Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Farm.

My brother Michael is doing some work in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin this week and decided to go see the farm in Gurnee, Illinois where Mom grew up. Gurnee used to be a tiny farm town among many tiny farm towns outside of Waukegan, corn and soybeans in flat, square fields separated by straight, narrow country roads. The plain white clapboard house Mom grew up in sat on one of those roads, which used to be called Grange Hall Road and it was gravel when she was a girl, but by the time my siblings and I were kids and we visited, they'd changed the name to Washington Street and paved it with blacktop. Many years ago, decades ago, they built a Six Flags down the road, and now the whole area is suburban retail sprawl indistinguishable from any other suburban retail sprawl. Way back when, going into the “city” meant Waukegan; now Gurnee and Waukegan and the whole region are basically part of greater Chicago.

The farmhouse is now owned and used as office space by the city or county. Mike texted my sister and me a photo of it last night, “completely renovated” he said, but looking at the photo I can’t make out the original house under the additions and new siding. Mom visited it several years before she died and said that the inside was basically the same layout, her old bedroom now an office.

I have memories of the house, but they’re spotty. I haven’t been there since I was 10 and my grandfather, Mom’s dad, died. Soon after that, Mom had an epic falling out with her mother, my grandmother, and we never went back. From that time -- though my mom kept in touch with her sisters, neither of whom had a warm relationship with their mother who was by all accounts a mean, bitter woman -- my mother never saw her mother again. Her name was Elsie. I think she liked me. I have nice memories of hanging out with her in the kitchen. I remember her being fun, making me laugh, though I couldn’t give you an example. The last communication between Mom and her mother, a long letter Elsie sent my mom after a disagreement about money and my grandfather's estate, excoriating every member of Mom’s new family, my dad, his parents, my brother, she did not single me out for any particular abuse. (I’m sure this letter is still in the lockbox my parents kept in a closet with all their “important papers." We used to get it out and read it from time to time.)

Or that’s how I remember it. If I ever write a memoir, I’m sure I’ll have to go on Oprah and apologize for making it all up.

Mom with her brother Jimmy
Jimmy, Elsie, Mom, and Don
Mom’s brothers both still lived at home and they both made the clean break with their sister along with Elsie. Don, the youngest, was maybe 19, and Jimmy was a few years older. They lived at home with their mom to the end. That’s not completely true: at some point Jimmy, who had Down’s Syndrome, moved into a “home." Mom visited him there many years later, after Elsie died, and she said that at that point (he would have been in his sixties) he didn’t recognize her or engage much with the world at all any more. Even after they sold the Gurnee farm and moved to Missouri where they bought another small farm — Don never married and he ran the farm. Mom went down to Missouri for Elsie's funeral and reunited with Don, but too much time had passed and it wasn't a satisfying reunion.

Mom’s two sisters, one older and one younger, both moved to Southern California and Mom kept in touch with them by letter and phone but they never visited. Their lives, I think, were chaotic and marginal and Mom was fine with them being some distance away.

I think this might be Mom's older sister Carol. That's Carol's son, Donnie, my cousin. I remember meeting him once or twice but never really knew him.

Mom's sister Nicki (nee Susan -- she changed her name as an adult, but I don't think the family ever really accepted the new one.)
Nicki with a cow
Nicki with a pigeon
Before the split, we used to visit the farm once or twice a year. We never spent the night there. Mom said it was always dirty and she didn’t want her children crawling around on the filthy floor. We stayed with Aunt Alice (Elsie’s sister and sort of a surrogate mother to my mom — when Elsie and my grandfather Emil were having one of their screaming and throwing-things fights, Mom would weather the storm with her beloved sweet Aunt Alice) and Uncle Oscar who lived nearby in Libertyville.

But we would visit, and in my memory we spent long days there, following Grandpa around the farm while he did his chores. I loved the cats that were seemingly everywhere. I hated the cow barn, a disgusting dark place that smelled so foul I thought I’d pass out. I’m still haunted by the image of a cow’s anus opening up to let out great masses of shit which would land with a splash on the concrete. It was Don’s job to kill a chicken for dinner. He’d bring it from the coop in a wooden cage out to a stump under a tree, pull it out by its legs, place its neck on the stump and take its head off with one clean swing of the hatchet. It would bounce around for a while but when it stopped, he’d throw it into a big pot of scalding water and then furiously yank all its feathers out. I don’t remember having any other reaction to this event except being dumbstruck. My Uncle Don was tall, masculine, and usually silent. He had severe acne on his face and back. I was mesmerized by him.

No one ever went in or out of the front door of the farm house. The back door opened onto a gravel drive that swung around the house from the road. When you stepped in, you could go down some steps to a cellar that always smelled of rotten eggs. The DeMeyers kept chickens and sold eggs. It was Mom’s job when she was a girl to gather the eggs; she hated it and chickens.

But if you turned left at the landing and went up a few steps you were in a big kitchen with a large table in the middle. I remember a breadbox (Grandpa brought home bread from the bakery wrapped in white waxed paper) and the round metal appliance on the counter that pasteurized the milk they brought in from their cows. I remember Grandpa sitting at the kitchen table eating a yellow onion like it was an apple. The rest of the house is vaguer still. Through a sort of wide hall with a staircase to one side was the living room. There was a couch against the front wall where I remember Jimmy sitting, flanked by his two older sisters crying and trying to explain to him that his dad was not coming home from the hospital. The phrase “no hope” has not once since then — I was ten when Grandpa died — not carried that memory when I hear it, no matter the context.

Grandpa was a large, boxy, gruff man. My mother’s sisters, both rebellious, had stories of abuse that my mom did not find completely credible. Mom was his clear favorite, the apple of his eye. I found him terrifying, but I’m moved when I remember that, when we visited, he always made a special trip to a local beverage distributor to buy a case of returnable bottles of orange and grape and lemon-lime soda for my brother and sister and me to drink while we were there. We were immensely grateful because the well water tasted of sulphur, the milk had a layer of cream on top which we found disgusting, and their orange juice had pulp in it. At home we drank Tang.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to go off on a long reverie about the farm in Gurnee. Getting that text from Mike with the photo of the house on the eve of Mom’s birthday today sent me down a rabbit hole.

Nicki and Don
Mom. These pictures were taken I think shortly after Mom and Dad got married.
Nicki (with a duck, or goose?) and my cousin Don
Uncle Jimmy
Mom. She must have borrowed that coat from Grandma Lenore, Dad's mother.
Mom with her brother Jimmy
Uncle Jimmy and my cousin Don
Nicki, Don, and Jimmy in the house. Mom's wedding picture on the table.
Dad and Mom. Elsie never liked the Chesliks.
Dad and Jimmy. The house in the background. That sidewalk leads to the back door.