Tuesday, January 13, 2004

The farm

There are always ways to occupy yourself at the farm. We dug through the house until we uncovered the hidden photographic evidence. We found a slide projector and all hung out in the living room to laugh at the older generation in its formative years. We took a long walk to look at cows and fields, and ended up collecting scads of empty beer bottles along the road. We cooked a big dinner featuring a honey ham and smoked turkey. We laughed at my aunt's phobic dog as she rapidly dismembered her Christmas Teddy bear. We met my cousin's fiance, and were surprised at the announcement of the wedding.

I tried my grandfather's brand of hyper-fizzy beer. He's been trying out homebrewing, but he overdid the carbonation a bit. Several of the bottles apparently self-destructed in clouds of flying glass. The ones that didn't apparently explode into a foamy mess when the cap is removed! So the only way to enjoy this Virginia delicacy is to carefully punch a pinhole in the cap and then let the excess CO2 bleed off. Despite the gyser of beer vapor, there's still an impressive amount of head and fizz on the beer. I brought a bottle back with me, but haven't been brave enough to open it yet.

Something woke me up early in the morning, and I rolled off of my air mattress on the living room floor and walked outside in the early morning chill. I watched through the trees as shades of blue and gold emerged behind the foothills across the narrow valley. Shivering a bit, I slipped inside and fell back asleep.

We ended this trip with a visit to my grandmother in the nursing home. These visits have become increasingly one-sided -- she doesn't seem to remember who we are, and conversations flow over and around her to no effect.

It was clear that something was wrong years before anyone actually said anything about it. By the time I was in middle school, we were used to covering the same ground as my grandmother replayed the same conversations over and over again. As we got older, her short-term memory continued to drift away, and she coped by keeping copious notes on a sheaf of paper in her purse.

I think I first really understood what was happening when I spent a night at the farm over winter break during my freshman year of college. I arrived late at night and collapsed into bed in the guest room. The next morning, I awoke at the crack of dawn to a knocking on the door. "Wake up! Rise and Shine!" she said. "You're going to miss your school bus!" She continued to rush me out of the house, convinced that the other kids at the bus stop would leave without me. I was 19 years old, yet I was participating in a play whose lines were written before my birth.

Moth, Mom, and Uncle Bill, late 50s or early 60s After that, it was all a blur. At some point, my grandfather made the hard decision to move her into the nursing home in the small town a few miles from the farm. At first, things went on somewhat normally -- I remember visiting a Dairy Queen with them during a visit. But each time I saw her she looked much older, and there were fewer indications that she remembered who we were or anything else about her past. I remember how excited I was on one visit when she said the words "There we are!" in response to a picture of her family on the beach in the 1930s. That was the most coherent thing I'd heard from her in a long time -- or since.

Maybe this is why I'm so interested in the old family photos we found. My grandmother's illness has dragged on for so long that I have trouble remembering how she was before it started. I stare at these old photos because they give me a glimpse of a normal life: Of the woman my grandfather decided to marry after a long hike on the C&O canal. Of the woman who was a proud homemaker and girl scout leader. Of the woman who used to tell me stories when I woke her up early in the morning and climbed into her bed, and who served us chessmen cookies at her house after church on Sundays. Of the woman who went on safari in Africa. Of the woman who indulged my mother's desire for a coonskin cap, and my uncle's love of cowboy suits. These snippets are the fragmentary reminders of a past that has disappeared into a dense fog of age.

I left the farm with a crate full of photos and slides. My cousin did the same. Our plan is to sort and scan them, catalog them, and perhaps understand more about our own family. These dusty prints are directly related to our lives, yet oddly removed from the reality we have lived with for the last 15 years. They are a looking glass into a world we barely remember.

No comments: