Friday, October 14, 2005

 

Stories From the Land of Sunday

In his Wednesday Bleat, James Lileks uses his childhood experiences at his grandmother’s farm to describe the difference between carrots from the store, and carrots fresh from the ground. His daughter asks him to tell her another story about the farm:

I don’t have many. There aren’t that many of us. First you had the people who farmed, then the ones who grew up on a farm and left for the city, then the ones whose parents grew up on a farm and took you back on weekends, then the kids whose parents were the last to hold the connection to agrarian America, and never quite noted the moment when that cord ran through their hands and out of their grasp. Not that they were holding on particularly tightly.

“What other stories can you tell,” his daughter asks.

But there’s not much more to tell. Certainly not the Death of the Badger in the culvert, which formed the basis of my first novel in first grade. Moments, impressions, pictures – walking through the woods along the Red River, finding an ancient tractor abandoned 30 years ago; scraping the dust off your skin with Lava soap after a day on the combine; riding motorcycles down long thin empty county roads in the summer. The farm was another world, even though it was only ten miles from home. Every day was Sunday, and Sunday was another country. It was in the Land of Sunday I first saw Pong; it was in the Land of Sunday I first tasted a beer, courtesy of Grandfather: ew, how can you drink that? It was in the Land of Sunday I saw the first episode of Star Trek on NBC in Living Color – Grandpa had a set, we didn’t. Happy to go and happy to go home. In the days before the interstate we took Highway 10 home, the road where my mom and dad had spun out years before I was born – landed in the ditch in the winter. (I always thought the scar on his forehead was from that accident, until I asked; no, he was kicked in the head as a kid. Simple enough thing, but when you’re dead poor you don’t go into town to get it sewn up nice and neat.) I always fell asleep going home. The highway curved around an old farm and the new drive-in, and whenever the car made the curve I felt it, and knew we were close. Sunday was over and Monday was next; duty loomed.

I just realized that my earliest memories, the ones that stuck, are all from the Land of Sunday.
Have I said lately that Lileks is the best writer on the Internet? It isn’t the grace of his prose, or any particular finesse with the turn of phrase. It is the power of his themes, his evocative collections of stray images that build together into vivid portraits of the man alive, in place, in time.

I lived much of my recollected life in the Land of Sunday. The Land of Sunday had a stirring soundtrack, part classics, part early jazz, part American Musical, with some bosa nova thrown in for good measure. Bill Cosby did some gigs in the Land of Sunday, but only with his early routines of Noah and shaving commercials. The Land of Sunday also celebrated family life with early dinners, capped by TV suppers of pizza or family size popcorn, popped in the old tin lizzy electric popper. Every night in the Land of Sunday ended with the Wonderful World of Disney, and if we were lucky, a Disney movie that stretched the day another hour or more, before, as Lileks notes, duty loomed.

The NY Times was the newspaper of record in the Land of Sunday. In later years, half the day was measured in the cover-to-back exploration of that other, Metroworld so far away from the Land of Sunday. Mother and Father in their respective lairs, siblings piled around in various configurations. An occasional, “Bob!” that corresponded with Dad’s absent minded shift into some habit or another, Mom’s descent from any internal debates long enough to speak at him for half an argument over something she was reading, his reply a sporadic “humph,” carefully time through din of repetition and studied response to minimally satisfy the oath of attentiveness.

My son and daughters have not lived in the Land of Sunday, and visits there do not come close to capturing the import of the place, for them. We don’t subscribe to the Grey Lady surely, nor any other relic of those fading and print-shedding earlier times. We may spend an unforgivable amount of time in front of a television tube, but we might just as likely go for a bike ride together, or a ride in the country, capped by a meal at one of our many cherished spots of family treasure. All of course, after a morning spent in church, which only in the very earliest days was an artifact of the Land of Sunday. More clearly, my family today interacts and connects and dispels much opportunity for isolated reflection, in print or book or chorus or verse, or in any of the many ways we each were our own Island in that Land of Sundays. This is both a sad and wistful observation; alone in our struggles but insulated from much of what could hurt.

I also come from that last generation who had that farmland cord trailing through my hands, only to let it run out without seeing it gone. The most exciting destination when I was a kid was the annual trip out to my Mom’s and Dad’s families out in Southern Michigan. I remember fishing with my Uncle Karle. Clearly I still see in my mind the hallowed shrines that were every barn and shed, each revealing its treasures of a wall of bird wings or mounted fish heads, and all the other exotic assortments of everyday rural life. The pond, where Karle wisely kept us suburban kids occupied easily enough with a cane pole, a bobber, and a can of worms. As anyone with a farm pond can tell you, that’s where you toss the fish you bring home, either as intentional stock, or because you thought better of having them for dinner when the alternative was an already roasting piece of beef. These are fish that are regularly caught and released by each new flock of kidlings set down as we were to amuse.

