The pastor officiating at my grandfather’s funeral asked our family to write down memories to be read as a tribute. Everyone had some sort of memory about my grandpa. My cousin Brian’s memory of Grandma falling off a wagon as Grandpa pulled it with the Kubota was one of the funnier ones. Some shared memories I wasn’t privy to, memories that were private and special to that person. Maybe that’s why I didn’t write anything down, I wanted to be a little selfish by keeping my memories to myself.
I write the memories now, though, because my grandfather, with his bird’s-eye view, would want me to say that his granddaughter heard the stories no one knew.
When we made the long drive “back home,” we never stayed in a hotel. One reason was that there really weren’t any in Olney, Illinois. Another reason was that my grandparents were hospitable folk, though my grandfather would half-jokingly say that company keeps like fish, it goes bad after three days. When we stayed there, I worried that my sleepless ways would be a problem. I never knew my grandfather had insomnia, too, until my grandparents moved from the farmhouse Grandpa had built in the 1950s to a house in town.
On our visits to the smaller house, I’d creep into the living room and find my grandfather staring at the silent television. I’d sit in the corner of the couch closest to him while he stared, his still-handsome face grim, unmoving, with a toothpick dangling from his lips. We were comfortably silent in recognition and reverence for a presence that I wasn’t sure I believed in.
There was always a Honey Bun on the table beside his chair. One night he opened the package, broke the Honey Bun in two, and handed me the smaller half. And so our conversations began. I ate while he told me stories of his life. I learned he went AWOL in the Army after World War II because he and a couple of the fellas wanted to see the capital of Alabama. His punishment was to clean the upper floor of the barracks, which he did by dragging a hose up the stairs and spraying the whole floor. I don’t think he was ordered to do any other janitorial tasks after that. I also learned that our family farmland, which spread across Richland County in southern Illinois, came from a relative’s gold-rush money.
If I could ask, I’d want to know about this great-great-great-uncle who traveled to the West to make some kind of fortune. I’d want to know how it came to be that he returned to Illinois, and how he ended up loaning his brother money for what would become the Baker Farm.
Generations of our family have farmed that land. Now it’s mostly rented out, and we’ve all moved in a sad scattering of hayseeds. I say “sad” because I believe that the joy found in the smell of fresh-cut hay and sweating livestock is an acquired love and, maybe, a bit of genetic hardwiring.
Knowing that historically monumental events, in effect, are what made me a country girl causes me a lot of ponderings. I think about our land and how it shapes us. Farmers are unique because, though industry changes, some things never change. My uncles have a lot more than a paperback almanac to predict the weather, and the sprawling farms they manage require intimidating machinery. Still, long hours in the field are a given, and you can bet the weather will never be just right in a farmer’s world. It’s also a given that a farmer’s respect for the land is different than the man who worries whether the homeowner’s association will fine him for the dead patch of grass on the front lawn.
The necessary teamwork required in the upkeep of a farm tends to be localized. Family is the nucleus of a farm, and this creates a special glue in families who bind together to grow crops or raise livestock.
I see my family – the members who no longer farm – slipping apart too easily. The farmers, though, stay close and gather often. I notice that without my grandfather, those gatherings wobble. Some traditions don’t take place anymore.
Raleigh Baker took pride in his Kubota like some hold the John Deere in esteem. He toured his farm by driving the orange Kubota methodically from the north field to the west field, then the south field onto the east field. In winter, Grandpa hooked up a rickety wooden antique sleigh to his Kubota. Come Christmas, it didn’t matter if we had snow or not, we piled into the sleigh with blankets and thermoses filled with hot chocolate. Grandpa drove that old tractor through the fields, turning to look at us, his bushy white eyebrows raised as his grin radiated affectionate pride. The sleigh’s runners caused mud to spit and splatter while we half-heartedly sang Christmas carols. Grandpa thought we wanted to ride behind the backfiring Kubota, and we knew he wanted to do this for us. So we did.
I didn’t contribute a written memory to the pastor at the funeral. Instead, I wrote a song and played the piano, singing with a voice that didn’t crack. The song said what I knew Grandpa would have wanted to say. As I sang, my voice was clear, and I didn’t fight tears. Instead, I felt lifted as I sang, I don’t know where I’m going, but I see where I’ve been. Now I’m going home, I just can’t say when.
I didn’t fully understand what I’d written at the time, but now I know that I don’t know where I’m going, but I see where I’ve been. And because of my grandfather, I have a window into the generations past that melded to make me who I am. I’m not sure where home is, but I have a better idea every day. Grandpa knew, and somewhere he has a bird’s-eye view of his farm and his family. His Kubota is permanently parked, but I know Raleigh Baker now has a much better way of touring his farm from north to west, and south to east.
Angela Baker lives in Clermont, Florida, where she finds plenty of opportunities to read, write, knit and miss the farm.