It is true: I have always considered myself to be lucky and a little cursed at the same time to have been born into two such different families.  On one side of the family, there are generations of teachers and preachers.  My Grandpa was a preacher, and Grandma was a first grade teacher. I grew up admiring this side of the family, wanting to emulate their mannerisms, their interests, and their careers.  This was the side of education and culture.  After services at my grandparents’ church, where much fuss was always made over “the minister’s grandkids,” I remember loving nothing more than coming back to the parsonage where my Grandpa would put records on the stereo to play as Sunday dinner was getting ready.  Sometimes Bach, sometimes Herb Alpert, later even Jesus Christ Superstar, I would sit and play games or read near those speakers – unless it was Bach.  Bach always made me happy, made me want to move.  The direct line from my experiences those days and the loving family that brought me those opportunities to where and who I am today has always been clear.  It is safe to say it would be evident to anyone who knows me and had the privilege of meeting all my relatives on that side of the family.

My relationship with the other side of the family was always much muddier, in many senses of the word.  This side had generations of sustenance farmers in the family tree, Scots-Irish in the New World from before the Revolutionary War, always moving west just this far ahead of civilization, scrapping to make ends meet and making do or doing without.  This was the side that had a farm that had been in the family since before Illinois was a state.  The family cemetery was a genealogy lesson: Conley, Fields, Davis…. Electricity had come to the farm, yes, but there was still no telephone and still no running water.  We didn’t go to a bathroom when we visited the farm; we went to the luxurious outhouse with two, count them, two seats!  Or, as my grandmother used to say, we went to “visit the Joneses.”   Why the Jones’ needed two seats in their home I never knew. There was no faucet anywhere of course; we pumped the water from a cistern just outside the kitchen.  We always had to be careful for the mud-daubers (wasps) that lived just inside the spout!  Some cooking was done in the kitchen; some was done over the woodstove.

The farmhouse had four rooms:  the main room, which also had a high metal bed for guests, a front bedroom that was also used for guests, the kitchen, where my grandmother slept on a folding cot, and the back bedroom where my grandfather stayed and where he stored his rifles.

When my sister and I would stay at the farm for a week to give my parents some time alone, my grandparents would pump water from the well one bucket at a time, then they heated it on the woodstove in the living room, then they poured it into the big galvanized metal tub.  Grandpa washed first, then Grandma, then me (or my older cousins first if they both were there – then me), then last of all my little sister!  I remember that cloudy, soapy, dirty lukewarm water as if it were yesterday.  How I hated it!  But I did learn that the secret to bathing in the country is not so much to get clean as it is to stay less dirty.

We went fishing at the farm.  Once when I was eight or nine, I got a big snapping turtle on my line.  I fought it and fought it all by myself, then finally landed it.  The grownups had to take over then, as it was big and dangerous.  They put it in a big rusty metal trash barrel, and they put the one my cousin had caught that very same day in another.  I think a neighbor came over and shot them so that he could eat them with his family.  Our family did not eat turtles, but I knew my grandfather had eaten squirrels from time to time. One learns to use the resources of the land one inhabits when resources are adequate and money is scarce.

I walked in the woods, got stung by wasps and bitten by ticks.  I went exploring; I especially liked hopping over the creek where it was narrow near the bottom of the pasture, and I liked hunting for wild raspberries in season.  The honeysuckle always smelled good.  Dad could do a quail call so good that the birds themselves would answer and sometimes come close to him.  I liked going with Grandpa and my Dad to cut down trees in the woods.  I knew they would go into the woodstove to keep us warm in the Winter after they had seasoned.  “Wood warms you three times: once in the cutting down, once in the splitting up, and once in the stove,” I remember being taught.

How grand the Fall was!  It was persimmon time, and we learned how to tell just how mushy the persimmons had to be before they were any good to eat.  We learned to split open their seeds to forecast the weather: inside the seed was always a shape like an eating utensil.  A knife meant the Winter would have cutting weather.  A spoon meant you would be shoveling snow all Winter, and a fork meant the Winter would be mild enough to be able to pitch hay outside in the middle of December.  We learned to forecast the cold and snow by looking at the bands on wooly worms.  We learned that thunder was “God’s tater wagon a-rollin.’”  Of course at nine and becoming a well-educated small town boy, I rolled my eyes at such ridiculous folklore and superstitions.  But at least I was smart enough to learn them, too, thank goodness.

Sometimes the clay fields grew corn, sometimes beans – they were just never much for making money.  Grandpa kept cows in the pasture for neighbors from time to time, but Grandma was deathly afraid of cows, so usually there were never any.  Grandma went to her grave without telling any of us the story of why she was so afraid of cows.

By the time I was growing up, the farm was really mostly a hobby farm.  All of us including my grandparents came to visit from time to time, and this is exactly what happened this Fourth of July.

I didn’t want to go then, really.  I didn’t like the farm then.  I hated the backwoods Ozark dialect, the boring long days of waiting for nothing at all to happen.  I hated the same stories over and over.  I hated the country music on the radio and hearing my Grandma tell my Dad who in town had been sick and who had died and when and where they were buried.  Mind you, I didn’t hate the Moon Pies or the walnut candy or the many other stale southern treats that were waiting for grandchildren whenever we came!  But after I had scarfed down my share and more of the candy, I was back to moping and wandering, wondering why we had to come to this stupid old farm and live this way with no television and no newspapers and months old Readers’ Digests. What would my friends in town think if they knew I had to use an outhouse?!