I remember the rows and rows of corn, not even much production wise, just the remnant of an 80 acre parcel split up one too many times from generation to generation. The Pioneer Seed signs in each field, identifying the specific hybrid corn variety competing for yield. The BB gun pistol, another amusement for the children of the mom who forbid the use of such things, and abhorred their appearance to such an extent that she blanched at the acquisition of anything more threatening in appearance as the all too tiny plastic Winchester. This was not just exciting, but a forbidden and clandestine operation in which the kids of the enlightenment meet the values of the frontier, and learn about a few of the tools necessary for self sufficiency. That, and trying to hit the “movie theater” crows on the phone line was a challenge.

I remember sleeping near the foot of a glass gun case in the living room, full of rifles. I remember a dizzying assortment of “sugared cereals,” all the ones that, if they ever made it home at all, had to be cut 50-50 with Wheaties to ensure we weren’t all wired on sugar every morning. This is when I developed a lifelong attachment to those little cereal assortment boxes. My family, most from Battle Creek or the area on the southern border, all worked for one or more of the cereal companies at one time or another, my Uncle I believe retired from Post, my Mom I think worked at Kellogg’s one summer, and so on. You can’t live in that part of Michigan and not have a family connection to Cereal and Cereal manufacturing.

My Dad and I didn’t have much chance when I was young to do much by way of guy things together, but we did when we were with Karle. Karle gave us a place, a time, a way to relate as men must do with their fathers if they hope to understand how to be a man. It isn’t the fishing, it isn’t the hunting or outdoor pursuits. It’s the quiet confidence of standing in the outdoors, and saying we are together in this thing, and we can go down this road together a piece, and maybe sit and have a nice cool lemonade (or beer, later) when we get back. The young boy can look up in wonder at the world of men, and see quiet strength or gentle patience.

Karle and his family seemed like the family of easygoing virtue, of connectedness to a simpler and happier time. They had their struggles, tragedy more than most, and surely lived their life without any pretension that they were at all extraordinary, but they were to me. Jan, who I remember more vividly than my brief time with him explains, his Babe Ruth, his laugh and easy nature, his kindness and quiet strength. (Much like his Dad.) Linda, who was a copy in the mold of her Mother Miriam, as charming and loving and considerate as a person could be, and as oldest of the cousins, functioned as much as a Mom to us kids running around as our own. The twins, beautiful girls, Bambi the more outgoing and boisterous, Karen more reflective but warm to us and always generous of her attention and concern that all of us enjoy ourselves on our visit. With Miriam, we kids could never ask for anything that wouldn’t receive the thing itself or a near alternative, all in an easy charm and kindness. She had a happy way of talking, sounded like Grandma, but with a cheerful and lively twist. She and her brood worked hard, were respectfully and considerate, and never questioned for a moment the awkward moments when one of us would have a tantrum, or have some other problem that awakened the old but private patterns quite alien to this rural life (and usually safely hidden from view).

Karle has a farmer’s eyes, the kind that settle somewhere off in the distance, full of deep emotion that goes unspoken. He has seen, and suffered, a lot. He’s buried dear loved ones, he’s lost more than many men ever have. And yet, I can’t think of Karle without thinking of this great big bear of an encourager, who could always offer a bit of advice or observation about whatever earthly thing we were about, and we’d be the better for listening.

I think in some way they felt sorry for us. I know I did. They live forever in the idyllic pastures of my Land of Summer. Like the Land of Sunday, but writ expansively across the lazy summer, that always saw the log road trip to Michigan for a week with the Michigan families. And as those families recede further and further from view, and I watch that cord trail further and further away, I want so much to go grab it and hold on to it. I want to hold onto that cord until my children can learn the secrets of the Land of Summer. I want them to dwell for a time in the Land of Sundays. It may very well be too late.

We love to take drives, this one’s just 10 hours long. The road is still well paved, and the cars get better gas mileage. And maybe, if I try, I can still get a shot at those crows out on the line, and my son can look up at in wonder at the world of men, feel the strength and patience, and take hold of the cord. Someday, he might just want to pull it a little tighter.

Thanks, James. I enjoyed the visit.

Links: Jo's Cafe



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