Little Spies Above

                                                  

The adult world held such fascination for me when we were children. Beyond our little rural haven, grown-ups had mysterious activities which involved staying up late, polishing dress shoes, and applying red lipstick. Sometimes, our parents included us (carefully scrubbed and dressed in outfits besides our play clothes) in summer picnics and outdoor events with their friends and their children.   Some we were related to, but most became as close to us as aunts and uncles as they celebrated our family’s joys and shared in our inevitable sorrows.  

Once there, our father and his friends pitched horseshoes, casually sipping from their brown long-neck bottles. Our mother sat with the other ladies, tending food and babies, laughing, and swinging their tanned, crossed legs. We children played on the perimeter of the various hosts’ yards, our mothers’ occasional shouts steering our frantic tag games to avoid the horse-shoe pits.

But usually, our parents left us behind on their Saturday night dates when they attended their “Potluck Club,” secretly known as the “Martini Club.”

This is about the age when our farmhouse spy operations began.

When it was our parents’ turn to host a monthly gathering, we children were tucked in carefully, probably an hour before our usual bedtime.   Once the guests arrived, the sounds and smells of the “Club” rose through the floor grate in our bedroom in the old house. (The three of us slept in separate twin beds in this room—a rustic farmhouse version of John, Michael, and Wendy’s nursery frequented by Peter Pan.) Oh, how hard it was to settle down to sleep with all the noises from the party below: bursts of raucous laughter, crisp card shuffling, and the clinks of ice dropping in highball glasses continually roused us from our attempts at rest.  

This grate was in the middle of the floor near the end of my bed. There were no heat vents in our bedroom, only this metal grid which allowed the warm air from the dining room to rise to the upper level.  Quietly, we slipped from our covers, crawling to the edges of the slatted opening. My brothers slowly pushed the square knob, sliding the thin metal rows, revealing the selections of party food on the buffet directly below. Our mother’s best dishes were neatly stacked, waiting for the cheese and crackers, party wieners, or savory meatballs displayed on various platters.  

I love this picture and my parents’ beautiful youth.

The three of us watched and listened, silently fascinated by the tops of the adult heads in our sight. We whispered together, solving the mystery of the out-of-view, familiar voices, belonging to so many of the important adults in our lives.   We stealthily slid pillows to the floor and rested our heads. Satisfied with our surveillance, we soon fell asleep, lulled by the comfort and knowledge of the adults’ happiness, a beautiful lullaby of the collective, contagious belief in the goodness of life rising from below.

It’s a Fine Life.

Hometown Rumblings

If you have ever spent much time in Vicksburg, Michigan, you know how frequently trains bisect our little hometown. Going in or out of the village, residents must regularly wait at a crossing. You can count on it. We have learned to accept this as it does us no good to complain.

Sometimes the trains gradually slow in the intersections; the boxcars and tankers inch forward a few feet, shift backwards a couple yards, then sigh and settle, blocking all traffic through town. Then everything must stop: buses filled with our school children, residents traveling to work or appointments, even emergency vehicles responding to a call. This type of waiting is both bothersome and stressful.

And during this last month, much-needed repairs have begun on several railroad crossings in and around the village, further complicating our travel.  But despite the continued detours, delays, and inconveniences, I remain incredibly fond of trains.

Here is the little depot where we caught the train to go our grandparents’ house. It has been lovingly cared for and now houses a charming museum. Photo by Leeanne Seaver.

When we waited as children, we loved counting cars and watching for the caboose which occupied the end of many trains. My mom would beep her horn as it passed, and my brothers and I would wave at a conductor, often standing and smoking at the back of the caboose. To me, that seemed a fantastic life: traveling cross country with a cheery, red car to sleep in. I imagined the engineers warming themselves around a cozy coal stove, a pot of chili simmering securely on top. When time permitted, the happy conductors could play Gin-Rummy, laughing happily together, puffing their fragrant pipes. At day’s end, they would crawl into tightly made bunks and be rocked to sleep by the gentle swaying of the rail cars.

