. There were other familiar nooks like a trap door and granary bins, and I was delighted to see barn swallows and their mud nests up close again. (They were one of my favorites on our own farm as they used to sit on the telephone wire outside my bedroom window and chatter me awake in the morning.) I took dozens of photographs and wished there was a way to capture the aroma ... a tumaceous mixture of hay and manure and age. No matter how old I grow, I know that my brain will always recognize that singular smell. (And I consider it a pity that your own noses get pinched whenever we drive past a freshly fertilized field.)

Perhaps next summer I’ll take you down to Grandma Louise’s farm. Cousin Glen said we were welcome anytime. I have lots more corners I want to revisit and we could check to see if the snakes are still living among the tiger lilies. But that’s a tale for another telling. ...

Stone Wall
So many more stories to tell about Grandma Louise’s farm.