The way I heard it, Grampa bought the farm with the understanding he and Gramma would live there, in the little house out back, for the rest of their lives. The bigger house up by the road would be Mom and Dad's. It was good for everyone. The little house was just big enough for a couple feeble from age and simple from a lifetime of not expecting much, and the big house was plenty for the rest of us. One bedroom for Mom and Dad, another for my sister, and we boys had the third. It must seem strange now that three boys could share one bedroom. But especially on those nights we got the giggles and wouldn't settle down until Mom came in and scolded us until she, too, couldn't stop giggling, it worked out just fine.
And with 40 acres to roam, it was heaven. Or would have been, if not for the dairy cows. Dad thought a little milk coming off the place would supplement the family income. Beyond that, though, he was the sort who figured three boys had to have something to do with themselves or they might grow up wrong. I milked cows until I went away to college. Twice a day. Every damn day. (If there are cows to be milked in Heaven, I want no part of it.) When I left, Dad sold off Bessy and Bawl and the rest. He was getting tired. I'll likely go to my grave stewing about how my little brothers didn't have to milk as many cows as I did. Little spoiled brat buttheads.
Grandpa made himself busy in other ways. After dinner, he taught me how to play checkers. Hard to guess how bored he might have been, there at the kitchen table in the soft light of his little house, letting a 6-year-old whup him every other game. But he seemed happy. During the day, he raised a few pigs, grew some corn, gathered a few eggs, cut some alfalfa ... anything and everything you might expect from a depression-tempered farmer who couldn't not stay busy. Even then, though, the world was changing too fast for Grandpa. He couldn't even bring himself to trust those newfangled mowers to get close enough to the fence line when they cut the alfalfa. So one miserably hot day he went out did the entire perimeter with a two-handed scythe to make certain nothing was wasted. He came from a time that could not abide with waste. That night, while we watched Groucho on our first teevee, he had such a massive stroke that his easy chair flipped over sideways and spilled him out onto Mom's green carpet like a newborn. I knew by the look on his face he could tell it was over. He never spoke another word-paralyzed from head to toe, he was-but from his terrified eyes alone, even a kid could see what he was thinking. "Guess we'll never play checkers again, Billy. But goddam I love you."
He hung on for a couple of days, then died in the front bedroom.
That was 50 years ago. Since then, through the erosion of estate settlements and Ike Eisenhower's freeway system and easements and such, the 40 acres have dwindled to four. When Dad got sick, we helped him with the place as much as we could, but there was no comparing what we did with what he did. I put in a feeble little garden while he coached, too weak to help. But I simply didn't have the time to thin his raspberries as they should have been thinned, prune his apricots as they needed pruning, propagate his strawberries, harvest his plums, pick his grapes, his blackberries, his pears, his apples. He even had a huckleberry bush. The huckleberries haven't been picked since his last good summer.
Can you imagine? Letting huckleberries go to waste?
He died in the front bedroom, too. We were all there.
We kept watering the place, fighting the weeds, watching first the strawberries peter out, then the raspberries. It was mostly for Mom's sake. She'd had offers, but she wasn't about to leave. Her place meant more to her than all the money in Idaho. You can't blame her. She'd been there for two-thirds of her life, watched her father and her husband die in the same spot, giggled herself goofy with her children when they were barely more than babies and babysat her kid's kids there. Why would she want to leave? She was as at home as anyone you'll ever meet.
It was obvious the end of it all was coming, though. Like checkers rolling off the table, the Turner farm was the first to go, then the Deward place, the Gale place, the Gibson place ... just across the road. Our place had become an island in the roar of a town being lost to its native sons and daughters. We lost track of who the new neighbors were. Even now, as it sits there being overcome with weeds and negligence and development, it's like an old loving aunt trying to understand the confusion that marks her final days.
I couldn't stand to watch it peter out like the berries, stripped of a half century of what my family had put into it. So I tried to keep it up as long as possible, for Mom's sake and for my own, to keep myself proud I had come from there. I wanted Mom to know, right up to her last breath, that what she had provided-what she and Dad and my grandparents had passed on down-was as precious to us as it was to them. Home.
Laugh if you want, you people who don't believe a house can have a soul of it's own, but that old place's soul can still be measured by the absolute vacuum of soul in everything that's happening around it.
Closing day was a couple of weeks ago. It doesn't belong to us anymore. The man who bought it never carved his initials into the barn wood or played checkers at the kitchen table, giggled with his kids in an upstairs bedroom or buried a favorite dog down at the end of the raspberries, learned to drive in the pasture or brought his lover there to meet his parents for the first time ... none of that. The man who owns our place now will rip down the house and scrape the land clean. Some day, I will drive down that road and point out the spot to a grandkid of mine and tell her that's where I grew up ... and she will say, "Gramps, you grew up in a Radio Shack?" (Or maybe a Fred Meyers, an Office Max, a Carl's Jr. ... who knows and what's the difference anyway?)
I used to joke that when the house comes down, it will be like losing a third parent. Nope, it won't be as bad as that. Now that I've lost the first two, I know it can't be that bad.
Still, I think it would be proper to be there the day the bulldozers move in. There's no hand to hold or brow to caress, but we have gathered around this bed before, and we all know our loved ones would wish it no other way.