Tuesday, March 18, 2014

First Farms: Great-Grandpa And The Red Dog Lane

To Matt, Josh & Lauren

Last time, I wrote to you about my earliest barn memory at the Durandetta farm.  (You can read it here.)  How as a small girl I watched in silent awe as my grandpa leaped from beam to beam above the cow stanchions and how my heart raced at the thought of him slipping and disappearing down, down, down forever.  

It’s interesting that my other earliest barn memory, this time at the Frisk farm (just a few miles from Grove City College where Daddy and I met) also involves a fear of falling down.  I was pretty young, maybe 4 or 5, because Great Grandpa Harry was walking with me.   He was left bedridden by a stroke when I was about 7 years old, so the memory comes from before then.  

I remember how he used to amble across the gravel driveway, from the house to the garage and then to the pony barn.  Back then, the farm's long lane was lined with a reddish stone that we called “red dog” and I recall going along, dragging the toe of my shoe to make scrapes as I helped him with his chores.  By the time I was born (I am the eldest cousin of 9 on the Frisk side), Grandpa Harry was a fixture but no longer the linchpin of operations on the farm.  His days in the coal mines were long over and he had retired from his work as township supervisor, staying mostly close to home except for trips to local swap meets and the occasional escape to Florida during a belligerent winter's quartering.  At that advanced grandfatherly age, he could afford the steady, measured pace that allowed little legs to keep up.  

In my memory, I’m climbing up the rough wooden steps of the pony barn with Grandpa Harry ahead of me.  My hands are grasping each board of the step in front because I’m afraid of the open drop to the concrete floor on my right side and I’m hugging the cinderblock wall to my left, leaning hard against it as I pull myself up to the granary floor above.  

Once there, my sense of fear was eased by the sweet smells of grain wafting up as Grandpa lifted heavy shovelfuls into the feed buckets.  I can smell that memory more than see it, as anyone who has experienced the syrupy brine of a bag of sweet feed or the dusty shrivel of a corn crib surely understands.  Today, when I walk into the feed store here in Perkasie, even though I’m 300 miles and 35 years away from that moment, I still feel as though I’m standing at the top of those stairs in the pony barn, watching as Grandpa Harry, clad in his dark olive green shirt smeared with tractor grease, rolls his shoulders over another shovel of oats at the horses’ dinnertime.

Carl Henry “Harry” Frisk had come into farming from a hard angle. He and his brother, Harold, were the sons of Swedish immigrants who settled in Illinois near the turn of the 20th century.  For reasons about which we can only speculate, the family became unwoven and their father left his young wife, then a mother of three.  With limited options for single parenting, Anna made the agonizing decision to cast off the bowlines that bound her to her boys and had them placed in a Lutheran orphanage in Genessee, New York.  She kept her young daughter Anethe with her, perhaps thinking she could manage to provide for a single child, if not all three.

The boys whittled away the years between the orphanage and apprentice shops and stints on the run.  They learned the expediency of a well-timed fist at too tender an age and later on, Harry took a stab at the amateur club fighting circuit in western PA with considerable success.  Eventually, the brothers were taken in by a well-to-do farmer in Mercer County, PA.  The Christley family provided them with a stable place to rest and grow and they began to put down roots for the first time in their lives.  Mr. Christley held the mortgage on a nearby farm which was headed to sheriff sale.  He turned the note over to Harry who was awarded half of the farm.  He then purchased the remaining half at the same sale for $265 and officially became a farmer on a 65-acre stretch of land.     

Younger brother Harold eventually married a lady named Helen and made his home a few miles down the road from his brother.  They never had children of their own but my mom remembers her great-aunt as doting and sweet.  I have the faintest memory of being in their house once.  Aunt Helen gave me a delicate bud vase of pink glass with golden stripes embossed around the edges.  You can find it in the china cabinet now along with 2 matching ones I found at a flea market some years ago.  

Harry's wife was Iva May.  They raised 2 boys; Robert (my grandfather) and Stewart.  IvaMay died of complications from diabetes at just 44 years of age so, of course, I never knew her.  Even Grammy only has the most fleeting memory of her.  She recently shared a story that she remembers hearing of how, as a toddler, she bit her grandmother’s finger while she was lying in bed.  Everyone was elated because Iva May, whose extremities had lost feeling by then, had felt the pain of it.  

