First, a little history.
Back in the ’70s, my parents decided it was time to leave Euclid Avenue—a busy, tree-lined street in the Chicago suburbs that slowed to a crawl on Sundays during horse racing season with people on their way to the Arlington Race Track.
They were ready for a quieter setting. Somewhere we’d be less likely to run over by a car, like the kid across the street whose leg was broken after he got caught on the wrong end of traffic.
My dad grew up in Chicago, my mom in the suburbs. And, throwing caution to the wind, they chose to pack up the family and move to Harvard, Illinois. Like Green Acres with kids and, well, sans glamorous Eva Gabor.
We left Arlington Heights toward the end of my fourth grade.
I had to say goodbye to the love of my life, Jason, who never reciprocated my feelings and later went on to become a Hollywood actor. Good-bye to my friend Susie who I met in kindergarten on the way to or from the birthday spanking machine.* Carol and Renee. The public pool and the dime store Kresge’s that were within bike-riding distance. (Ah, Kresge’s… where candy bars were a quarter. I’d load up on $100,000 bars, Sweet Tarts, Pixie Stix and devour ‘em all when I returned home. Nothing left but hastily torn wrappers and a bit of Pixie dust.)
* A line-up of kids whose legs we had to crawl through on our shared November 2nd birthday while they attempted to spank us. Is this a Midwest thing?
Farm livin’ sounded like a cool idea at the time.
We’d live on a small farm—-a “hobby farm,” as my parents called it since it wasn’t my dad’s “real” job—with 12 acres, an actual barn and silo. Among it all stood a somewhat decrepit house built 100 years or so prior. My parents’ friends and family couldn’t believe they were gonna do it, until we actually moved in.
It was the ’70s and, my parents used to say, this is what people were doing.
Well, none of my friends were doing it, but I accepted (and later resented) this shaky fact.
Recently my parents told me, “It was the ’70s and everyone was going a little crazy.”
They wanted a more wholesome environment for us kids.
Along with my older brother, Dave, and younger brother, Matt (who wasn’t yet in Kindergarten and didn’t realize what he’d be missing from suburban life), I would now be living the country life. (Insert Green Acres music here.)
I never felt like I fit into this place.
The kids made fun of me for my goofy smile (I had dental issues) and I kept trying to make friends with girls who reminded me vaguely of those I left behind. One girl on the bus I befriended because she reminded me of Joanie on Happy Days. I’d go to her house and we’d play chicken with the freight train then crawl underneath the tracks as it pummeled over us. (Very wholesome, indeed!)
We climbed in the rafters and jumped into dusty hay that may have been as old as the barn itself.
My mom and brother learned they had allergies. Hay fever.
We learned the difference between hay and straw; Cows and bulls; and heifers and calves; Jerseys and Holsteins. Google it.
My parents put a tire swing up in the barn—we’d hop on it from one of the lofts (I’ll never forget the old flattened dead cat we found up there), sometimes banging into the adjacent wall.
There was a creek that winded along a far edge of the property and we’d follow it as far as we could.
Once I saw a dead, bloated cow floating in a small pond it’s black back shimmering and somewhat threatening. Ominous looking and stained into my memory.
Some winters, there was enough snow that we could slide from the road down the side of the bridge to the frozen creek below. We wouldn’t go back inside until our fingers and toes were numb.
I missed being able to just walk or hop on my bike to find companionship and escape boredom.
It required more effort and coordination out there in Harvard and was less likely to happen. If I wanted to visit one of my new friends, a ride from my parents was required (oh, poor me) or I’d have to hop on a bike.
My friends in Arlington Heights were my life—I was always at someone’s house playing (at least that’s the story my memories tell) because they were right around the corner. Not miles out of reach.
On the farm, I was stuck with my two brothers. My older brother wasn’t really into “playing” with his younger sister (me). My little brother and I played occasionally (and, according to my mom, bickered all the time) and sometimes took to spying on my older brother which was, I have to admit, fun. Just like on Get Smart.
My parents were courageous to leave behind the life they knew and take on this decrepit (now retreat-like) homestead.
They said later that so many couples they knew in Arlington Heights were divorcing and I suppose they imagined living on a farm would be a way to escape all of that. My mom would say she wanted us to be like the Walton’s (when we fought). No such luck there!
We joined 4H and learned how to raise various animals and grow a garden.
Jersey cows, horses, pigs, chickens and ducks became our outside roommates along with a handful of cats that multiplied over the years. Two dogs and the occasional cat about to go into labor were the only animals that shared our house.
I may have been intellectually stunted.
We moved from a good school system to one that hired basketball coaches then asked them if they could, by the way, teach history (reason I got that D?). But I found out how to care for a baby Jersey calf and raise it to be a momma that we’d milk.
My brother had the first Jersey, who he named Gloria. I followed with Marigold and a series of others who I named after flowers. Cows… flowers… makes sense. Both contain “ow.” The similarity ends there.
What’s a Jersey Cow?
Jerseys are brown with long, dark eyelashes and their milk has the highest fat content of any other breed. The cream that rose to the top was inches thick. My mom churned butter and once in a while we made ice cream.
Apparently, there was no shortage of dumb questions asked by the Johnson clan (my family) in 4H meetings, which were populated by “real” farm families.
But we became knowledgeable enough to fill our freezer with meat and poultry, including the occasional long tongue (I know, yuck! Right?!).
The animals grazed freely in the pasture and sometimes escaped—cows on the loose!
We could be seen herding animals on the road back through the open fence and days later, they’d find another weak spot from which to escape. It was comical to see them out and about with all of us waving our hands not knowing what the hell we were doing. None of our cattle ever went missing so we must have been doing something right.
We took our animals to Milk Day—did I not mention that Harvard, Illinois was the “Milk Capital of the World?” And the fair.
