The Homestead

Posted by jdg | Monday, July 07, 2008 | ,

We're on the highway and we pass a funeral procession doing sixty-five miles an hour. My wife tells me she got caught behind one near Eight Mile the other day, with DPD directing traffic and a horse-drawn hearse at the head of a mile-long orange-flagged convoy. "Now I'm normally all for the crematorium or a cardboard box," she says, "But I have to say that was pretty classy. Like having Aretha Franklin sing at the service."

"Seems a bit contrived, though," I added.

"Yeah? I still think it's classy."

"Well I think it'd be classy to dress like Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York, but that ain't ever happening."

I hate even silly conversations like this. I don't ever want to put her in the ground.

* * * * *

My mother called a few weeks ago to tell me she's writing and illustrating a book for the kid. It's all about her ancestors here in Michigan: she received some genealogy research and an old journal from a relative who's since moved on to California. She tells me that the farmhouse built by my grandfather's grandfather's grandfather (or something like that) in 1837 from bricks he made himself sold recently to someone outside the family for the first time. The price? $12,500. "Man," I say. "That's a Hyundai."

"It's in pretty bad shape," she tells me. "Grandpa has no sentimentality at all for the place. He says someone should just tear it down."

* * * * *

We leave the funeral procession far behind and the highway turns blue and soon enough we're driving through the town where my mother was born and raised, an hour or so southwest of Detroit. We hit an area that was countryside when she was a child, but now it's strip malls and sprawl and my child looks out the window at the same chain restaurants and big box stores they built in the countryside outside the town where I was born and raised. I try to remember the directions my mom gave me, turning onto a smaller road with stop signs at intersections where all you see are green corn stalks and the silhouettes of red barns. We pass a township cemetery where my grandfather's people are buried, an aunt or grandmother, I think, some woman whose grave he still keeps neat and flowered. A mile down the road and there's another cemetery, this one older with limestone gravemarkers worn smooth and nameless. I hastily search the headstones for the name of the man who came here in the 1830s while my kids wait impatiently in the car. As we drive away I think again of that first cemetery. My grandfather is in his eighties. He is my last connection to this town. When he is gone, who will put flowers on the grave of this woman? Who will even remember her name?

* * * * *

Hardly a block from the second cemetery and I recognize the farmhouse from the etching in the nineteenth-century county gazetteer and the photographs my mom has collected. Built in a Greek revival or federal style, the farmhouse looks exactly like what it was: a home built by a farmer, a man without architectural training but with a talent for craft and handiwork lost today except among highly-trained specialists. How do you even make a brick? How do you lay a fieldstone foundation? My ancestor must have done something right: poorly-built houses don't stand for 171 years. The front has imbalanced fenestration but a nice doorway with columns and a simple pediment. When we arrive the sun is setting through the trees.

Aside from the doorway, the only significant architectural feature on the exterior is a simple cornice.

A knock on the front door goes unanswered. A peek in the windows reveals that no one is living there. Around back, the rear screen door has swing wide and stands open. My mother told me some mentally unhinged distant cousin lived here without running water or electricity until last November. His things (or the things that had been in the house when he moved in) are piled in the old kitchen.

I consider the hundreds of abandoned buildings I have entered over the years. I have never opened a door that was closed or gone through a window that wasn't already opened. I have never taken anything other than photographs. I walk so softly inside them my heels hardly touch the floor. Of all those buildings, this is the first I've entered that has had any connection to me.

Abandonment always betrays a home with a particular odor of stagnancy. A house needs a moving body inside it to be a home. This abandoned house smells no different than any other. I half expected the blood in my veins to imbue this trespass with more meaning, as though it would allow me to smell an ancestor's soda bread in the stove or hear a strain of some ancient melody in the stillness. Instead giant spiders continue to roll out their cobwebs. They are the only ones who live here now. Unless there are other vermin in hiding.

I continue through the kitchen. On an old cabinet rests a still life of detritus: a pipe, a hacksaw, a broken showerhead. The new owner has already done some work on the place. I shout a greeting from the wooden addition into the brick portion, so as not to startle anyone who might be inside. I expect an answer, or at least an echo, but instead my voice dies as though my mouth were covered in felt. I wander into the main part of the house to find my relation's insane ramblings about medical appointments scrawled in felt pen on the wall of the dining room.

I wander over to the front windows and try to picture what this area was like when the bricks were set into mortar back in 1837. All I see is a Currier & Ives lithograph: a bunch of men with Andrew Jackson haircuts or Horace Greeley sideburns wearing waistcoats and inhaling snuff while grumbling about Martin Van Buren and the Coinage Act; a troupe of women with milk pails herding children through waist-high grass. This vision is interrupted by 2008: our dog jumps out of the window of our Volkswagen in the driveway and my daughter chases him around the yard and my wife chases her around with our baby in her arms. Their laughter and shouting sounds good inside these walls.

This is the front room: the parlor, the room where the caskets of my ancestors would have been set out for wakes before that carriage ride down the road to that final home, that cornice of mound they rest under to this day. I remember the old sampler my mom cherishes that some relative embroidered in a room like this, maybe this very room. It's dated around the time this place was built. I try to picture time being spent here: the kerosene ambiance, the workdays beginning with the sun still on the horizon. I try to picture the room filled with all that mourning, the laughter, all the hardships and pleasures of life. But now it's just an empty room.

Up a narrow set of stairs I find three bedrooms. No closets. No bathrooms, of course: none in the house at all. My mom remembers a working outhouse there. One bedroom has yellow paint peeling on its walls. It is almost cheerful. These are the rooms where babies were made and babies were born and where some babies probably died. These rooms were the lifeblood of this house.

I look out a window. Juniper is out there by the old corncrib with the bug box her grandparents gave her, catching fireflies. My wife is anxious I think. She doesn't think I should be in here and she's probably right. Here am I, a wannabe Walker Evans, photographing the poetry of bare wooden floors; a wannabe James Agee, communing with spirits who've long since departed, these hardscrabble forebears I romanticize but could never know or even understand.

* * * * *

My grandfather has the soul of an economist. He knows a money pit when he sees one. And who's to say when you're approaching ninety that you aren't entitled to a bit of pragmatism in the face of sentiment over stones and wood and bones. When I saw him this past weekend and mentioned that the stranger who bought the old homestead has already put it back on the market, he warns me against doing something foolish: "It's too far gone, Jim."

* * * * *

Horace wrote, "Romae rus optas; absentem rusticus urbem tollis ad astra levis." Roughly: in Rome you long for the countryside; in the country you sing to the stars of the distant city. I have always romanticized a country life, though I have accepted that my wife's career requires a city. We cannot stop thinking or talking about buying this farmhouse that an ancestor of mine built from bricks he made of clay found in the earth he settled. A hobby farm. A country estate. A vanity of the privileged. My wife pictures a big rustic butcher-block dining table, a quilt draped over the foot of a wrought-iron bed, a wildflower garden. I envision a place to take the kids away from the city to experience the countryside, even just to see stars in the sky. And I am filled with the sentiment of not wanting this family place to become just another ruin. Watching my daughter run freely through that lawn some girl her own age ran through over a century and a half ago, some girl whose blood flows still in her: it made my heart soar to the point where I could almost forget the vision of contractor's bills.

We talk about possibilities on the drive home. "It's nice to dream," I say. In the backseat, sweet Juniper watches the fireflies flit about her little box, and falls asleep.