Monday, September 23, 2013

First Farms : Grandpa's dance

To Matt, Josh & Lauren:

Your Grammy has a phrase she repeats anytime I launch into another of my farmgirl-inspired pursuits.  Whether it’s going through the scrap lumber at Home Depot to build a bean trellis or completely freaking out your Daddy with a glass aquarium full of Monarch caterpillars on the kitchen counter each June, she just rolls her eyes and says, “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.”  
And she’s right.  I’ve lived here in the south-eastern PA suburbs now for nearly 15 years.  But my country roots still run deep and it doesn’t take more than a quick glance around the house to see where they’ve crept back up to the surface.  The seeds we plant every spring and the recipes I’m teaching you how to bake; the barbed wire wreath that hangs in the family room and the hand-stitched quilts I lay on your beds during the coldest winter spells; the birds we watch in the dining room nestbox and the bees we admire as they pollinate along the sunflower fence.  All of these touchstones, and so many, many more, can be traced back to some element of my years on the farm.  
Farms, actually.    
You see, I was such a very blessed baby because on the day I was born, there were 3 farms in our family.  The two near Curwensville had largely been put to pasture by the time I came along.  Great-Grandma Louise Durandetta and Great-Grandma Jennie Long, both long widowed, still lived in their weathered houses that creaked and leaned like an old farmer’s knees after a long day in the field.  By the time I could walk through them, the barns were mostly empty expect for the beef cows that Great Uncle Alex fed in the bottom level at Grandma Durandetta’s place.  
The third farm was a 2-hour drive west to the outskirts of Grove City, PA.  Grammy grew up there (yes, that’s where Daddy and I went to college and met) and I spent many happy stretches of summer on the Frisk farm when she would take Uncle Jason and me back home for a visit.  That farm was still busy and full of animals of every shape and size throughout my whole childhood.  Grandpa Frisk was forever coming home from the swap meet with a new goat or pen of roller pigeons.  There were cows and roosters and peacocks and endless dogs and cats.  I rode my first pony, Cocoa, there when I was just a toddler and I can remember feeling enthralled by the rows of purple and blue ribbons that Great-Grandpa Harry Frisk had won for showing his quarterhorses.  
Now you might think that having 3 farms to visit was a pretty good way to spend a childhood.  But your Grammy and Grandpa wanted just a little more for their children.  After all, visiting a farm is like licking the spoon after mom’s done mixing the cake batter.  Growing up on a farm is like getting to eat the whole cake.  And so in 1978, when I was just halfway through my 4th year and Uncle Jason wasn’t quite a year old yet, we moved from our little house on Filbert Street in Curwensville to our very own farm on a winding country road that didn’t even have a name.  We had 65 acres and a big barn and a spring house and a wide front porch and an old pear tree all to ourselves.   Oh, what a slice of heaven it was!  And so began the years of me having my cake and eating it, too.  
For the next 18 years, I explored every inch of those fields and hewn boards until the last year of college when Daddy came with a diamond and swept me off to our little apartment in the suburbs of Pittsburgh.  It might have marked the end of my living on the farm, but not the end of my loving the farm life. Even in our cramped spaces, I always found ways to keep those roots alive.  Little things like planting the gebera seeds from Grammy's garden to big things like finally convincing Daddy that we really could have chickens in our cul-de-sac backyard.  
Don’t get me wrong.  I’m very content with the little town you’re growing up in.  Perkasie is a wonderful place to call home and a perfect distance between the bright blare of the city and the quiet rustle of dried corn stalks.  In many ways, you’re going to live an even better life than I did because you’ll have a sure footing in both these worlds.   It took me awhile to adjust, but I’m very comfortable now living on a street of 1/2 acre yards and Wednesday morning trash collection.  However, there’s simply no getting the country out of me and so there are many years ahead for telling you about the dark, spooky root cellar where Grammy used to hide our Christmas presents or Grandpa Frisk’s bear skin rug that used to give me nightmares when I dreamed it was coming back to life.  I haven’t yet told you about the fun we used to have with the party line phone at Grandma Long’s house or the gobs and gobs of Concord grapes we used to pick in Grandma Durandetta’s side yard each fall.  
I often wonder, Would I really pick up and move to a farm now, if given the chance?  Could I jump at the opportunity to give you the same rich experiences that I delighted in for nearly 2 decades?  The answer is a surprising and saddening “probably not.”  (Daddy is heaving a sigh of relief as he reads that.)  As much as I would absolutely love to raise bona fide farmkids, I know it’s not a life that’s so carelessly chosen.  And I think we can safely say that your Daddy would never be happy in bib overalls and muck boots!   But rather than lamenting that my children won’t have the same deeply rooted country life that I did, I’ve decided to do what every good mother does from time to time:  pull out the pen and start reminiscing up a cake so that you’ll have plenty of spoons to lick.  
Where shall I start?  Perhaps at the beginning...  

First Farms:  Neno & Louise Durandetta

I have two early memories of farm life, mostly fuzzy snippets of memories really, as I must have been just a preschooler at the time of each.  

In the first, I'm with my Grandpa Wayne Durandetta at his mother's barn which was just a short walk down the lane from his house on Bloomington Hill. (We pass those houses when we’re headed up to go fishing at the Dam.)  Though the farm was largely retired by then, my great-uncle still kept a herd of cows there and since the barn was a stone's throw from Grandpa's house, he 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 cattle stanchions 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.  

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 that 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.)   Both Neno and Louise had immigrated from Italy in the late 1800s and Neno made his living, as did many Northern Italians who settled in central PA, 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.

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

It was near the end of that old age when I went with my Grandpa up on the barn floor to watch him feed the cows.  And although I have dozens of 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.  

This past summer, 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 come visit and spend as much time walking around the property as I’d like. And so I set off with your 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.  

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 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 half wall, thinking they might be further 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.

It was stabbed into a stack of hay at the back of the barn floor.  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.  

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 pictures and wished there were 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 orange tiger lilies.  But that’s a tale for another telling...

No comments:

Post a Comment