Andrea Olsen: One-Hundred-Forty-Two Junes

Andrea Olsen is an English teacher at William Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois.  Thanks, Andrea, for this contribution. 

Each time I stepped on grandpa’s farm, my veins pushed through the bottoms of my feet, entangled with the oak roots, and together we would weave ourselves into the dark, timber soil. There was magic to the place. When I stood on the land, with the blood of my veins woven through the dirt, I heard four generations of my family whisper through crisp, white sky, through maple leaves, through my hair and into my heart. Anchored between their spirits and their land, I knew that I would always belong there. But then grandpa died. We buried him on a Halloween wild with wind and bitterness; still the earth opened up for him like it did for fifty Junes of farming. Leon Griesemer was the last of four Griesemer men who would open the earth and whose body the earth would swallow. Today he sleeps where he was happiest, and a new tenant occupies his house, caring little for the landscape that grew over one-hundred-forty-two years. All the magic of the farm has been destroyed. Gone is the Eastern White Pine wide enough for camping under on sticky August nights. The apple tree my cousins and I used to climb in order to be as tall as the ivy-bearded silo is a stump. Dry dirt and brittle branches are reminders of the dense bush that used to sit like a happy Buddha along the front porch. Forty acres of reliable, corn-yielding prairie are in the process of being split up and sold to people who may want to build on the land instead of plow it.

When I see the farm now, my toes squirm for a place to dig into. Feeling much of my life like a displaced mishmash of American suburbanite, living in a new house in a neighborhood of other new houses, that land was the closest thing I had to feeling rooted. At grandpa’s farm I could see my life beyond me; the farm was a place where I could envision four generations of my family tilling seed, raising ivory Percheron Stallions, and laughing together at the table in a time when family and land were everything that mattered. In Schaumburg, the concrete town of 75,000 where I was raised, there was never a place to dig into, to feel roots. So I cherish the pictures and sounds of the farm’s history that I envision, but now that the farm’s landscape is barely recognizable, the images of my history are harder to hold on to. As months pass, my memories and imaginings from the farm become like the tiny, yellow butterflies that used to die on grandpa’s porch and whose wings would break up and disintegrate between the weight of my clumsy fingers. No matter how hard I would try to be gentle with them and to preserve the vibrancy of their delicate beauty, the butterflies refused to stay whole when disturbed. I fear that in losing the landscape I will lose pieces of myself.

But before there were pieces of me to lose there was dirt and the landscape of trees and fields that belonged to grandpa for each of his eighty-four years, and to great and great-great and great-great-great grandpas Adam, Charlie, and Lee. And, like them, the landscape of my history includes a farmhouse, a barn, a silo, and a weepy white pine. Land, of course, does not sprout silos, so in order to build the landscape I call my own, I have to return to when Barbara Luley and Adamus Griesemer emigrated from Bobenthal Germany. The pair married on October 23, 1849, and in March of 1868, they bought ninety acres of land west of Bloomington, Illinois. I like to imagine Adam: He is standing at the center of his ninety acres, facing the eastern sun then turning counter-clockwise to face north, south, and west, facing nothingness and home. The flat earth meets the forever shock of white sky up ahead. A man and his family cannot live on empty land, so Adam picks up his hammer and begins building, his hands bloodied and blistered under clear April air. One month after the house and barn are topped with roofs, Adam picks up his plow and turns soil, then after the seed corn and soybeans are sown, he uses June to cultivate and weed. Many seasons later, when Adam is tired from turning the dirt of forty-eight Junes, he lies down on his skeletal mattress one September night and gives himself to God. He would not see the harvest of that October. This is how I imagine my story began; this is the start of my place.

After Adam died, his son Charlie cared for the land, and besides farming, Charlie worked as a wood whittler, photographer, and concrete constructor. “Concrete Charlie” added to the landscape a garage east of the house, a washhouse with a cellar, and a small shed; all of these additions were made from Charlie’s hefty concrete bricks. When it was time for Charlie to go into the earth, his son Lee inherited every odd thing his father left behind, and my grandpa inherited the rest from Lee. My grandpa admired his grandfather Charlie, but I do not imagine that it was in Charlie’s buildings – the garage or the washhouse – that grandpa dug his roots. What mattered to grandpa were the fields. It was on those fields that grandpa spent half of his life, working and hoping for good harvest; farmers do not have faith in buildings. Farmers have faith in the earth.

I doubt that I will ever know what it means to pray to the June sky for rain. My survival will never depend on the rhythm of the seasons. I will never turn the dirt, but my rootedness still includes the landscape of the Griesemer Homestead because each acre, rich with adventure, forms the foundation of my memories. And even though I can still walk the farm grounds and see that the buildings still stand, my memories are breaking up because they were most rooted in the vegetation that as early as two years ago guarded the house like warrior angels, daring people and nature to change things. For my mom the considerable blow taken to the oak is most devastating. For me, it’s the pine. When I visited the farm five months after grandpa followed Adam, Charlie, and Lee into the ground, the piece of sky that the pine once occupied was bare. I drove the gravel road leading to the house, and because that was the tree that stood at the end of the drive, it was the first change I recognized. I always parked beside the tree’s wide, weepy branches, and because it was taller than the house and as broad as two pickups, the farm felt empty again. It felt like the century and a half spent building the landscape, building my family, had been erased. I sank. Within the passing a single season, I had lost the grandfather whose accordion music and laughter delighted babies, strong men, and me. Then, the only landscape with which I identified, the magic place whose soil sucked down my veins and rooted me there, had died too.

When we involuntarily lose bits of ourselves, we grieve. I grieve by investigating what I’ve lost. So, not long ago, with the sun starring in the open sky, I kneeled in the band of dust that encircles what’s left of my pine, and I counted rings. One-hundred-ten rings wind around the crown of the stumpy trunk. Prostrated over the stoop with eyes shut tight, I grieved the loss of my youth. When the August corn in grandpa’s fields had grown two feet above my head, I used to sit under the pine tree and listen to a silence like I never heard in Schaumburg. I took in bottomless breaths of the wild dirt that our suburban pavement suffocates. Sitting under that tree, my bare legs crossed out in front of me and the fallen brown needles pressing into the backs of my thighs and imprinting the palms of my hands, I became closer to being myself than I could be anyplace else. I could breathe. I was home. The small pools of sun that sprinkled through open patches of sparse, sagging bottom branches were the glimmers of reassurance that reminded me, “This is where you are from. This is where you belong.” When the nights were too hot for tents, my cousins and I would sleep under the tree, our ten naked feet peeking out from under disheveled blankets at the ends of its heavy arms. All of us fit from one end of the pine to the other when we huddled together and slept side by side. In the morning, Leland made his famous flapjacks under the apple tree. And we laughed. We laughed about nothing in particular until bits of flapjack batter were flying from our noses and mouths. We were smelly and sweaty from the heavy, humid air, but we were so happy.

The pine is gone, and what is gone takes time to restore; another pine as stately as what’s lost will take another century to rise. As our acreage is sold, my family hopes to be diligent in surrendering the land to another farmer who will work the fields because once planted, concrete takes too long to crumble. I understand that time moves forward and people move too, but there is a sacred splendor in belonging to a place and in knowing that for one-hundred-forty-two Junes the people whose lives made my life possible dug their cultivators deep into row after narrow row of the same land. No matter what places I occupy in my life, grandpa’s farm will always be the one place whose soil my feet and veins and heart can dig into. I have difficulty reconciling the places where I’m from with the places where I’m going.

When I was little, my mom told me that we were going to visit “Grandpa on the Farm” because it was an easy way to distinguish the difference between my two grandfathers. The title stuck, and grandpa was, is, and will always be “Grandpa on the Farm.” You don’t separate grandpa from the farm. Grandpa is the farm, and I am part of grandpa. I am part of Lee and Marzella, Charlie and Ida, and Barbara and Adam, who started my story. I try to hold on to the memories and images of my story by closing my eyes. When I do, I see four women walking through a field, walking through time, with glasses of skimmed milk and shavings of skinned chickens for their husbands pushing plows then riding tractors. Barefooted, the women cook dinner over wood burning then gas stoves and sprout milk from their heavy, ivory breasts into the soft, pink mouths of happy babies. I see Adam’s blistered hands and I watch little Lee pump water by the white pine into a metal pail under the thick, August sky, his canvas trousers rolled up and his ruffled shirt collar bouncing as he pumps. I see grandpa. He is standing in the front yard, next to our Eastern White Pine, smiling big like he did better than anyone. He is wearing a green John Deere cap, navy Dickie’s, and black Velcro K-Mart shoes. There’s a pipe tucked in his flannel shirt pocket, he smells like cherry tobacco, and he’s waving, laughing out the word “Howdy!” Through time and in the farm’s changing landscape, these images will break up like brittle butterfly wings in my brain, but, like today, at least I have words to help keep them alive.

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