Between Old House and New

2019-09-20T12:10:30+00:00September 6th, 2019|

By Bill Marsh

My father keeps a family archive that would fill the back of a pickup: photos, letters, property deeds, plus his own Ancestry.com spreadsheets noting gaps in the ancestral record. At the center of the archive is a thread connecting me with three generations of family lore, most on my father’s side, all anchored to the family farm in north central Illinois. Digging through boxes, flipping through leather-backed albums, I get lost sometimes in the mess of details. But growing up, I was taught to recognize and appreciate my place in the deeper order. All I had to do was look closely and there I was, hiding out in those crumbling pages.

My mother’s father was a Chicago cop, a first-generation Irishman who may or may not have cracked heads at the Democratic National Convention in August, 1968. On April 4 of that year (my fourth birthday), several blocks of Chicago’s west side went up in flames when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in Memphis. All that summer, local news outlets chronicled the words and deeds of civil rights, anti-war, gay liberation, and women’s rights activists, and yet a moat of silence surrounded the southwest suburb where we lived. Channels were hastily changed, under my mother’s watchful eye, in favor of Bonanza, Family Affair, and other less challenging primetime offerings. I once asked my father for his perspective on that critical time. He shrugged and said he was “too busy raising a family” to pay much attention.

Besides, in August of ’68, there’s a good chance we were all eighty miles away, closing out summer on the family farm. Excursions were many back then, less frequent after the first family move. My father made his living as a kind of salesman, whose uneven career kept us hopping. I recall my late childhood as a pinball’s ricochet from Illinois to New Jersey; back to Illinois for a rough fifth grade on the farm; then another Chicago suburb; and finally, my teen years in northern Virginia, a stone’s throw from Washington DC. A family on the move is always ‘from’ somewhere else. For us the farm defined our family center, our haven and vacation spot, our escape from the rigors of work and homework. It had been that way for years, long before I was born.

I read once that home is where we can most be ourselves. Perhaps this is true, but for me two questions remain: Which where? And which we? From one angle the answers are obvious. Home sits at the intersection of kid-me and older-me, on a delightful strip of woody farmland my wife and I now inhabit and nurture but do not own. There’s a robust family history here, a hereditary line connecting me to my prodigal father, his affable farmer father, and finally my great-grandfather, a weekend preservationist whose keen eye and financial largesse set the whole thing in motion. This line runs right down the middle of the family farm, and here, it appears, is where I can most be myself.

But there are no straight lines in nature, despite the efforts of some to draw them fast and true. I’m thinking of the family storyline, the one that haunts my dreams and waking memories as I look around—at the wavy hills and mossy woods, the buckling gables and leaky soffits—and question everything. A few years ago, my father asked if I would take over his project one day, carry on as family archivist. I winced at the suggestion, my loudest thought the one I dared not utter: I would do it differently, Dad. Very differently.

 

My great-grandfather (Dad’s side) purchased the farm in 1937. The sellers—I’ll call them the Larsons—faced foreclosure and were anxious to liquidate, but their ship truly came in when my great-grandfather, JP, a wealthy Chicago banker, having insisted on paying top dollar per acre, proposed an additional bonus in exchange for the family’s hasty exit. The Larsons accepted, impressed by the man’s generosity. They were so touched, in fact, that they made it a point to send yearly Christmas cards to JP until his death in 1957.

This story sits front and center on the mantle of family legend. Whether or not my great-grandfather authored it hardly matters. The man is quite at home inside it, free to be himself in the eyes of those—my father especially—who would recite the tale for decades. My siblings and I, long before we could understand the niceties of real estate transactions, could easily grasp this lesson in the art of benign appropriation. Where others might lowball, our family took the moral high ground. Where others bilked, we bestowed. Great-Grandpa JP was doing the Larsons a favor, and those yearly Christmas cards proved it.

The story may have also served to compensate for less-than-romantic motivations. Growing up, I understood my great-grandfather had no interest in farming. Rather, he saw the riverfront property as an ideal spot to retire his horses and escape Chicago’s evolving South Side. JP made a lot of money helping people buy homes, but times were changing, and in the midst of a Great Migration, so were the people. I can’t know for sure who his clients were, but I suspect they were, as he and his neighbors were, the kind of white people who didn’t want to live near Black people.

I’m confident the man’s racism stemmed from a deep fear of displacement. In Chicago, it wasn’t clear anymore who or what he could be, but on the farm my great-grandfather could most be himself while exercising some serious quality control. In one letter to the farm’s caretaker, JP cautioned against “taking a few drinks,” which he feared would offend the “women and children” who accompanied him on his weekend jaunts. Nor should the caretaker entertain any women. We “have no facilities” for women, JP noted, ignoring the obvious contradiction.

