This old house stands a ruin. To restore it would be nothing short of a teardown. The folks on This Old House would take one look and tell me to turn it over to the bulldozer. But I can’t bring myself to do that.
The living-room sits preserved as if my mother had forgotten to vacuum it for a lifetime. It would take one monster of an industrial Roomba to handle this much dirt and dust.
My father’s chair, the brown leather Lay-Z-Boy he told himself he’d earned, sits waiting for him to return. A deep impression calling.
A veteran of WWII, he sat in that chair sipping beer and said to each of my brothers in turn, “Why? Why do you want so much to do this? You don’t know what war is like.”
And each one in turn told him not to worry, that everything would be all right. And even as one came home to be buried, the next would go, assuring, always assuring him that he must go, that everything would be fine, until all three were finally buried here, in the heartland.
My sister too, after she saw my three brothers killed, volunteered to go. She was a nurse, and she knew from my brothers’ experience that nurses were always needed there, and then she came home to be buried, too.
And my father said to me, “Thank God you’re too young to volunteer your life away.”
The draft ended just when I became eligible. Coming home that night we saw the end of the draft announced by Walter Cronkite. I sat down to dinner, and the first thing my father said was, “I’m so glad you’ll never have to go through that.”
And the next morning he did not wake up.
So we were suddenly no longer farmers. My mother moved us to down to the city, to Madison, took a job as a secretary with an insurance company. I graduated from West High School, attended the University of Wisconsin, majored in English, became a high school teacher in Green Bay.
Each time I came down to visit my mother in Madison, I would pass this place, our place. My mother hadn’t sold it, would not, so it stood, still stands here, an empty place amid trees and weeds reclaiming the land, and a run-down house we’ll never inhabit again. Our house was a very fine house. My mother gone, it has come to me. They’d like to buy it, build homes on it. They call it progress, but I don’t know.
I’m old, retired, beyond suddenly becoming a farmer. Should I sell? I don’t need the money; this place is still me, my roots, my point of origin. It is still all of us.
I’d feel I’d be selling myself, by brothers and sister, my mother and my father, handing them over to people who tear us down, bury us in tracts, erase our time and memory.
When I am dead, can I imagine families dwelling on sectioned off parts of us, the anonymous, the unremembered. This is the way, I suppose, it will go. All of them, maybe. Every farm blooming into subdivisions, and schools, and fire stations, and 7-Elevens, and strip malls.
Progress rolling us over and under. If I had someone to will this place to, I would. Let them decide. But I don’t. I don’t know how to handle this.
I pick up one of the ancient plates, blow the dust off of it, polish it with my T-shirt, then place it back on the wind and rain and snow and creature tattered table cloth. A single plate shining on a field of dinner service my mother saw fit to leave set upon the family table. A token of us, the indication that we were here. So odd to see. Like something out of Dickens. Preserved. Although time has done its work on everything we left here.
I can almost hear the bulldozers’ engines revving, ready to tear us down. And like that, we’ll all gone.