Eugene and Beatrice Carlson owned a dairy farm in Amery, Wisconson, smack dab in the middle of cheese-state America near the Minnesota border. To our family, they were Aunt Bea and Uncle Gene, my dad’s aunt and uncle. To the little town of Amery, they were dairy farmers on family land, passed down from generation to generation. The ebb and flow of American farm life is sheltered in those patches of dirt and acreage; that little place in the world remains as a soft, nostalgic flush of sunset in my memory.
When I first stepped foot on this vintage form of the rustic Midwest, I was too young to realize that it was dying out with slow and tender sadness. My own father had traveled out to the farm in the 1970’s to help his Uncle Gene and his cousins bale hay in the sweltering, summer heat. He piled our young mother, my brother, and I into the family car, driving from Michigan to Wisconsin in the mid-80’s to pay his Aunt and Uncle a visit when I was about 4 years old. A smattering of yellowed, curled photographs give a glimpse into another lifetime of the farming industry. There is little I can remember except that the farm had this magical, warm haze over it.
Framed in the clutches of my memory is the old, white barn against the sky, the amber-golden sun setting in the sultry twilight, casting a blonde-wheat glow across the dirt pathways and grassy barnyard. I squint back into my mind’s eye, trying to bring it back into focus and the recollections are probably, admittedly, mixed with E.B White’s beautiful, nostalgic description of Fern, Wilbur, and a barnyard full of animals and of an America of our parent’s and grandparent’s childhoods.
It had a sense of history, of other-timeness. When stepping into the farmhouse or the farmyard, a simpleness covered over that little space of the earth. I can feel the beat down dirt pathways with my bare feet, kicking up dust clouds, and hear the cows calling to one another in the distance. Chippy paint on the doorposts, the large open kitchen with windows that looked over the barns. I can remember my dad’s cousin, Larry, showing me how to quietly tiptoe into the covered calve’s shed and hand-feed sweet hay to the baby that they named after me.
There are pictures of my brother and I playing inside the corn-crib. I vaguely remember walking into the milking barn and the noise being much more of a roar than I expected, cupping my hands over my ears. Rows of dairy cows were swinging in motion next to one another, and I recall my Uncle Gene (or was it my dad?) telling my brother and I to watch our step behind the cows. Another memory I have of that visit is riding out into the fields in the afternoon with my dad, brother, and Uncle Gene on a tractor. I begged my dad to let me walk back to the farmhouse so I could go the bathroom, convincing him I knew the way. Somehow I got stuck near the pen where the cows were let out and I couldn’t find an open gate. No cows were in sight, and I had to go badly, so I climbed through the wooden fence and trucked through the manure-filled pen in my white Osh-Kosh overalls and lace-up sneakers. Muffling alarm, Aunt Bea about had a heart attack when I came into the farmhouse with my legs caked in casts of manure. I can still remember standing at the bottom of the stairs near the door as she rushed down to strip me out of my clothes.
The summer before my 8th grade year, our parents took us out to the antique farm once again. The house was the same as ever, with the smell of sizzling bacon on the stove, buttered biscuits in the oven, aged wallpapers and shag carpets throughout. Uncle Gene took my dad and brother and I to the local Winn-Dixie for milk–he had sold his dairy cows when his sons moved on. My dad said that Gene always understood they did not want to inherit a dying business, but even at 13 I was heartbroken to see the farm as a ghost of what it once was. Buying milk to drink on an old dairy farm was painful irony. Gene and Bea lived on the farm, but the barn stood empty–actually, it was as if one day someone flicked the lights off, walked away, and simply never came back. The barn still had the cow’s harnesses hanging from the ceiling, oxidizing with rust and decay. I distinctly remember the large, industrial ceiling fan was still hooked up and covered in cobwebs. A small alarm clock was plugged into an outlet, sitting on the rafters near the doorpost.
It is these memories that flood into me when I am 17, speeding over the wavy hills of southwest Michigan back road in the summer of 1999. The warm, thick, summer air pulsing through my windows, and I thrust my hand out to feel it push against my fingers. The twilight sun piercing gold and white, stepping right down from heavens onto the open cornfields and mature trees. I can remember breathing it in, my tiny gray hatchback stick-shift another remnant of the past. For one odd reason or another, I always feel a belonging to the past–to the places and people that brought me into being. A life built on other lives, and other dreams, and other journeys. It is a payment, an indebtedness, to the past that always lives within my chest and my gut that I must write about to pay it back. My father didn’t just tell me about his childhood: he took me there. I take my children to mine. And they will one day take their children to the places that they belong to.