Grandpa Harry then was a widower for much of his life and he spent those years helping run the farm that his oldest son Robert had taken over.  Before the stroke, he lived in an old mobile trailer that had been parked along a path in the woods behind the house.  I remember going up the steps and peering inside at the rows of purple and blue show ribbons that his quarterhorses had won over the years.   But a lifetime of building broad shoulders and callused hands was no match for the garrote of a clogged artery.   After succumbing to the choking hands of a tiny clot of blood, Grandpa Harry, who had spent decades of his life hoisting mountains of grain and manure and coal, was transferred from hospital to nursing home.  Like a granary bin in the pony barn, the trailer was cleaned out for the final time.  I felt both great sadness and deep affection when I was given a box of his ribbon trophies and I kept them in my bedroom throughout my childhood, always remembering my carefree shoe-scuffing days with Grandpa Harry on the farm.    

Great Grandpa lived for 7 years in the nursing home.  I have many memories of visiting him there and holding his hand while he sat in the geri-chair next to the window.  He would ask my dad about the price of coal as they both had spent a considerable portion of their lives in the business.  And he always quietly cried when we stood up to leave, the now-frail shoulders rolling over and over from the strain of welling tears.

He died when I was 14.  His funeral was the first of a loved one that I clearly remember attending.  It’s funny how the mind picks and chooses what it will attach to memory like a strip of Velcro.  Captured in the hooks and loops is the black sweater with brightly colored stripes running horizontally across the front that I wore that day and how I had to leave the viewing hour with my mom because I couldn’t contain my sobs any longer.  And it’s funny how smells and sounds often are more securely anchored than sights themselves.   I visited the farm countless times after Grandpa Harry left it, though I can’t recall the granary ever smelling like sweet feed again.

Uncle Jason and I continued to spend a summer week at the end of the red dog lane, just as you visit your grandparents and cousins in the mountains each August.  My stays on the Frisk farm are, in fact, the inspiration for much of what I teach you when we head for the open fields and cattail ponds of my old hometown.    

A few years ago, Grandpa Frisk died as well.  Mia had succumbed 18 months prior after a long and courageous battle with cancer.  I am so thankful that we made the long drive from Philadelphia to western PA three times so that your great-grandparents could bounce you on their laps and pose for a few squirmy photos, even though you’d only remember those dear folks from a handful of snapshots and my recollections.  

For the last 3 summers, I’ve made a point to drive out to the farm while in Grove City for my annual dinner with my college roommate.  Uncle Bob, who lives across the road, has been keeping up with the mowing and snow plowing and watching the pipes during the hardest freezes of the winter.  He’s even kept up the garden so Grammy and Grandpa can bring farm pumpkins to us for carving each October.  It’s been such a mix of emotions for me to travel back that long lane as I have done for forty years now, knowing that the barns and fields and lake remain, but Grandpa’s deep, capturing laugh won’t be greeting me at the door and Mia’s endless pots of coffee won’t be brewing their comfortable welcome.    

I always try to shutter in as much of my childhood’s memoir as I can while I’m there.  The old concrete steps at the back door where the cousins sat in age order.  The well cap which made for the perfect “safe” spot during a game of tag.  The red dog gravel in the lane where I had my first pony ride.  No matter how many times I run the camera battery down, I feel like I missed a piece of the puzzle and I can’t wait to go back again the next year to try and find it. 

The happy news is that we’ll be able to do just that.  After several years, Grandpa’s estate has been settled and Aunt Regina is moving to the farm.  She’s excited to get the fences fixed and the barns filled again with horses and goats and I’m hoping there will be chickens, too.  Best of all, she’s said we’re welcome to come for a visit and you can be sure I’ll take her up on the offer.  

And I won’t be a bit surprised if we happen to come home with a kitten or bunny or banty hen.  I can’t tell you how many times as a child I rode home from the farm with a box of fluffy contents on my lap.  But those are tales for other tellings…