Cattle Upon a Thousand Hills

Cattle Upon a Thousand Hills

I. Barn Burning

Wood and hay kin burn.
—William Faulkner

I was two-and-a-half years-old when I stood at the living room window with my very pregnant mother, watching our barn burn down. “I think you kind of enjoyed it,” she told me later. “The neighbors came and threw snowballs at the flames.” 

No firefighters ventured out to save the barn or the animals lodged therein—ten cows, a horse, and a cat. Perched at the top of a hill, on a long dirt road, our farm lay twenty miles from the nearest city, in the extreme northeast corner of Pennsylvania. We were isolated at all times but especially in winter, when snow and ice left our home beyond the reach of the outside world.

Why we were living there is something of a mystery, for my parents had hardly any experience with country life. In their youth, they had flourished at Little Rock High School, then the largest high school in the country. In my mother’s final year, she served as Vice President of her class, had the lead in the senior play and garnered the titles of “Most Popular,” “Class Ideal,” and “Everything a Girl Should Be.”

My father, too, was outgoing. Despite his family’s limited means, he was accepted into Little Rock’s high school elite, partying with kids from a prestigious neighborhood called The Heights—close relatives of the mayor of Little Rock and governor of the state. He also received accolades at graduation, the other students voting him “Wittiest” and “Most Entertaining” in a class of five hundred.

After high school, my parents attended the University of Arkansas, where my mother earned a degree in home economics, and my father a degree in accounting followed by a law degree. 

So how did we end up on a dairy farm? The story is that while employed as an accountant in New York City, my father came to believe his desk job was making him sick. He stopped going to work and languished at home all day, anchorless and weary. Upon receiving an inheritance from his grandfather’s estate, he suggested to my mother that they buy land in the country and try their hand at dairy farming. 

Had my mother foreseen that this move would be the first of many, perhaps she would have wondered whether the problem really lay in his job. But this time, the first time, how could she have known? Optimistic by nature and deeply in love, my mother went along with his decision. 

Despite the gulf between their background and their new undertaking, both my parents were excited by the novelty of dairy farming. “Did I tell you we have ten cows,” my mother wrote to her parents, “six of whom are milking—and more CREAM than we know what to do with. I’ve never tasted such rich milk!” My father had arisen before five that morning to install an electric milking machine; he saved ten dollars and three days’ time by putting it in himself. Apparently, the neighbors and the dairy man were quite impressed. “Dick has been working soo hard and is so excited!” the letter concluded. “I really think this place will be beautiful in a couple of years.”

I have only two memories of my own from our brief years on the farm. In the first, I am sitting on the farmhouse steps, trying to whistle a tune like my father. I blow and blow but nothing comes out. Finally, after many attempts, a clear, musical sound pierces the air, and I run to tell my mother: “I can whistle!”

In the second, there is no scene, only words—the names of five of our cows: Daisy, Pansy, Mama, Brownie, and Buttercup. “You probably named them,” said Irene, our live-in babysitter of those years, when I told her this recollection. “I mean, your father was rather like a child himself.” I guessed what she meant. Being so childlike, he would have understood that naming them would give me pleasure. 

My father and I were constant companions, I am told, after we moved to the farm. I often rode in the Jeep with him, taking the apples to the cider mill or the milk to the cooperative in town. During one excursion in winter, on an icy road, my father lost control of the Jeep, and it cascaded down a hill. When he brought it to a stop, I turned to him and cried, “Do it again, Daddy!” Years later, when I was an alienated teenager, my father would harken back to our early closeness. At random moments, he would look at me and exclaim, “Do it again, Daddy!”

When he wasn’t going to the mill or to town, my father would work in the barn and I would run across the untraveled dirt road to spend time with him. We invented a game in which I, under the made-up name “Mrs. Marigold,” would pay him a social call, and he, the host, would invite me to have tea. In a high-pitched voice, my father would ask me, “How are you today, Mrs. Marigold? Would you like to sit down? Would you care for some tea?” Giggling, I would pretend to drink from the imaginary cup he handed me.

This game, too, came to represent the strong bond between my father and me in those years. In a letter dated two and a half weeks before he died, my father wrote me, “It is a beautiful morning reminiscent of those sunny mornings when I used to work in the barn and you would ‘visit’ me. Elaine just came out and ‘visited’ me in the office and she makes a fine ‘Mrs. Marigold.’” 

Elaine, my father’s second wife, was married to him at the time of his death, when he was only forty-seven and I was twenty-two. The night after his suicide, she called and tried to comfort me, saying, “I know you hadn’t seen much of each other in recent years, but he always talked about how close you were on the farm.”

 Yet for all its importance in my father’s recollections and in my own sense of that period, the ritual of “Mrs. Marigold” could not have lasted long. As an adult, I was shocked to learn that our barn burned a mere seven months after we moved to Pennsylvania. In my father’s memory, those seven months had expanded into the whole three years of our country sojourn, or maybe those three years had been distilled into the first seven months—a golden age when he and I shared a make-believe world of social calls and tea parties, inside the weathered barn.

■■■

But what had caused the fire? I discovered the answer only years later when—as a beginning patient in psychotherapy—I started to badger my mother with questions about our past. She said the fire had started on a bitter February morning. She and my father were out in the barn, where he was trying to thaw a frozen water pipe with a blowtorch. My mother, heavy with child, begged my father not to do it because there was hay piled up all around the barn, to keep the cows warm. Furious at her interference, my father ordered her back to the house. Later that morning, the barn burned down.

The insurance company assumed that the fire had been started by faulty wiring in the electric milking machine. My parents kept their counsel about the blowtorch, a silence they justified by the enormity of their loss. The insurance only amounted to the cost of the hay they had stored, so they lost the value of the barn, about $17,000, and the $2,000 they had paid for the cattle.

On the evening of the day it happened, my mother found my father crying in the attic. She says they never really discussed what had caused the fire, because “there wasn’t any point in making him feel guilty.” In the following days, my father and a hired man dragged the carcasses of the cows and horse to a field to bury them. “It was horrible for him,” my mother said. “Horrible. He loved animals so much.” 

And I too must have bonded with the animals. “As a toddler,” my mother told me, “you could recognize the cows by their silhouettes on the distant ridge. Once we were looking toward the hill and you said, ‘That’s Buttercup.’  You only did it once, but I think you knew them all.” After living almost my whole life in cities, I marveled at that. Silhouettes on a distant ridge.

After my mother recounted the circumstances, I thought about my father’s decision to use a blowtorch in a barn insulated with hay. Many years later, when we lived in California, he would briefly take his foot off the brake while driving down the steep driveway of our home. And while his ostensible purpose was to give us kids a thrill, he also enjoyed risk-taking.

One question bothered me: why had my father failed to save the livestock? He seemed to feel an instinctive kinship with animals, to care deeply for them. I could not imagine my father staying out of the barn had there been any hope of rescue. 

An answer to my question—more comprehensive than I ever expected—arrived in the mail. A researcher at the Wayne County Historical Society, responding to my inquiry, had tracked down the Wayne Independent’s story about our fire. It had made the front page. From this account, I learned that my father did not hear the “bellowing of the cattle or the neighing of the horse,” because he was using a large sanding machine on the floor of the farmhouse. It was only when the barking of a dog attracted his attention that “he looked out a window of his home and saw smoke pouring out the south side of the barn…Mr. Duncan ran to the barn and opened the doors. He was forced back by seething flames.”

All my life, I had heard my mother allude to “the day the barn burned down,” but I had never heard these details: the “bellowing of the cows, the neighing of the horse.” Nor had I known that he was engulfed by the sanding machine’s abrasive noise. It was striking how this scene of loud agitation differed from the tranquil quality in our old photographs—a quality that even my mother had appreciated, though she was hardly a country person. “I loved going over the hills with the dogs to get the cows,” she recalled. “It was so peaceful there.” 

One winter, when spending Christmas with my family in Santa Barbara, I broached the topic of the barn burning again with my mother. It was early on a clear, cold morning, and she was sitting in the living room in her embroidered robe and green slippers, working a crossword puzzle in the local paper. Behind her, the draperies were open, and through the window, a ribbon of orange light glowed above the Pacific. 

My stepfather had just left the room to get his cereal. Knowing that my mother disliked having her new husband subjected to talk about my father, I took advantage of his absence.

“Mom, on the day the barn burned down, did Daddy stay furious with you?”

“Oh no,” she said matter-of-factly, still looking at the crossword puzzle.

“Well, was he in a frenzy?”

My mother wearily put down the newspaper and set her pencil on the table. She had grown tired of having to discuss my father every time I came home. On my previous visit, her frustration had gotten the better of her one evening and she burst out, “Why can’t we just get on with our lives? Why do we always have to dwell in the past?”

“Remember what Faulkner said,” I replied. “The past is never dead; it isn’t even past.” She ignored my comment. 

At the risk of annoying her, I renewed my argument. “It seems like an unusual day. Here you are, about to give birth. And he’s rushing from one project to another, thawing pipes, sanding floors…” I moved my arms to pantomime a rushing motion.

“He wasn’t in a frenzy,” she said, picking up the newspaper again. “We were just trying to fix up the house.”

Later that day, I drove to my sister Laurie’s home to ask how she interpreted our father’s behavior on the day of the fire. She had not been born when the barn burned down, but I knew that she, too, had reflected deeply on our father’s character. 

We talked on the redwood deck behind her house, surrounded by vines of purple bougainvillea. I slouched in a canvas chair, looking out toward the ocean, while Laurie sat on the futon opposite me, brushing her cat with long, slow strokes. Before answering, she took a deep breath, then stopped what she was doing and looked steadily into my eyes. “He was on the run all the time; he wasn’t centered. I think Dad feared complacency would set in if there wasn’t something a little bit dangerous, if he just had a regular job. He was preoccupied. I never saw him at peace.”

■■■

After the fire, my father struggled to remain in the country. He tried raising chickens, but an epidemic killed them all. He tried working as a salesman, peddling Hoover vacuum cleaners, then hearing aids, and finally air conditioners, but none of these jobs brought in enough money to support our growing family. My mother had given birth to my sister Ann the day after the barn burned down, and two years later, she was again pregnant, this time with Laurie. At that point, my father applied for a job selling ribbon in New York and, after years of effort, abandoned his dream of country living.

 

II. Vanished Days

Very much, indeed, that I wished
to remember has vanished.
—Henry Rogers

It was the day before Halloween when I made my long-delayed return to the farm. I did not want to go there and had spent weeks fretting about the trip—whether I would like the place I was staying, be able to sleep, or get enough to eat. In previous years, I had made trips to our other homes—in Little Rock, New York, Saint Paul, and Santa Barbara—all in an effort to unlock the mystery of my father’s early death. But my resistance to the journey felt deeper this time. After all, I did not remember the farm; did not love it the way I had loved some of our later homes and, apart from my desire to understand my father, I harbored no special inclination to return. On the morning of my trip, I spilled a bowl of cereal and milk on the carpet. In my determination to clean up before leaving, I almost missed my flight.

Six hours later, I found myself on the road to the Pennsylvania countryside with a woman named Bea and her husband Jerry. Bea was the older sister of our live-in babysitter on the farm, Irene. It had been Irene’s idea for me to travel and stay with her sister, since she herself no longer lived in the country. I would have preferred a hotel and taxi, but having satisfied myself that there were none to be had, I acquiesced to her plan. 

■■■

The sky was pitch black, the rain pouring down when our car pulled to a stop beside Bea and Jerry’s house in Pleasant Mount, the village closest to our farm. Because it was late, we did not dawdle over our soup and bread, eating quickly in near silence. Then Bea showed me to my room, which was small, with peeling wallpaper. It was terribly cold. As I lay in bed with a northwesterly wind forcing its way through the cracks around my window, I could not get warm despite the multitude of quilts piled on top of me. Realizing I would never fall asleep that way, I rose and rummaged through an old bureau where I found three woolen sweaters. One I lay on top of my legs. Another I buttoned over my nightgown. The third I entwined around my feet. Lying there so tightly swaddled, listening to the eerie moan of the wind, I finally fell asleep.

 In the morning, Bea, Jerry, and I drove to Brown’s Country Store for breakfast with Ray and Audrey Perham. Ray was a long-time resident of this area, a farmer who had moved away for a while and returned. We took a table in the restaurant that occupied one end of the country store. As soon as we had ordered, Ray turned to me. “Your Dad was doing pretty well with his herd,” he said in a craggy voice. “Now this other guy from the city had twenty-nine cattle and he was lucky to send a can of milk! He starved his cattle.” It was gratifying to hear that my father had been doing well. In later years, he had often quit jobs and seemed to lack the aptitude for earning a living. 

“Back then,” Ray explained, “we used to send the milk with the creamer. If the wind was right, you could hear them throw the cans on the truck. Being a nosy neighbor, I would count the cans.” He also told me about the fire. “I was there,” he said, “along with my brother.”

Ray looked like my idea of a farmer, with a broad, Slavic, ruddy face and exceptionally large, weathered hands. I noticed the hands when he pointed at one of the old photographs I laid on the table. “And here I was,” he repeated proudly, “standing on the porch roof, with pails of water to protect the house.” Then he turned to me and said, “The reason the barn burned was that you had hay piled up all around cuz your herd was too small to heat the barn. Milk cows’ body heat will heat up a barn pretty good. Now beef cows won’t.”

Impressed with this bit of expertise, I ventured to ask the question that had been on my mind ever since my mother told me how the fire started: “How foolish is it to thaw a frozen water pipe with a blow torch?”

“Thawing a water pipe with a blow torch is one of the worst ….” He caught himself. “It’s not too bad; it’s been known to happen.” 

He paused to take a sip of coffee. “By the time we got there, it was cracklin’ pretty good. They go fast, once they get started, with all that hay. It’s a good thing the wind wasn’t blowin’ toward the house.” 

A fit of coughing diverted his attention. “After the barn burned, my daddy offered to give you a cow and some feed cuz you didn’t have much money, but your father refused.” 

After breakfast, Jerry drove Bea and me to the farm, with Ray riding shotgun as our guide. Traveling through the countryside, I realized how unprepared I was for the beauty of the region. My mother had said that life was hard on the farm—that I was lonely, and we were poor, and she had to can fruit until late at night. But neither she nor my father ever mentioned that the landscape was so lovely. In the rolling hills, the horizon seemed softer than amid the angular mountains of the West, and the cattle, which were everywhere, seemed to harken back to a primitive time, lending a soothing presence. Most of these cows appeared to be Holsteins, their coats black and white, in stylized patterns. But sometimes I spotted smaller cows with dainty frames and coats the color of fawn. We saw the cows up close, drinking from picturesque streams, and far away, lying or standing on hills, beneath an azure sky. From a great distance, they appeared as tiny dots, hardly recognizable unless you knew they were there. 

■■■

 Eventually we reached an enormous lake—silvery-blue, with a rippling surface. Bea said, “You loved this lake as a child. You and Irene had picnics here.”  

So this is Lake Bigelow, I thought, and I loved it. But when I tried to imagine myself as a child picnicking there, the image found no place in my memory. Those days had vanished. How strange and sad, I thought, that I should have lived in this region for three years and yet remember nothing. 

At least I had my parents’ stories, which had become my own. In fact, one of their stories involved this lake. “When I was two years old,” I said, turning to face Bea, “I wandered down to the lake by myself, and a farmer named Mr. Ignatovich rescued me and took me home.” 

“Which Ignatovich would that have been?” Bea asked in a crisp voice. “The grandfather, the father, or the son?” After a few moments’ reflection, she came up with an answer. “It must have been Ignatovich the grandfather,” she said.

The asphalt road turned to dirt and sloped steadily upward. Soon I could see our house, which looked just the same as in my photographs. It was a white clapboard structure, built along classical lines, with a commanding presence on the hill. Gesturing toward the golden-green grasses, Ray showed me how much land we had owned. “All this,” he said, “was yours. Down to where that deer is grazing and, on the other side of the road, to the stone wall.” 

I was astonished at the immensity of our farm. 

“It’s been parceled out and sold since then,” Ray said. He called my attention to the wall. It was dry-laid, interleaved and held in place without mortar—a practice that came from the British Isles.

When we turned off the road, I noticed the grass, freshly mowed, covering the front yard. In my old photographs, our yard consisted of tall ragged weeds. The covered well I spotted in front was another innovation, but I supposed that the clothesline, or one like it, was there when we were; and probably a cat too, like the one now meandering through the grass. 

A woman emerged from the farmhouse. Approaching us warily, she stopped a short distance away and took a drag on her cigarette. She was heavy-set, with luxuriant brown hair and expressive eyes set off by mascara and thick black eyeliner. This must be Gloria, I thought, who, with her husband Bob, now owned the farm. I had spoken to her twice by phone, and she had said I could come, but volunteered little and seemed unfriendly. We got out of the car and, after introductions, the others went off to see the ruins of our barn, while she and I stayed behind, talking. 

“We don’t farm the place much anymore,” Gloria said. “We raise a pig and a cow to eat, that’s all. I work in a towel factory in the city.” 

“So this is your retreat?” 

“It’s not a retreat until I go to bed.” Her voice was cold, almost angry, and I flushed with embarrassment. I could imagine how she must see me—as an ignorant city person, oblivious of the work involved in managing a farm. She raised her eyes to the horizon and took a long draw on her cigarette before speaking again. “It’s just too much. I wish I could sell. We’ve been here eighteen years, and we’ll never own it.” The cat disappeared around the corner of the house just as a snow goose waddled into the front yard. 

I couldn’t think of anything consoling to say. “May I see the house?” I asked. 

She led me inside, where a large television blared, and cigarette smoke permeated the air. We went upstairs, but nothing looked familiar; I had forgotten to ask my mother which room was mine. 

In the front bedroom, Gloria and I sat on the bed and talked. She told me that a decade earlier, her husband was trying to unclog a corn-chopping machine with the engine still running. The engine pulled his body into the machine—all except for his head—and it was only by a miracle that he survived. 

“After the accident,” Gloria said, “all of Bob’s insides were on the outside, and his face was white, like this sheet.” She pulled back the bedspread to show me. “Blood was flowing down the road. Some neighbors thought he was dead and sent condolences.” She looked at me with her dark, anguished eyes, then smoothed the spread down again and tucked it neatly under the pillow. “The day after the accident, I came home from the hospital, and a bull had gotten loose. I was chasing it. I couldn’t catch it, and I just sat down in the rain and cried.”

■■■

About noon the next day, back at Bea and Jerry’s house, I found myself standing beside a table covered by a green-and-red tablecloth, featuring cakes, breads, and a bowl of canned peaches. Despite the hour, someone had lit the candles, and the dining room table appeared festive, suitable for the impromptu get-together Bea was hosting. 

Away from the food, the house exuded the same musty smell I had noticed the night before. In a corner of the living room, a statue of the Virgin Mary loomed over a round table, while an artificial Christmas tree, complete with ornaments and lights, occupied the screened-in porch. Looking around, I remembered my days in graduate school, when I lived in a single room with little heat, grease-stained walls, and a jagged hole in the carpet.

While I mused, a man with a gaunt face tapped gently on my shoulder. He introduced himself as Ray’s older brother, Gomer. “I still have the wonderful Christmas cards your father made,” he said. “Have you seen them?” 

I nodded. Our family had saved and admired them over the years. 

“Your father used trick photography,” Gomer continued, “to make it look like you all were standing on each other’s shoulders to decorate the tree.”      

Meanwhile, a kind-looking woman had come up to us, waiting patiently to speak. “You must have known Rufus Scott,” she said. I shook my head. “He had the farm next to yours,” she went on, “and cut some of your hay. One Sunday, he was in his new tractor, going up a hill to spread manure. The tractor turned over on him and killed him.” Her face took on a look of deep sadness. “He had planned to take his mother to church that morning.” 

One of the men interrupted in a loud, gruff voice. “In World War II, Rufus transported supplies on the Burma Road.” He looked at me intently, perhaps wondering whether I knew the historical reference. “Out there, he was on many a hill—one-thousand-foot drops. Rufus used to say that if a truck broke down and was blocking all the others, sometimes they would push it over the cliff.” 

I had not yet recovered from this tale when Bea introduced me to one of the younger men at the party. He was deaf and, I gathered, had recently lost his wife. Taking me aside in the kitchen, Bea explained, “One day in winter, her car stalled at the top of a hill. Her brother-in-law owned a tow truck, so she called him for help, and when she was hooking up her car, the truck slid backwards on the hill, crushing her between the vehicles.” 

“How awful,” I murmured. I was thinking of the hills; they were lovely but treacherous, reminding me of Yeats’s phrase, “A terrible beauty.” 