This Fourth was a little different, especially to a child fascinated by numbers and by history. The country would be 199 years old; the Bi-centennial was just around the corner. I would be ten years old soon, two whole digits in my age, like a grown-up!  This seemed like a pretty special day, not least because some of our more distant relatives and some neighbors were coming to celebrate with us.

My Grandpa had traveled to Indiana to buy fireworks (not a big journey, just across the Wabash from their home in town) for the occasion.  I was indignant: fireworks were illegal in Illinois!  What if the police came and arrested us all?

I forgot to worry about all that when David down the road brought his team of white horses hitched to a hay wagon. He pulled us down the long farm lane and down the country road.  We all sat on the bales of hay and waved and laughed, mainly at each other, since nobody much came down the road that day – or any day, really.  It was just us and the measured clip-clop of this beautiful team of horses – another memory that I will carry with me for a lifetime.  This part of the day I would not have cared if my friends from town saw!  I wished they could see it, in fact.  Wouldn’t they all be jealous?

When we got back, Grandma was already at work preparing a Summertime feast: fried chicken, green beans, lima beans, corn, potatoes, Waldorf salad, and watermelon and homemade ice cream for dessert, along with those sugar wafers that are vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, a personal weakness of mine.  The women gathered in the kitchen and living room to work, and cook, and talk and gossip while the men and children sat outside the farmhouse.  Outside was a stoop as well as a swing between two trees: the older men took these seats and the metal chairs, the younger men got folding lawn chairs, and we kids stood around or sat on the ground.  

Then the storytelling started.  This branch of the family was blessed with the gift of storytelling.  And mind you, the cast of characters present that day would give enough stories even without the truth stretching that always went on at such occasions.  I had a great-uncle who had made a fortune in oil and went around in a three-piece suit shooting foxes from a jeep.  I had a great-aunt (one of my most beloved relatives) who left the farm at a very young age to go alone to New York City and ended up an executive secretary at Texaco who learned to love opera and the New York Yankees.  The former was bizarre to my grandparents, but the latter was well nigh unforgivable.  We kids sat and listened to the stories and watched the cast of characters before us and laughed until our sides hurt, when we weren’t out looking for crawdads in the creek or running out to the ponds to look for fish.  The girls wore bonnets and the boys straw hats at the farm.  I loved the smell of a good straw hat; if I was lucky I got the one with a green plastic visor brim before anyone else laid claim to it.

There were too many of us to fit in the farmhouse that day, so we ate in the yard at a big table laid diagonally – or we children sat on the ground or at the stoop if need be.  We ate and we ate; and now the men and women got to tell their same stories, this time to each other.  The kids got to listen again, to learn how to time a joke, finish a phrase, give a narrative.  Mostly, though, we learned how to eat a watermelon with or without salt, how much faster you could eat homemade ice cream without getting a headache, and how to sneak more sugar wafers when your parents weren’t looking – grandparents don’t tell.

That night when it was dark enough, my Dad and Grandpa pulled a big corrugated metal sheet to the far end of the side yard and began lighting the fireworks.  They were nothing big, only big enough for a nine-year-old who was just starting to learn his adolescent know-it-all behavior to worry about the consequences and the weed of crime bearing bitter fruit.  If I could talk to that boy now, I would tell him not to worry and just to enjoy the day because it would never come again.  But of course, that was exactly what all the adults were saying then; and of course it was the stupidest thing that boy had ever heard.  What do these law-breakers know about the future when they can’t even manage the present?

Of course you see where this is going.  Decades later, I am the teacher I seemed destined to be even then.  Music is a vital part of my being; Bach still makes me want to move.  Ancestry and primal memories are powerful draws, after all.  But now, the lessons of all my ancestors have come full circle.  I am hiking about the woods and fields, living off simple foods, washing in the rural fashion from cups and basins with water drawn from wells. I know how a sustenance farmhouse is laid out; it is the same here. Crops and their values, the seasons and the weather are things I understand not just from books but by sense. The names of birds and trees and the ways they can teach us of our world if we just take the time to notice them and learn their signals are all a part of my heritage, too.  Rural protocol is not so different here than it was there. I certainly know how to use a farm toilet! I know the value of repetition in an oral tradition, and I understand the concern for life, death, sickness and health.  I can listen to a good storyteller, and I can glory in the power of a great folk song well and simply sung.

With this trip, I feel I have in good measure at last reconciled the parts of my heritage that I had always felt to be contradictory.  They were the same music all along – I just didn’t know how to listen with both ears at the same time.  A nine-year-old boy with the first inklings of adulthood learns how not to listen, how not to learn – the painful yearnings for willful ignorance that adolescence brings to the all-too-open and trusting mind of the child.  It is this yearning that turns us into single-minded adults, determining what we will and won’t do, what we will and won’t see or imagine, what we will and won’t care about.  It closes our minds to perceived present irrelevances and to possible futures even as it prepares us to approach our lives with purpose.

Now I have a second chance, a chance to live the lesson I have learned in Africa, honoring my ancestors while daring myself to do things neither they nor I ever experienced before.  Once again there is this chance to live as a young child, to be nine again - to be even younger still.  Maybe I can be nine for real and for good now, with all I have learned.  This time, I can recognize the familiar in the utterly foreign and the undying truths in a life led simply.  Most of all, I can celebrate right now where I am, even as I hold dear those who are not with me today, for whatever reason there might be for each.

Happy Independence Day.    

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    A choral conductor walking cheerfully over the world...


    May 2013