It was a balmy late Spring day with clouds scudding their way across the prairie sky and a warm breeze riffling the trees. Ruth and I had recently arrived in Janesville on our annual sojourn to celebrate another of Mom’s birthdays. This was number 97. Not that Mom ever limited herself to celebrating her birth “day.” It was more like her birth “season.” In the week or ten days we’d spend with her, there’d usually be three birthday parties, I’d do a program at Cedar Crest where she lived and one day we’d drive to New Glarus, a small Swedish village for lunch, always stopping on the way back for a Turtle sundae at Culver’s. Every day would be a special celebration and we would be as heavily scheduled as a small-time politician in October.
On this particular day we weren’t going to the Fireside Dinner Theater in Fort Atkinson or to buy cheese in Monroe. Mom had a sudden hankering to visit the old Waterman farmstead. It had been a long time since she’d walked the yard and fields there. Not that she was up to doing a lot of walking with her walker.
Mom was probably the only living inhabitant of southern Wisconsin who knew the Waterman Farm as the Waterman Farm. When she was a little girl, her father rented the farm from Mr. Waterman: the long-since forgotten Mister Waterman. Over the years, Grandpa Holliday had tried his hand at a variety of jobs, like most men of his generation. Whatever put food on the table. For awhile, he was a butcher in the meat department of a grocery store. From there, he moved on to work at Fairbanks Morse in Beloit. In the past, Grandpa’d tried his hand at farming in Black River Falls in northern Wisconsin, and later in Afton, not far down the River Road from Cedar Crest where Mom and Dad would eventually retire to. It was a short move from Beloit up to Milton and The Waterman Farm. He raised cows, pigs and chickens and harvested pumpkins, corn, tobacco: whatever there was a market for. With eight kids signed on involuntarily as farm hands, he could afford to diversify. Mom was one step short of being the baby of the family. That role was played by her younger sister Evelynn, who would grow up to become my Aunt Lynnie. But, I am getting ahead of myself. Let me go back for a minute to that early June day when we drove up to the farm.
When Mom decided that she wanted to see the farm, she had no idea that it would be for the last time. No one lived in the old wood-frame, paint-peeling, leaning-over-precariously, small gray unassuming house. Our drive up there had been uneventful. The farm was about 8 miles from Cedar Crest: two miles short of Milton, where Mom mostly grew up. Driving on the prairie, it might seem at first that there is nothing to see. Most people think that the prairie starts once you cross the Mississippi, but it’s ‘prairie’ in southern Wisconsin, sure enough. The prairie sneaks up on you. At first it looks flat and empty. Then you start to feel the gentle roll of the hills. As I described the prairie out in Kansas:
“I was driving out in Kansas where the land grows flat
Where you wave at the wheat and the wheat waves back
Where the road keeps going just as far as you can see
And I pity any dog that’s looking for a tree”
Three Speeds Forward and No Speeds Back
Same prairie, different state.
Laid out over the gently rolling hills is a never-ending geometric pattern of crops. Corn rows gracefully follow the gentle contours of the land, broken only by a small cluster of trees (they’re called woods in Wisconsin) and small man-made cow pounds. Coming over the rise of the hill, a whole crazy quilt of farm land unfolds before you: fields of corn, soy beans, tobacco, peas and rye in the winter to renew the land. But you have to see all of this. It takes more than opening your eyes and pointing your head in the right direction.
There’s a sound and smell about the prairie that is hard to forget. In late spring, you can still smell the rich, recently plowed fields: the dark fertile soil a gift of the last glaciers that plowed across the area centuries before men first dug their oxen-pulled plows through the soil. Across the fields, you might hear a dog barking or a bell calling the men home to supper. Sound carries a long ways on the prairie.
On the way to the farm, Mom was beginning to rhapsodize about her life there. Those years were special: almost sacred, because her mother was alive back then. As she often said, those were the happiest days of her life.
When we reached the farm, we turned into a short driveway leading to the house. The first thing that struck me was how small the house was. For a family of eight children, it must have been cramped. But in the bitter winters when the house was heated by a single pot-bellied stove, the smallness of the house and rooms must have been a blessing. Standing there, Mom, Ruth and I saw three different houses. I saw what looked like a lop-sided, deserted tenant farm house. And of course, that’s what it was. I had no memories to warm me, other than a few old photographs. .
Parked next to the house was a pick-up truck, but there didn’t seem to be anyone around. The windows on one side of the house were boarded up and it pitched precariously toward the driveway.
While Ruth and I were seeing our separate houses, Mom was mostly quiet. Maybe she was listening to hear her mother singing in that big farm house kitchen where the family spent so many hours gathered around the kitchen table. Or perhaps she was waiting for Buster to come running down the lane barking a lusty “Where in the world have you been?” For Mom the house was haunted with loving memories.
I don’t remember how long we stood there, each lost in our own thoughts. Mom walked around a little on her 97 year old legs over the uneven dirt of the backyard broken only by the occasional small clumps of weeds and scraggly grass. There wasn’t much to see, but everything to remember. There wasn’t a lot of talking. It wasn’t the kind of thing that didn’t need a lot of words.
And then we went back to the car and drove back to Cedar Crest. Mom was tired and lost in memories. But let mom describe it in her own words: