River Hills Hold the Water
(c) Cheryl Lynne Bradley 2007
I always thought I gave away my small town country roots in every conversation I have ever had. I called the city nearest my small town, "The City", common terminology in a small town, as if no other cities really existed out there other than as a map dot, a rare school field trip or a story on the evening news. There were many farms in my family and a proud hardworking tradition of farmers but only one of those farms was "The Farm". "The Farm" had been in the family since 1832, nestled on steep river hills bounded by a gulley and pastures on one side and a low flat hay field that dropped off down to the river. River hills hold the water.
Large flat rocks covered the landscape on both sides of gulley, including the front of the farmhouse. The rocks that fronted the house were filled with wild rose bushes and their fragrance made the evening air fresh and sweet. It was a steep walk down those river hills and you had to angle yourself carefully or you could tumble head over heels; ending up in the mucky clay at the bottom. The cattle had years worn paths down to the river that I followed many times, ducking through the evergreen trees that held that part of the gulley hill in place, the other side had no trees just a windmill perched precariously on top while the gulley eroded its' way up to it. In the springtime, the gulley had a natural creek that poured water down the rocks making a beautiful waterfall. It was stunning. I waded in the cold water of that creek every springtime in my brown galoshes, getting soakers but loving it. I used to sing down into that gulley and listen to my voice echo back to me.
When my grandparents had "The Farm". I remember we all got to spend a week there in the summer. Grandpa and Grandma milked cows and we got to go help with the milking (well, I don't know how much help I ever was but Grandpa let me do some feeding and seemed to like my company). There were always cats in the barn and what child doesn't love a batch of new kittens. I helped Grandma with the milk cans and getting ready for the milk truck. She always fed the filters to their dog, Dick. He was a great Border Collie who was the smartest dog I have ever known, and I have come to know a lot of dogs over the years. He adored children - the first thing we all did when we got there was jump from the car yelling, "Here Dick!!!!" and Dick, who was always busy on the farm, would come a'runnin. .My cousin Shelley and I trained him one summer day when we were at the farm together. He would sit, stay, come, walk, heel, bark ....he would do anything for us. We were both shocked at how smart he was. If it was a family visit we always left for home after one of Grandma's great suppers, cooked on her beloved woodstove, and Dick would race the car through the fields and keep up to us. It was quite the sight, he would there waiting to race when it was time for us to go. I'll never forget Dick.
There was no indoor bathroom at "The Farm" until I was a young teenager. The facilities were an outhouse at the back and a chamber pot under your bed. Even when the indoor plumbing was installed Grandma still used the outhouse, she had always grown up with one. I think they finally blew it up or tore it down so she couldn't use it anymore. It was beside the garden at the back of the house. My Grandma planted a big garden and she was the first total recycler I ever knew. She never had garbage. She burned things in the wood stove and all vegetable peelings, coffee and tea grounds or table scraps were deposited on the garden to compost. There was an apple tree at the back of the garden and my cousins and I used to eat the unripened green apples until our bellies ached.
Grandma always had Grandpa's breakfast ready when he came in from morning chores. We all learned how and where to scrape the barn off our shoes before we came into the kitchen. Grandpa's rocker was right inside the back door and the 30-06 was on the wall. After he carefully washed at the kitchen sink, he sat down to a bowl of her Cream of Wheat porridge, two strips of crisp bacon, toast and tea, which Grandpa always drank from the saucer giving away his Irish ancestry. Her porridge tasted like no one elses', she had a gift and she never shared her secret. I have mastered the skill now and my porridge is just like hers was. She also had a green thumb and had gloriously blooming African Violets everywhere, my Mother has the same knack but I only manage to kill them.
After breakfast, Grandpa would shave, using a tin bowl of water set on the counter in front of the corner mirror cupboard, his brush, shaving mug and razor carefully arranged beside him. He would fully wash in the kitchen sink. I can still seem him standing there in his undershirt, scrubbing his arms and upper body to rid himself of the smell of the barn. I always watched him shave in the morning, it is a skill in men that I admire. I watched and occasionally would see him looking at me from the mirror - I took over his seat at the table to watch him shave and I sat very quietly. I wouldn't have wanted him to get a nick on my account.
Grandpa usually took a nap after his bath, he would lay down on the couch in the living room for about an hour. Farmers rise early and work late, so a nap is a sound idea. Evening chores were a bit more of an adventure than morning chores because in the evening Grandpa would take the old blue truck up the hill beside the barn to the back of the barn. The barn itself was built into the side of a hill. To access the hay mow there was an entrance through the barn but the big doors were at the back. Up the hill we would go and Grandpa would throw the hay down for the next mornings feed. The best part was the trip back down the stoney hill beside the barn. It was an old truck and this was before seat belts. Grandpa got his Driver's License back in the day. He drove himself to the licensing place and the guy asked "How did you get here?", Grandpa said "I drove." so the guy gave him his license. Grandpa really wheeled that truck. He hit that hill of rocks flying and the truck was just bouncing - it was better than any midway ride I have ever been on. I can remember having my fingers buried in the dashboard and my eyes must have bugged out of my head. I still think it was the coolest thing I have ever done in my life and it is among my most cherished memories of my Grandpa. He listened and I have come to miss that very much since he passed over.
From the same place I watched my Grandpa shave, I would watch my Mother do my Grandma's hair. My Grandma had long dark brown hair which she wore short around her face and piled in a bun on top of her head. My Mother would unpin it and that beautiful hair would cascade down to her waist. My Grandma had hardly a grey hair on her head when she passed over at the age of 92. My Aunt Joyce had the same long beautiful hair as a child and young woman - it was stunning. She was full of loving kindness and compassion, it flowed from her the same way her hair flows down her back in a photo I have of her. Joyce is gone now and I will always remember how she loved "The Farm'; her home in the valley. There were cruel twists of fate visited upon her beautiful soul. the illness that took her life and a heartless and coldhearted will that excluded her literally and symbolically from her family.
Everything I thought I knew about my family changed at that time. I had always thought I came from honest, loyal and caring people that looked out for each other. It was the first time I think I have really witnessed the power of Greed. I have always known that the Devil's name is More, but I never thought he had a hold on my family, I guess I was very wrong. I thought I had been blessed in my life with the quality and choice of my family. Christmas's were wonderful, never marred by drinking or fighting. My grandparents didn't drink and the special beverage on Christmas day was Concord Grape Juice mixed with Ginger Ale - I think all of us still love this punch. Grandma always made it with great care in her clear crystal picture. The turkey was done to perfection, the gravy brown, the Christmas pudding and sauce mouthwatering. No meal was complete without Grandma's homemade buns - there is nothing like baking done in a woodstove. After Grandpa and Grandma sold the farm to one of my uncle's, there were only a couple of more Christmas's celebrated at the farm and the day was rotated between different homes. After Grandpa died, we all started celebrating our own Christmas's. It was a big mistake and was the writing on the wall for all of us. Grandma made the circuit though, always bringing some of her precious homemade buns.
The farmhouse was renovated beautifully but my Uncle, for reasons that I will never understand, filled in the creek which destroyed the waterfall and dug up all the big rocks and wild roses from the front of the house. It was his now, he could do what he wanted to it. "The Farm" was on its way to becoming "a farm". "The Farm" was always to be owned and worked by someone with the family name. Children were born and stillborn at "The Farm". Family members lived, died and were waked there. Pets were buried there. Generations of family left their blood, sweat, love, joy, laughter, loss and tears mixed with the land and the river that cuts through it.
It is good that they are not here to see how people have changed. Some seem to have forgotten our simple roots: who and where we came from. I have a picture of Grandma in brown galoshes like the ones I waded in the creek with, at one cousin's wedding. It should serve to remind the ones who think they are above who we really are, we come from her. Those river hills hold the waters of our people's memories and their hopes for the future.
"The Farm" is now just memory to me, I doubt I will ever go there again in person but I can travel there in my thoughts. I know the way by heart. I can see the creek, feel the cold water seeping into my boots. I can follow the cow path, I can climb the gulley hill. I can eat green apples. I can see the place under the windmill where I dug my cousin out of the snow after he fell deeply. I can see us all running decapitating any milkweed in our paths. I played there and was so free, so liberated and so safe. My children don't know this feeling, and too few of our children know "The Farm" or each other. We failed to gather, we forgot who we were, where we came from and what made us family. It is just a farm now where the river hills hold the water.