A few short miles outside of the tiny town of Kewanna, Indiana–three churches, a bar, two groceries, a post office and library–was my grandparents’ farm. The first thing we always saw was the big barn, red as apples, as strawberries,as red as barns should all be. When we drew closer the other landmarks would come into view. There was the tulip tree, the hen house, my grandmother’s garden with its trusty rows of strawberries that we’d always count on picking for early summer desserts.
Somehow the farmhouse, a simple white building with black shutters, managed to be both unassuming and central to the entire world of the farm. Inside were grandma’s cookies and grandpa’s hugs, where he’d squeeze us ’til our tongues stuck out. The walls had pictures of Jesus, of aunts and uncles and angels guiding scared children across a bridge. There were books everywhere, obviously loved and read but still treated with respect. They were bought in a time when money was scarce and books weren’t everywhere. There was an old desk in the corner of the dining room where my grandmother had her devotions every day. Taped to one of the shelves was a clipping from an old newspaper that said “Seven Days Without Prayer Makes One Weak.” That was the first pun I ever heard and ever understood.
The Kennedys had Hyannisport and other East Coast families had the Hamptons or Cape Cod. Midwest families like mine had farms as summer homes.The flat fields open endlessly to the sky were our sea, the gardens and truck patches our shore. Instead of boats we rode tractors and we fished in the sky for joy with kites of bright colours.
Each of us had our routines at the farm. I honestly don’t recall what my brothers and sister would do once we got well welcomed with the hugs and cookies. My routine was the oddest ever heard and never understood by anyone, least of all me. I would venture out to the side yard, next to the woods where folks hunted deer for food. I’d find the best, most perfect stick to fall to the ground. (Stick hunting is a mysterious science mastered by children and understood by no one else.) With my trusty stick I would wander the yards around the front part of the farm, meandering from house to barn and back swinging my perfect stick through the grass and making up stories. I told myself stories about families, dogs, missionaries who lived behind a waterfall. I don’t know why the stick was key but it truly was–as if I were divining for waters of folklore.
My favourite spot in all of my strolling was a dark corner against the front porch where the sun never quite warmed the ground all the way. Poking up through the loamy black soil were dozens of tiny white flowers, delicate and scented like all the mysteries of growing were packed inside. They were the Lily of The Valley, like Christ. The flower of the month I was born. I would stand and stare for long minutes at them, imagining fairies sleeping on the leaves and picnicking in the shade. I was always torn between picking one to take with me and feeling like they were to special to disturb.
Last night on a phone call to my mom we talked a long spell about my grandmother. The farmhouse has long since been sold, and Grandma herself has no memories of it. No strawberries or cookies or flowers have stayed in her mind. But my mom was telling me she took Peonies from her own garden to the nursing home to try to give Grandma Eldonna one of her memories back. Mom had transplanted her own peonies from the bushes at the farm and I told her that I wished I had taken some of the Lilies of the Valley and even thought about asking the new owners of the farm if they still had any that I could buy.
“I have some here,” my mom answered.”They came from the farm.”
And now I wonder if it is safe to move the plants from zone to zone. If I can take bulbs from northern Indiana and put them in a Tennessee garden. It took me years to take root here; I don’t think the lilies have that kind of patience despite their magic. But I would like to try.