■■■

Early the next morning, I boarded a flight back to Atlanta. The man seated next to me was reading a gorgeous book, leather-bound in red and gold. I didn’t recognize the script. “May I ask what language that is?”

“Persian.”

“Oh.”

Wanting to reciprocate, I said, “I’m just returning from the country,” and held up a photograph of our farmhouse, with its clapboard structure badly in need of paint and its raggedy weeds out front. 

“It’s paradigmatic!” he said, returning to his book. And it struck me how quickly I had landed back in my ordinary world, with its well-traveled people and exotic languages—as if by a mere click of my ruby slippers, I had left the remote place where I had been, only a few hours before. 

Gazing out the window, I asked myself what I had learned from my reluctant pilgrimage. I had hoped to have an experience that—like Proust’s taste of the tea-soaked madeleine—would call up a whole realm of memories. But no such experience occurred. No fluted “plump little cakes”—not the lake, nor even the house, had returned to me my lost past. 

 

III. Vestiges

Vestige: A visible trace, evidence, or sign of something that once existed but exists or appears no more.
—American Heritage Dictionary

It was early spring when I made my second journey back to the farm. This time I had come at the invitation of Gloria, who called me the day after my previous visit, inviting me to stay with her. “You can sit on the porch and write,” she said. 

Though moved by her generosity, I was reluctant to accept. On my first visit, Gloria had seemed unhappy and volatile. I worried about sharing a space with her and Bob, lacking privacy and independence. But at last, my lingering curiosity overcame my anxious nature, and I decided to return. 

At the farm, the trees were still quite bare, their leaves just beginning to bud, but the ground below, which in autumn had been covered with dead leaves, was now vibrant. Periwinkle wildflowers bloomed in the ditches, while purplish thistles and golden locusts covered the meadow. Among them were milkweed pods that had split open, revealing tufts of white down. Across the road from our house, near the foundation of our burned-down barn, grew raspberry bushes, fragile white Mayflowers, and Johnny-jump-ups of a violet blue.

Gloria too had changed. She seemed more relaxed than in the fall and treated me with generosity and grace, even going so far as to put me up in her own bedroom for the duration of my stay. When I arrived, she showed me to my room right away, explaining how to work the bed, which went up and down with the push of a button, and pointing out twelve Barbie dolls stacked in their original boxes like a pyramid in a glass case. In the center was her favorite: “Angel of Joy,” a blonde beauty with golden wings, wearing a shimmering sea-foam skirt and a white bodice adorned with a rose. A few minutes earlier, walking through the living room, I had glimpsed another collection of Barbies. There were twenty-five in all. 

“Why do you keep them?” I asked.

“I adore any Barbie with a gown,” she said. “I don’t open them; they’re for show. I hope when my kids are grown up, they will know not to open them, and their kids will sell them and have some money.”   

Her husband, Bob, bought the Barbies for her. He was rail-thin and abnormally straight, due to his accident. I didn’t see him much, for he kept different hours from Gloria and me, eating by himself and staying up all night to watch television. He had a sardonic sense of humor and, when we did cross paths, greeted me with provocative remarks such as, “Your team lost!” or “I called out to wake you at 4:00 o’clock this morning, but you didn’t wake up. I thought you wanted to get up then!”

We went downstairs, where Gloria introduced me to her two daughters, one twelve, the other twenty-two. Like their mother, they were stocky and pretty, with sleek, dark hair and eloquent eyes. The older one lived in town with her three-year-old son, and the younger one often stayed with them. I asked Gloria whether her whole family lived in the area. “Yes,” she said, “And Bob’s does too. You can see his entire family just by walking around one block.” 

“Have you ever flown in an airplane?” I asked.

“No, and I never will,” she said, pouring me a glass of juice in the kitchen. “I’m afraid the plane could fall.” Her daughters felt the same way, she added, as if their feelings lent authority to her point of view.

“How do you go anywhere then?”

“I don’t. I’ve never been anywhere.”

That afternoon, she offered to show me the area. We decided to visit Carbondale, the nearest city, where both my sisters had been born. I learned a lot from the outing; it was one of the few times I had been amazed at an absence. There was, simply, nothing between the farm and that city more than thirty minutes away.

On returning from our excursion, Gloria gave me a present: a kitchen towel with beige, mauve, and cream-colored checks. She had made it at the factory where she worked alongside four other women. All day, she ran a sewing machine, hemming towels and affixing labels that read:

J. C. Penney
Home Collection
Carefully Woven in U.S.A.

The rough towel softened my heart, and I thanked her warmly, admiring her workmanship. 

We went outside, where she pointed out the Canada goose she had adopted. It was penned up in the back yard, along with the snow goose I remembered seeing in the fall, waddling freely. I commented on their confinement, and Gloria explained, “If I leave it go, a fox is gonna get it. I can’t leave them run free.” Besides the goose, she had a new calf they were raising for beef. Like her other animals, the calf had no name, and she let me name it Duncan as a vestige of my visit.

■■■

Late that evening, Gloria and I sat in the kitchen eating a mixture of vanilla ice cream and sherbet called “Orange Swirl.” It was familiar to me from the orange Creamsicles of my childhood, but I had not tasted that sweet tartness in many years and was surprised to find it so delectable. As we dipped our spoons into our bowls, Gloria said, “When Bob and I got married, we expected to be happy together. If we had known how things would turn out, I don’t know whether we would have done it.” 

“You wouldn’t have married Bob if you had known?”

But my shock was too apparent. “Oh yes,” she said quickly, “because he was the man I fell in love with. But our lives have been miserable since his accident.” Two weeks earlier, Bob was speaking of suicide, she confided, because his life was so empty. Now he was taking medicine, and his mood was better. Touched that she had trusted me with such a personal story, I felt my resistance to the country melting away like the ice cream at the edge of my bowl.

■■■

Upon waking the next morning, I rose quickly and opened the window to see the view. Leaning out, I looked down the gently winding dirt road to Lake Bigelow. A forest flanked the scene, and the trees grew so thick they seemed to be framing a picture of the road and the lake between them. Sounds of honking drew my gaze upward. Wild geese were flying in an immense sky, but they held my interest for only a moment; I was mesmerized by the road and the lake.

As I gazed, a scene came to me, unbidden, from a Spanish play. The main character, a life-long prisoner in a cave, has just awakened to happy thoughts of the day before, when he was allowed a brief period in freedom; however, as he reminisces, a guard interrupts him, telling the prisoner that what he takes for memories are just a dream. Sad and confused, the prisoner believes that the guard may be right; perhaps the events he remembers did not happen. But then he recalls a beautiful lady from the day before—recalls her so vividly that he says, “And that was true, I believe, for everything else has ended, and she alone remains.”

So also, I thought, the view of the road leading to the lake must be a true evocation of my past, not something I had only heard about or seen in a photograph—we had no photographs of this scene—nor a memory that my mind had transformed through the years. It was, I believed, a direct connection to the little girl I once was.

■■■

The day after returning to Atlanta, I went to the closet and dug up my boxes of childhood memorabilia, organized by place. In my Saint Paul box, I found a stapled booklet I had made in third grade entitled “What I Hope My Future Will Be.” Printed in purple crayon, it detailed the twenty-four children I would have (“Twelve boys and twelve girls. They will be twins.”), the colonial house I planned to live in, the ice-skating rink, and the theater (“where the children can put on plays and shows and have circuses too”). It went on to describe the bedrooms I wished for, with their matching bedspreads, and the kitchen, with its blue counters and GE refrigerator. In the midst of all these wishes, only one was couched in the negative: “We will not live on a farm.” 

That part, at least, had come true. Since college, I had lived only in large cities, and now resided in a dense commercial district of Atlanta—in an apartment on the twenty-first floor, around the corner from a bookstore, a theater, and numerous restaurants. 

I suggested to a friend that my love of cities came from living on a farm. “Yes,” he answered, “and I don’t think it’s a defensive love. I think cities were a discovery for you: ‘The world has more to it than the farm.’” 

■■■

Spring turned to summer, and with summer came the end of the academic year. In the cavernous building where I worked, my colleagues spoke enthusiastically about the summer peacefulness, which allowed more time for research and writing. But I found the quietude painful. As a guest in my mother or sister’s home, I always wrote in a collective space, with music, noise, and confusion around me. In a quiet study or bedroom, I felt too anxious and alone. I wondered whether my need for constant stimulation stemmed from the traumatic “too littleness” of my years on the farm.

And yet my desire to be with people had not translated into a willingness to have them close. In an old album, I discovered a photograph taken in the suburb of New York City where we settled after leaving Pennsylvania. In this black-and-white picture of my first-grade class, I spotted myself in a dark dress and light-colored cardigan, on one end of the back row. Standing about a foot away from the nearest child, I appear the most solitary of anyone in the class. 

 Inspired by the picture, I picked up my report card from first grade, printed on orange cardboard. It was my father who had signed it, in his elegant script: “Richard F. Duncan, Jr.” 

The report card had two categories: “Basic Skills and Knowledge” and “School Living.” Under the first heading, my teacher detailed my achievements, while under the second, she repeatedly expressed concern about my “reserve.” Despite noting some improvement, she concluded one comment by saying, “For the most part Martha continues to work and play by herself, except when on the playground.” I repeated the words, struck by them for the first time: “Work and play by herself.” This teacher had noticed, early on, a quality that would color my whole life—that perhaps explained why I never married or had those twenty-four children, and why a colleague criticized me at the tenure vote for my aloofness and detachment. 

Worried by these reflections, I sought out reassurance by calling Irene. “Do you think our isolation was a bad thing when we lived on the farm? Was it damaging?” 

She took a deep breath before answering. “I think it was hard for you. When I got off the bus, you would be waiting for me at the top of the hill.” After a moment’s reflection, she said, “But it’s an asset to be able to play by yourself. My children complained of boredom when no one was around. You knew you could talk to the cat or the dog.” What cold comfort, I thought at first. Were the cat and dog adequate substitutes for human friends? Then I recalled that isolated prisoners, deprived of contact with the outside world, find solace in nonhuman visitors to their cells—roaches, spiders, and birds. 

■■■

During the following months, I could not desist from puzzling over the farm and how it affected us. One evening, glancing through a brochure from the Chamber of Commerce in Northeast Pennsylvania, I came across a description of the region where our farm was located. The description used the phrase “Valley of the Endless Mountains”—a phrase that sounded familiar, though I couldn’t identify it at first. Then it came to me. The words “endless mountains” resonated with a favorite blessing, one I had learned in Saint Paul—three years and three moves after our time in Pennsylvania.

From the age of eight, I had sung in the children’s choir at the House of Hope Church. Dressed in black cassocks, white surplices, and purple velvet bows, we children would march into the sanctuary to join the adult and high school choirs. I felt elated during our performance of the soaring music but grew bored during the offertory, when ushers, with agonizing slowness, passed silver plates down the rows of congregants. Waiting for the offertory to end, we kids played tick-tack-toe on the church bulletins, bending our heads like co-conspirators behind the backs of the mahogany pews.

Finally, at a signal from the organist, the ushers would bring the collection forward as the congregation rose to sing: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise Him all creatures here below….” Then the minister pronounced the blessing:

Silver and gold are thine, Oh Lord,
The cattle upon a thousand hills.
All that we have comes from thee.
We give thee but thine own.

 As a child, I would not have known that the word “cattle” once meant all property, or that “hills” originally encompassed mountains too; nevertheless, the lyrical stanza held me in its spell, and I recited it to myself even after we moved away and went to that church no more.

Surely my attachment to the blessing had originated in the landscape of my childhood. I recalled the cattle on my recent trips to Pleasant Mount. I must have seen those cows at a distance whenever I rode in the Jeep with my father, and up close, when we played “Mrs. Marigold” in the barn. Having named our cows, perhaps I had loved them. Perhaps they had loved me. Could cows love people? I didn’t know.

But what I did know—what I understood then for the first time—was that my years on the dairy farm had left enduring traces, fostering my inclination to solitude and my lifelong bond with my father.  Those cows were pieces of a puzzle I couldn’t solve, part of a formative setting that haunted me, now lost to remembrance. ■

Martha Grace Duncan’s memoirs have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Notre Dame Magazine, Passages North, and Tampa Review. Five of her pieces have been chosen as “Notables” in the Best American Essays series, edited by Robert Atwan. Her memoir “A Perfect Start” won first prize in the Gail Wilson Kenna Creative Nonfiction Category in the 2018 Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. An early version of her creative nonfiction piece, “What Not to Do When your Roommate is Murdered in Italy,” won the 2014 Judith Siegel Pearson Award from Wayne State University. It was published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.