When we were in elementary school, we occasionally traveled by train to our grandparents’ home on the eastern side of the state. My dad took us to the little station in Vicksburg, lugged our suitcases in, then helped the attendant check and stack them on the wooden cart.  My mother would buy our tickets from behind the glass window, and then we sat as patiently as we could on the wooden benches, our little legs swaying and swinging. Once safely aboard and tucked in our seats, we watched the Michigan countryside from the wide windows and ate endless snacks which magically appeared from my mother’s bottomless tote bag. My amazing mother–our personal Mary Poppins–kept the five of us happily occupied and seated.

Of course, times have changed, and while many goods are still shipped by rail, the passenger trains of my youth have long ago been salvaged or sit, quiet and empty, in the back of a city train yard. Our little brick station now happily houses a charming museum.

On these quiet autumn nights, the warning whistles of the late-night trains travel across Sunset Lake, always reminding me of the passage of time. I am thankful I am safe in my warm bed as those engineers and conductors ride and rumble towards home.

My heart is full.

It’s a Fine Life

Grace

My dad was a tree guy.

He planted them, admired them, and appreciated them for the firewood he cut to heat our farmhouse. In our yard, we always had shady trees, planted by my great-grandparents in the early 1900’s. To the west of the house stood old, knobby pear trees—overgrown and shaggy—whose fruit bounced to the ground with the late summer winds, attracting all kinds of stinging insects. In the front and back yards, we had big maples which we climbed like monkeys, fearlessly scaling the highest branches. We read books in the branches, pretended to take naps, and gave my mother fits when she emerged from the house, realizing how high we had climbed.

Two old trees stand vigil along the road. When I was a child, there were three, and my brothers and I played and built forts beneath them. (all photos courtesy of Oswalt Family Farms)

“Expand! Expand! Expand!” was the farm lending mantra during the late sixties and early seventies, giving confidence to my parents who purchased an adjoining eighty-acre parcel just to the west of our home place. This acreage was divided neatly by fence-rows into four twenty-acre fields. My dad planned to remove the fence-rows, full of sumac and various determined seedlings, to accommodate the farm implements which were growing vigorously larger and larger with the ag-industry’s push for more production.

Dad bought a small used bulldozer and began his demolition work with enthusiasm. We could hear the bulldozer’s engine and the cracking of the fence-rows’ brush as we rode our bikes back and forth, monitoring his progress. Dreaming of running his corn planter smoothly down long rows the following spring, he uprooted trees, burned huge brush piles, and worked steadily to create a large field.

The Angus are pastured on part of the field my dad cleared. While you see many cottonwood trees here, the year before my dad died, he was working daily to clear the dead and damaged trees from this area.

Once the dust settled, the smoke cleared, and the roaring bulldozer’s engine quieted, one tree stood alone in the middle of the huge, cleared field. I imagine it grew firmly in a fence row when my father and Uncle John were boys. It may have been an anchor for fencing, possibly a mark for a previous neighbor’s gate, or even a visual aid to help set a pattern for corn planting. It most certainly sheltered birds, housed squirrels, and supported the buzzards.

Somehow my dad’s grace allowed this old fellow to co-exist in our farm operation. It stood solidly in the middle of whatever my dad planted: corn, wheat, soybeans, even hay. Why did this one tree survive the bulldozer and chainsaw? I’m guessing my dad just couldn’t bring himself to cut that old gentleman down.

Here is the old tree, still surviving and enduring the winter, as the Angus move around him.

When I was a child, the tree was regal and handsome—his trunk thick and healthy, branches strong and many, and leaves lush and green. He became our favorite “secret spot.” Some breezy summer days, my mom would give us permission to pack our lunch and eat wherever we wanted. The tree wasn’t far—probably a quarter mile up the road on our bikes, then a quick hike through the field to picnic beneath his branches. It was cool in his shade, and around his base my dad had piled many loads of stones we gradually picked from the surrounding field.

I’m now a tree gal—influenced, I’m sure, by my dad’s passion for them: I admire the lone Gingko tree on the empty lot north of the bank, whose history is now forgotten; I am amazed by the massive beech tree on the east side of the Sunset Lake, whose totem pole trunk is carved with bark faces; and I notice the local tulip tree population, whose teacup blossoms grace their cool springtime arms.

And every time I visit my mother, I salute the tree, that tough old veteran, a reminder of my past and my dad’s impractical, sentimental side.

It’s a Fine Life.