A blackboard was hung up in the barn, listing our chores (it’s still there, in fact, the chalk faded and practically illegible). We owned giant milk bottles to feed baby livestock. pitchforks, green rubber boots. Friends today can’t imagine me shoveling shit, but I did. It was smelly, messy work. Sometimes there were maggots. Ew!
Two horses were added by the time I entered first grade—another adventure.
Unaware of what to look for in a horse, we ended up with Charlie who had a back that dipped (noticed only after the blanket was removed) and no teeth (discovered upon getting him home and seeing that he couldn’t eat). The other, Callie, was a healthy Appeloossa but became barn sour (a term they use to describe a horse that isn’t ridden often enough and rebels when you try to take it out for a ride by running back to the barn as fast as it can because it really just wants to hang out and eat, not exercise).
Charlie, poor Charlie, slipped on the ice one winter and couldn’t get up. We covered him with an electric blanket while we waited for the vet to arrive. There was no hope for the old horse and he either died waiting for the vet or the vet put him down upon arrival (PDUA). It was heartbreaking! A truck came to pick him up the next day and my friends refused to believe my horse died. Eventually, Callie was sold.
We owned a couple chestnut horses before or after that experience. Nobody rode them enough either so our horse experience was over.
We had an apple orchard with seven apple trees.
Or was it six apple trees plus one cherry tree?
Buckets and buckets and bushels of apples were collected every fall by none other than all of us (and sometimes extended family would be employed, paid in sheer joy of the experience and apple goods). My mom made her own applesauce and we all participated in creating fresh cider with an apple press, bees swarming everywhere. Some of the bees ended up in the cider, I’m sure.
I was sent to college one year with a jug or two of cider which I attempted to turn into alcohol by letting it sit in my closet. I really should have read up on it beforehand. No worries, though—there were plenty of other booze options available.
Sitting on the backs of our black angus, who didn’t seem to mind. Had they known that we planned to eat them, they might not have allowed it.
Hiding when it was time for hard labor, like loading hay into the barn. That shit was heavy!
The time all the ducks disappeared. The suspect: a gang of coyotes. Eventually, one duck returned and was named “Lucky.”
The death of our first cat. He loved to climb into our parka hoods to stay warm, so we named him Papoose. One day, he was run over by a car—our car! He was apparently under it when my dad backed out of the garage as we were leaving for church. We watched our beloved cat breathe his last breath. Horrific!
Litters of kittens every year. Kittens kittens everywhere.
Freezing in the house. My dad kept the heat off upstairs unless it went below zero. We could see our breath! Want to see a kid get ready for bed fast? This is the trick. When we gathered to watch The Love Boat, all you could see was our heads and bundles of afghans and snuggie, wearable blankets, which were all the rage.
The garage fire. One night I was awakened by frantic yelling. The garage was on fire! It was a large building that held our cars and big antique of a tractor. As the flames licked the second level, my dad rushed to remove the vehicles. Please do not attempt this should your own garage catch on fire. It wasn’t until years later that my younger brother admitted that he had been playing with matches earlier that day. By the garage. Kids: Don’t play with matches!
Cropdusters: There were biplanes, helicopters… they sprayed the fields across the road then turned around above our front yard. So fun to watch! Exposure to pesticides? Priceless.
Making prank phone calls with friends because we were fuckin’ bored out of our minds! That calls for another blog post, but I will tease you with this fact: I got caught, a police record (fortunately it was a fake one to scare me) and have finally recovered from embarrassment.
The field of corn that we grew. As a family, we were to harvest it all. By hand. And it turned out we planted the wrong kind of corn: feed corn. Not something to feed humans, but meant for cattle. Hilarious.
It was all a hobby. No herds of cattle, just a few dairy and beef animals at a time. A little of this, a little of that. Hence the term “hobby farm” for those of you who didn’t quite grasp the concept from my earlier description. Enough to sustain us.
When my parents were empty nesters, they raised a few more animals, including two turkeys, Thanksgiving and Christmas, that thought my mom was their mom (boy, were they mistaken!). Eventually, they were down to one dog and a few outside cats (or mousers, as my mom likes to call them).
I walked the entire property a number of months ago to take the photos you see here. I got all choked up.
The expanse of space, the gazillion birds, trees, the old house that’s so warm even when chilled on a winter day. Barrels of memories, good and not-so-good.
One day, another family will take it over. Whoever it is, I hope they decide to make a go of organic farming. The world needs more of that. (I’m not suggesting our methods were entirely organic—I remember my parents spraying the apple trees to get the worms under control and the spray from the crop dusters was certainly not contained to the intended crops. But our animals were free range and treated well. We didn’t spray our garden that I’m aware of. No antibiotics used. Etc.)
One day, the homestead will no longer be my parents’ place. They’ll instead live in a smaller, one-story home on a piece of property that my dad can maintain (all these years, they’ve done most of the work themselves and still spend hours and hours mowing the lawn every week).
One day, I’ll have to resort to driving by to see whether the house is still standing and how the trees have grown.
The “For Sale” sign is a harsh reminder that we’re all getting older, things come and go. Time marches on. (Insert cliche here.)
Its actual sale will mark the end of an era, reinforcing the fact that everything is temporary.
It will also slap me in the face, awaking me to the reality that, one day, my parents will be gone, too.
Today, I know I can call them when something’s wrong. To hear their reassuring voice. To feel their support. And occasionally view their raised eyebrow when I say things like, “I’m never using a microwave again!” or “I really can’t eat beef or pork!”
Until it sells, I’m collecting rocks.
Big rocks that I never knew existed on their property. I’m using them at our home to border the rain garden. And help with runoff. So part of the farm resides here at my own home. And will always reside in my heart.
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