First Farms: Grandpa’s Dance

Reader Contribution by Jen
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To 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.

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 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.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. …

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

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