Years ago, I used to take writing classes out to an abandoned house just outside of town, an old four square and strong place with trees growing out the windows, sparrows for residents. I'd walk inside with them and tell them to listen to the stories the old place would tell.
When the farmer happened along one day, I told him what I was doing and he nodded his approval, then called me a week or two later and said his insurance man had told him letting those kids walk around inside of something that rundown wasn't a great idea.
That was it for the writing classes. We never returned.
But I've wandered through a dozen abandoned farm places at least, all by my lonesome, still do. Once upon a time, I stumbled on an acreage a bunch of miles south and west of here, not all that far from the Big Sioux River, an old place with a barn and more than a couple sheds. I got out of the car and walked up to the broken windows of the house, looked in and found this.
The stories here had a musical accompaniment.
Barns too, dozens of them in all directions from Sioux County. Not so many years ago, I wrote a story about a young-ish preacher who's lost a goodly portion of his faith after his wife left him. Once a week or so he goes out with his camera to try look for beauty to replenish whatever reservoir of grace he once felt within him. He finds an abandoned barn and goes inside. What he finds there changes him. You can read it for yourself.
So a couple of days ago I had an opportunity I never had before, a chance to visit an abandoned place two hours north of here, a place my grandfather used to visit, his sister's farm, just north of Castlewood, SD. An old friend and relative had drawn me a map to get there, and showed me a picture of the place, as well as shot of my grandfather with his mother.
Wasn't easy to find, but his directions were precise, and when I got close I spotted Aunt Emma's from a distance and recognized it right away. To be honest, the acreage looked wasted, the driveway barely that. To get there, I had to cross a creek, frozen in February, on a bridge that looked fearfully hand-made. Right there I found the street sign.
Calling the driveway a driveway is a complement the path in front of me didn't deserve. To me, it looked like little more than tractor access to the field west, the rutted mess entirely frozen over in February but with any kind of rain, treacherous. I took it.
It was the place all right--same porch, same quonset.
When I got up close, a truck came into closer focus--you can just see it to the right of the house--and there's another to its right. Enough of the place was in shambles for me to realize that these trucks weren't. They looked parked.
The house was a mess. It needs a new roof, hasn't had a paint job in years, and the yard is littered with stuff, with junk; but there's a friendly plastic lawn chair on the far right of that porch. That someone still lived there seemed altogether too possible.
I didn't get too close. Fear--call it prejudice maybe--kept me from walking up to the door and just asking if they'd mind someone looking around outside, as if that someone could actually find some trace of his grandfather. It was the middle of the afternoon. If someone was home, he or she wasn't working. I turned around.
Drove me crazy, really, because I'd wanted so badly to walk around an abandoned farm where some folks from my own family had once called home. I stopped, looked around to see if maybe someone would come out. No. There I sat on that ribbed dirt driveway like a fool, and I snapped this picture like a coward. It's the best shot I got of the place, but backwards, in the rear view mirror.
Best I could do, I guess. And this is the best story I can write. I would have loved a happier ending.
No matter. Even from here those porch posts are somehow becoming. What I know is that in his later years, my Grandpa Schaap used to visit his youngest sister here on this farm, probably sat on this porch on a hot summer day drinking lemonade. Maybe they talked about their parents and what the two of them may have remembered about their father's ill-fated pioneer days out west. I don't know--even though both of them were born in this country, they may been speaking in Dutch.
I can't imagine that they didn't talk about hogs or cattle or beans or corn, too many dry years out there on those wide open South Dakota fields. Probably they talked about their kids and how their grandchildren were growing, how my grandfather's church in Wisconsin was doing, one war over and another too fearfully on the horizon.
They couldn't have imagined me or my sisters or their own children married and aged, hundreds of kin hither and yon.
But there they sat, I imagine, right there on that porch in a couple of chairs, lemonade so cool the glass was slippery in their fingers. Then again, it may have been coffee, thin brown coffee. There they sat, an old preacher and his sister.
Right there on that porch.
I didn't get up close, but I got more than enough for morning thanks.