Such domestic concerns were secondary, though, to my great-grandfather’s larger plan, the gist of which found its way into the July 1, 1939, edition of the Republican-Times of nearby Ottawa, Illinois. The article announced that the farmstead, now under new ownership, would benefit from a much-needed “rest from cultivation.” The sandy soil had never worked as “high class farm land.” Instead, the farm’s value lay in its rare ecological potential. Hence my great-grandfather’s vow to return the land to the way it was when the Indians were here, according to the shorthand edict handed down to me. As a kid I’d spend hours—climbing trees, turning rocks—in search of that elusive ‘Indian’ aesthetic. Sometimes my brothers and I looked for it on the twenty-acre patch of family farm known as ‘Indian Island,’ but all we ever found were crushed beer cans and busted coolers, the occasional canoer’s sun-dried pile of shit.

Still, there was always a stereotyped Native presence on the family farm. A cigar store Indian stood for years in my grandfather’s living room. Not to be outdone, my mother always claimed, as do many deluded white people, that ‘Indian blood’ (Cree, to be precise) flowed in our family veins. Growing up I took that lore to the bank—on certain Halloweens, especially, when my homemade Brave costumes were always, I believed, a little more than.

 

In the fall of 1950, JP penned a letter to his oldest son. “The mortgage business having slowed down,” my great-grandfather wrote, “I think it was very sensible of you to pursue the farm as a vocation and home.” Unlike his father, my Grandpa John wanted very much to be a farmer, had no qualms about plows and tractors. That spring, he’d quit the family business and moved to the farm with his wife and kids. The Chicago transplants occupied the old (Larson) farmhouse for a year, while my grandfather built a new, modern house on the farm’s west end. Woods thinned, and some disappeared altogether, as trees living and dead fueled the state-of-the-art furnace he installed in the basement.

The farm was definitely the place where Grandpa John could most be himself, but the move required a daring costume change. In early photos, the Hyde Park dandy wore tailored suits and crisp designer ties. Often a sharply dressed woman (including the one he would marry) hangs on one arm. More recent photos show Grandpa John the only way I knew him: flannel shirts and baggy work pants, a length of rope for a belt, worn leather work boots, a clashing tie on special occasions. He’d created a perfect caricature of his former self: charming urban aristocrat recast as lovable country bumpkin.

In high school, Grandpa John had been an actor, a gymnast, so these dual endeavors—farming the land, playing the role of farmer—came easily. And what a character he was. An armchair socialist, Grandpa John welcomed a Cold War invasion, learning Russian via correspondence courses delivered on LP records. Well into his sixties, he’d challenge the five grandkids to handstand races across the living room floor, and he almost always won. And he was the go-to neighbor, ready at a moment’s notice to bulldoze a blizzard’s worth of snow from a neighbor’s impassable driveway.

But he never made money at farming—“spent his inheritance” to keep the operation afloat, my father often grumbled. Of course, none of that touched me as a boy. Where I spent my time—squirreling for arrowheads, playing tag in the steamy cornfields—adult worries of that order could hardly ruffle my enchanted sense of the farm. From day one, I latched on to the project of fashioning myself, like Grandpa John, in the image of this mystical place.

I became, even then, a seasoned player—earnest, passionate, for real. My instructor was the white-bearded farmer in checkerboard flannel, the one whose bony fingers I watched some winter mornings as he readied the day’s cat food: two scoops of dry chow, one can of Puss’n Boots, leftover dinner scraps, condensed milk for moisture. It’s the scene I always come back to when I think of the farm in its heyday. We’re standing, Grandpa and I, at the kitchen sink, and there’s enough in that roasting pan to feed a small cat army. When the pan hits the frozen earth outside, the army rushes in—from under the porch, darting across the icy barnyard. Then a chorus of frenzied lapping, crunching, a dozen cat tails snapping in the cold December air.

Plenty for everyone, in other words. More than enough to go around.

 

I’ll never forget the day my father confessed that Grandpa John had once offered him ten acres, free and clear, to build a homestead. My father turned him down.

“But why?” I asked, dumbfounded.

He shrugged. “I had other plans.”

To be fair, my father was busy flunking out of college when Grandpa John moved out to the country. By all appearances, my father’s model growing up was his grandfather, the enterprising banker, not his father, the congenial but goofy farmer. He helped out when he could—baling hay, shearing sheep—but as a young man my father had no interest in farming as “sensible” vocation. Eventually, he earned a degree and scored a ‘Pro-Cashier’ job at Mid-City National Bank. After two years in the army he got married, took a sales job at IBM, and bought a two-story bungalow in southwest Chicago. The kids were coming fast then, and yet he clung to his Playboy subscription and still found time to cruise Lake Shore Drive in his T-Bird convertible. “Never should have sold that baby,” he lamented on family movie nights, whenever the yellow sports car flashed across the screen.

I came to suspect that my father always appreciated but never loved the farm. Not like I did. Certainly not like Grandpa John had. Sometimes he owned up to this disconnect. In one story, for example, he tells of the night he braved a blizzard to drive out to the farm. He was single and footloose, wanted to surprise his parents, hadn’t bothered to change out of his work clothes. When the car got stuck in a ditch up by the highway, my father, dressed in nothing but a suit, wingtips, and nylon socks, trudged a mile to a neighbor’s house to call home for help. He almost froze to death and nearly lost a toe. He was out of his element, is the point. The farm was not where he could most be himself. Not really.

Good thing, too, because by the early 2000s my wife and I were destined for the farm, and we needed breathing room to fulfill that destiny. Naturally we pined for the Larson farmhouse but soon recognized our future lay elsewhere. We studied the maps and roamed the fields. We narrowed options and selected our spot: a three-acre patch, fittingly located between old house and new.

Grandpa John’s house was now long gone, sold off with a chunk of the west end, but the old house remained—and needed work. When my father approached one day with thoughts of renovation, my wife and I made an offer. We understood his shaky finances precluded any gift of ten acres, but with the help of a mortgage broker we could buy our modest three. Our purchase, in turn, would fund the old house restoration. My father accepted the offer, but his ship truly came in when my wife and I agreed to pay top dollar per acre.

And why wouldn’t we? Or rather, how could we not? My fondness for the farm was now legendary, my loyalty proven in years of on-off stewardship. In my late twenties I played caretaker, earned my keep doing odd jobs. When I married and stepped into parenting, I got busy teaching farm to my wife and two kids. Long summer road trips terminated at the old house, and lucky for me no one needed much convincing. The kids opened their eyes and fell in love. My wife shared my desire to nurture its memory and secure its future. It was a done deal, in short. If we scrimped and saved, worked hard and stayed focused, one day soon we could most be ourselves on the family farm.

The deal with my father appealed to us because his plan harmonized with our sense of earned entitlement. Like my great-grandfather, I saw myself in the role of benefactor, a bank-backed agent of benevolent remediation. A precarious self-image, no doubt, but early conversations had led me to believe Dad and I were in this together (his words), twin engines of radical reconstruction (mine). In the heady air of this father-son embrace, I assumed he could see me for who and what I was, a capable collaborator if not an outright owner.

As it turned out, though, my father’s right of succession, his privileged status as the farm’s oldest beneficiary, trumped all. Before long, minor decisions (paint colors, bathroom fixtures) devolved into toxic arguments. Angry rejoinders—my house, my decision—butted up against misty clichés—One day all this will be yours.

The mixed messages were signs of a much deeper shift. In 2011, my parents shocked everyone by moving into the old house. Renovation was one thing, but my siblings and I couldn’t fathom this abrupt pivot to full-time country living. Newport Beach, Asheville, a South Loop high-rise—yes. These were the favored domains my upper-middle-class parents had called home for decades. So why the sudden move? They were flat broke, we later learned, but we believed them when they said the farm was temporary.

“A few months, maybe a year,” my mother pledged, her own sense of home tied to billboard fantasies of perpetual sunshine and white sandy beaches. But Dad settled in as if he’d never left, which was odd because he’d never actually lived there. As my wife and I broke ground next door, I watched as the aging playboy refashioned himself as the wayward son come home for good. He turned eighty the next summer, close to Grandpa John’s age at death. As if to honor this critical confluence, my old man donned his father’s identity and started playing the role of farmer.

 

The costume change made sense in a revisionist, post-Obama sort of way. Purportedly liberal in his youth, my father had entered old age as a staunch conservative. Finding home in the heartland gave him access to considerable old-school cachet, not to mention a central role in his ongoing family saga. Poor on paper, he was still a landed gentleman, oldest son of the oldest son of the farm’s esteemed founder. By some abstruse Jeffersonian logic, claiming title to the farm made him the farmer, a traditional yeoman rooted to the land.

For years a family friend had been doing the actual fieldwork, but Dad could still ride the vintage tractors and groom the grassy meadows for hours on end before heading inside to catch “Fox & Friends.” Substantial costs (maintenance, taxes, two mortgages) were offset in part by federal set-aside programs, and both parents were now firmly on Medicare. But my father railed against the “nanny state” and cursed poor people for taking government handouts. As a retired businessman he prided himself on his fiscal acumen, but without telling anyone he started using credit cards to pay off credit cards. He lived the maxim that home was where he could most be himself by leveraging home in service to some rather profound delusions.

At least, that’s how my wife and I saw it as we made our own home next door. From our vantage, my parents were now someone else indeed, behaving in ways we could not stomach. We did it very differently in our neck of the woods, with our mindful spending and careful budgeting. My father once called us ‘cheap’ because we chose to salvage stuff otherwise headed for the burn pile. Relations grew strained, to say the least. Competing visions of right livelihood were complicated, further still, by my parents’ nervy affections for my half-Mexican, gender-queer step-kids. My father insisted he wasn’t racist or homophobic, but he vigorously opposed same-sex marriage and openly declared that “the Mexicans” were taking over. Those “angry blacks” in Chicago and Black Lives Matter activists were another thing altogether.

A painful divide opened. It widened further when my father’s heart surgery went terribly wrong. My parents vacated the farmhouse and now live with my sister in sunny Jacksonville, where my mother realizes her retirement dream while complaining about her husband’s VA benefits. My addled father calls, on occasion, to ask untethered questions about the farm. He says he’s coming home soon, but when pressed, he’s not exactly sure where home is. His wish is reflexive, the last vestige of an image imprint he cannot shake. His voice on the phone is thin, his willful demeanor hollowed out. But I still hear the note of a man who has always known his rightful place in the world. There’s an echo of the sensible wealthy white man, the privileged grandson of a millionaire, calling the shots from far away.

 

My parents’ departure left all of it—the farm, the future—in question, especially as our generation absorbs the debt they left behind. We’re faced with the complex irony of having to sell the farm (in dribs, drabs) in order to save it. And yet here we are: fourth-generation beneficiaries of property wealth accumulated and consolidated. Mortgage interest accrues, but so does interest on the harvest of inherited white privilege. We wear what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the “badge of advantage,” and if I have any hope of being myself on the family farm, I must own up to that advantage.

So that’s what my wife and I try to do in the murky aftermath of our earlier squatter’s arrogance. We ask questions and wrestle with what ails us, feeling at turns frightened, guilty, angry, embarrassed, and rarely optimistic. We fancy ourselves progressive change agents, filtering the past while working toward a better future, but we also recognize our problems for what they are. I talk about lowering the U.S. flag my father raised over the old house—in its place a rainbow peace flag. But then I question the motivation behind this minor act of symbolic rebellion. Clearly it’s something the older, “woke” me wants to do in defiance of the clueless kid-me, but who do I think I’m fooling?

Instead we focus on shrinking the footprint, on turning the beloved farm into a high-yield farmlet. We discuss partnerships with organic growers as one option against losing the land altogether. We keep bees against the devastations of hive collapse. We entertain orphaned chickens, and they us. And we foster our son’s passion for the old farmhouse, which he plans to live in one day. I’m his father so I offer advice, some ideas for renovation, but I also wait for the day when he’ll look me in the eye and say, Thanks, Dad, but I’ll do it differently.

I’m fully aware all this is possible because my father, in his own way, made it possible, as did his father and grandfather before him. I see their faces in the mirror staring back at me, the line of succession undeniable if not entirely straight and narrow. I want to be honest about the badge we all wear, what it provokes and evinces, so I’m sure to make room for it in the archive. But there are obvious blind spots, too, in which unknown details, the province of future generations, cluster. I can’t predict what they will say or write about me, about our time on the farm, but I look for home in that instructive blindness.

I rejected my father’s invitation to be the family archivist because he was asking me to conform to a very scary image, to don the costume he had worn so well for so many years. I feared I would suffocate under the weight of all that dusty, crusty family lore. The mask (white, male, patriarchal, moneyed) would surely pinch, obscuring my critical sensibilities, blinding me to other ways of seeing the world. Hadn’t I returned a different person, one who could better spy the bullshit and check assumptions at the farmhouse door? Can’t you see (I should have asked) that I’m dressed in a very different sense of self, here among you and your cherished forebears?

But then I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and there it is, head to toe: my self-image. Trapped in a frame of someone else’s making, yes, but all me all the same. To question the past, to know where that image comes from, is not to escape it—hard as I might try. ■

 

 

Bill Marsh is a college teacher and part-time beekeeper based in Chicago. His work has appeared recently in After Hours, Ascent, Bluestem Magazine, Literary Orphans, and Mud Season Review. In early 2019 he was a finalist for the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction. He’s on Twitter @prof_bmarsh..

Cover image of the farmhouse, courtesy of Bill Marsh.

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