Those Summers, These Days ~ Sarah Wells

On a warm afternoon in August, almost all of the fifty or so members of my extended family gather at my grandma’s farm to celebrate Grandma Fugman’s 80th birthday, and concurrently, my son Elvis’s second birthday.  Picnic tables and chairs dot the front lawn, burgers and hot dogs roast on a grill, a slight breeze rustles the century-old trees bordering the street.  It is warm but not sweltering, cool enough to sit comfortably in the shade.  Two of my cousins recline on a blanket with their six-month-old babies beneath the lane of maple trees along the south side of the yard.  My dad and his brother sit at the picnic table, each with a Miller Lite in his hand.  Some uncles and nephews kick a soccer ball around.  While it’s a special occasion that we’re gathered for on this Sunday in August, one could expect to see a half dozen or so kids in the yard at Grandma’s house on any given day.  All of the family members on my dad’s side live within 30 minutes of each other in Northeast Ohio, except for me, my husband, and my kids.  Elvis and my daughter, Lydia, with my cousins and cousins’ kids, push tractors and bull dozers in the same sand pile that my brothers and I played in twenty years ago, and my dad and his siblings twenty plus years before that.  If they dig deep enough, they will probably unearth a Matchbox car from 1970.  Beneath the shade of a maple tree, the cousins and second cousins and first cousins twice removed, or whatever they might be, get the same grit of the family farm beneath their fingernails. 

I spent my childhood romping around the farm with my cousins, begged my dad to take me with him in the mornings to traverse the cool, wet terrain of the cornfield, dew heavy before the sun rose over the tree line. My cousins and I were taught the way to pull an ear of corn away from the stalk with a swift twist in order to make a clean break.  After we filled the bushel baskets lining the dirt lane, Dad, or Frank or June or Connie or Rich or Pat or one of the other aunts and uncles, would lift the baskets over the edge of the pickup.  We challenged each other to see who could launch themselves up into the truck bed the fastest.  Our bony legs dangled over the tailgate, prune-y feet in wet shoes swinging back and forth as we bounced through the field to the house.

When we weren’t trying to help pick corn or vegetables in the field, my older cousins and I would play a dozen different versions of tag, hide and seek, SPUD, ghost in the graveyard, and baseball, employing “ghost runners” when there weren’t enough of us to run the bases, pitch, catch, and field.  We jumped from the wooden bench swing into a mountain of maple leaves each fall.  The swing’s rope rubbed our palms until they stung as we spun each other around.  We barrel rolled each other down the slope from the house to the trees, the whole world spinning.  We picked red raspberries and black raspberries and didn’t notice until much later the scratches on our legs from the bushes.

When we tired of playing in the yard, we walked through the corn and hay, down the hill, and into the woods.  The trails wound randomly, looped around an ancient tree and backed up to a creek, but it was more fun to ignore the trail and plot out our own way, stepping on branches and startling at the sudden rustle of leaves nearby.  The woods were never quiet, even when we would shush each other into silence and freeze, our breathing heavy as we eyed the forest for deer or fiercer wildlife we imagined into existence.  The birds would chirrup, frogs ribbit, bees hum, chipmunks and squirrels rummage, leaves crackle.  Cars could be heard coming down Stafford Road, spraying up limestone and tar as they sped along.  When it was hot, we navigated skunk cabbage and may apples to the creek, waded in the cold, knee-high waters hunting for crawfish and minnows, challenged each other to walk through the culvert pipe underneath the road.  As the pond my dad dug in the woods filled with rain water and run-off from the fields, I imagined all of us in speed boats, hanging out on a sandy beach, fishing and picnicking by the lake.  It didn’t matter that you could skip a rock from one end of the pond to another or that the mud bottom and snapping turtles prevented anyone except our black lab from swimming in it.  We roamed around the pond hunting for tadpoles, wary of the higher weeds, afraid there might be snakes.

Our parents were elsewhere—working at a job, sitting in the living room with Grandma, weeding in the garden.  We came back for lunch and for dinner, but no one scolded us for being gone so long, at least not that I remember.  We were free to wander.

It is hard for me to imagine a childhood without the farm or a definition of home without the farm in it.  The summer I turned ten, my parents bought the century home across the street from the farm and next door to my other set of grandparents.  Home extended beyond the four walls of my parents’ house and was defined by natural boundaries; it stretched through the field and woods all the way to the creek and then south to the lane, across the road and down to another creek, then back up through the rows of field corn to my mom’s parents’ yard, bordered by towering blue spruce trees.  My brothers and I were more at home outdoors than in.  No matter the day or season, someone was always around to play with, all I needed to do was cross the street, hop the ditch, and walk down the field.  If there weren’t cousins there yet, they’d be there soon, I was sure of it.

The sun is creeping into the west, and soon it will be time for us to load up our troop and head south.  With the longest trip home, we’re the first ones to leave.  Elvis needs to be pried off of the John Deere tractor parked in the yard, and Lydia wants to play for just a little bit longer in the sand pile.  They are fast friends with the cousins they see two to three times a year, sometimes remember names but often settle for “Hey you!”  Their bedtime will come soon, and over-tired kids are worse than kids who are upset that they have to leave grandma’s house for their home in Ashland.  I too am disappointed that we have to leave, and as I make the goodbye rounds, I survey the yard dotted with my large extended family and share the hope with my mom and dad that we can make the trip up again real soon, maybe Labor Day weekend.  The limestone crunches underneath our tires as we back up and navigate through the other vehicles parked in the drive, pull away from the farm onto Stafford Road and then left down Munn and onward to the interstate.

Family gatherings almost always make me want to have more kids, even though we’ve made a decision to stop at three.  Both Brandon and I come from larger extended families.  My dad is one of seven children who range in age from 63 to 47, five of whom have kids of their own.  Strictly looking at age, there is no gap to separate the generations; our family flows seamlessly from my oldest aunt to my youngest son, Henry, born in grandma’s 82nd year. 

The number of children starts to trickle downward with my dad’s generation; apparently, they began to ignore the command to “be fruitful and multiply,” opting for the more manageable and fiscally conservative, “be fruitful and add.”  Many of my peers have thrown out the entire equation.  The 1960 U.S. census states that 22.6% of households reported five or more persons per household.  In 2010, that figure dropped to 10%.  As the number of siblings per household decreases, the portrait of the American family—and extended family—evolves.  Couples are starting families later in life and choosing to have fewer kids, if any at all. 

This shift is evident in our family.  Counting spouses and not counting our cousins’ kids, I have 17 aunts and uncles and 22 cousins on my side of the family, and Brandon has ten aunts and uncles and 16 cousins on his side.  On the other hand, my three kids have two uncles and an aunt on my side, with hopes of cousins, someday, and an aunt and uncle and two cousins on my husband’s side.  And that’s it.  Our family is gradually shrinking.

As more families choose to have two or fewer children, the population is beginning to plateau.  I don’t know what that means economically, but I know for me it means a growing void.  As our family ages and our grandparents pass away, there will come a time when the large extended family will no longer get together for every holiday; with the patriarchs and matriarchs alive only in our jokes and memories, we will eventually begin to celebrate special occasions with our more immediate family.  Fifty of my grandma’s descendants attended her 80th birthday party.  Today, celebrating my dad’s birthday with just his offspring would include five children and three grandchildren.

I find myself sighing just thinking about it.  What will my children’s memories of growing up look like without this huge extended family experience?  Will we all keep getting together even as our families grow apart, or will our sheer numbers limit us from coming together in this way?  And when I am the matriarch, will I be able to look out across the yard and smile with satisfaction at the screaming grandchildren and great-grandchildren, hopping about like bunnies in the grass, my own kids doing their best to herd their flock toward dinner plates piled with potato salad and baked beans, or will we all be cities and states away for holidays, off creating our own definitions of home and family in unfamiliar towns?

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The small strip of land at the back of our city lot slopes downhill and collides with the open pasture owned by the city, known as Freer Field.  Aside from the one time a year when we play beanbag toss or horseshoes, the narrow area is useless as far as yard space is concerned and is a pain to mow.  To make better use out of it, we borrowed a friend’s tiller and made ourselves a garden.  I’m listening to Johnny Cash sing about the cotton fields back home as I weed between the rows of vegetables we started from seed this year.  It is a meager garden at six feet by 20 feet, half of which is pepper plants I’m afraid I started too late to bear any fruit.  The rest is a row of cilantro, three rows of cucumbers and nine, nine zucchini plants.  We’ll be handing out bushels of zucchini to anyone who will take them.

It doesn’t take too long to finish weeding the six short rows, but even so I’ve worked up a good sweat.  My newborn will be awake and ready to eat soon, so I gather up my garden hoe, gloves, and phone and walk thirty feet to the garage and then the remaining ten to the back door.  In the late afternoon, my two oldest kids haul the hose around the yard with me to water all our plants, from the purple petunias and sweet potato vines around front to the sunflowers and vegetable garden in back.  In order to make sure they get a good soak instead of a frenetic sprinkle, the kids count to 20 for each plant.  It certainly isn’t anything like the cornfields back home, but we dug up the turf, pulled the weeds, tilled the soil, and sowed the seeds ourselves, and with any good fortune and some sunshine, we might even reap a harvest.

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My memories of childhood on my grandma’s farm are romantic and wrapped in nostalgia, and I know it.  The truth is, farm life is hard.  For every sun-filled morning in the rows of corn, there’s a hot and sticky afternoon picking rocks and raking dust.  The deer are eating the corn, the raccoons are eating the corn, the earworms are eating the corn, and someone needs to do something about it.

The garden at my grandma’s takes all day to weed and three long hours to pick.  In order to be ready to sell produce at the corner stand by noon and to avoid as much heat as possible, my Aunt Carolyn begins picking by 8 a.m.  She wears a light, short-sleeved, button-down blouse and a flowing skirt, her strawberry blonde hair pulled back with a large clip.  Loose strands fall around her face.  She wears glasses that hide startling blue eyes and no makeup.  Of course she is beautiful; she is a Fugman girl in the field on a hot summer day.

Most of the morning is spent bent over at the waist with a sharp paring knife cutting loose cucumber, zucchini, several varieties of squash and peppers, green beans, and tomatoes.  As the season progresses it becomes harder and harder to navigate the jungle of vegetables.  The tomatoes that have fallen off or are left unpicked begin to rot, and vines of various squash weave themselves across what used to be clear rows.  After picking, the vegetables are loaded into the back of my aunt’s car and if there’s room, stacked on top of the truck bed of corn.  Aunt June rinses away the mud and sweat from the field and changes into a soft white blouse and blue jeans, dries her blonde hair and applies makeup, even though she doesn’t need it, either.  After a quick cup of coffee, she’s off in the Chevy to set up the produce stand.

A new generation of cousins hangs out at the produce stand these days, but it doesn’t seem like that long ago since I sat in a folding chair under a red canopy and helped make change for customers who stopped for a dozen ears of corn and a quart container of tomatoes.  The stand was situated at the corner of Route 44 and East Washington Street, across from Auburn Inn and catty-corner to a bait and tackle shop.  East Washington dead ends into Lake LaDue, a 1500-acre reservoir with 20 miles of shoreline constructed in 1963 to provide additional water supply to Akron.  Optimistic fishermen with coolers potentially full of largemouth bass, bluegill, yellow perch, walleye, and catfish often stopped at the stand on their way home from a day out on the lake.

Those summers at the produce stand, my cousins and I ate Doritos and drank Pepsi sitting on the sticky vinyl bench seat in the cab of the pickup.  We polished the dirt off of the vegetables and arranged the quart containers on the checkered tablecloth.  We counted cars as they drove by.  We raked the tire tracks out of the dirt.  We moseyed into Auburn Inn and talked with the bartender while we waited for a burger.  We tried to find a home for an abandoned kitten.  We filled a lot of bushels and bagged a lot of corn.  We sat on the tailgate munching fruit, letting the peach juice drip on our thighs.

These days, the youngest of my cousins might hang out, but mostly it’s my Aunt June and her sisters, Connie and Carolyn, the oldest of my dad’s sisters, who run the corner stand, and by extension, the front-end of the family farm.  My dad’s youngest sister and her family recently built a house in a clearing at the bottom of the hill, where the field meets the woods.  They moved from Akron, in a house not too far away from where Brandon and I lived when we first got married.  Her five kids are the youngest of my cousins ranging in age from eighteen to six, and they have carried on the family tradition of romping around the farm.  When I come home to visit my parents and drive by my grandma’s farmhouse, there’s often a cousin or two playing in the yard.  My aunt says this is why they moved home, so that her kids could have this same experience.

I’ve only been a visitor the last twenty years.  The farm isn’t a source of income for me, it is a park I can bring my kids to on the weekends to pick a few ears of sweet corn and gallivant around the woods.  I am nearing thirty and live seventy miles from the farm.  My kids will grow up making field trips to Auburn, visiting local pick-your-own and petting zoo farms, returning to our brick bungalow in the evenings.  We’ll maintain our six foot by twenty foot garden that stretches across our postage-stamp property and grow vegetables recreationally.

When I was in middle school, the land adjacent to the farm’s woods was sold to developers, and houses situated around a cul-de-sac on three-acre lots began to pop up.  Shortly thereafter, the Timmons family sold the fields around my parents’ house, too.  Soon we had neighbors where we used to have field corn and hay.  I can only imagine what the neighbors thought of us the day two of our four hogs got loose and trotted through their backyards.  Industry and development are encroaching on our family’s property.  Semi trucks tear up and down Munn Road hauling whatever it is that Johnson Plastics, Mar-Bal, and Johnsonite manufacture, and new industrial parkways cut into what used to be farmland and forest along the road to my parent’s house. 

I know I’m not the only one in the United States who experiences the family farm as a dying tourist attraction or an endangered species in the zoo of American lifestyles.  Of the 43.4 million estimated United States households in 1950, 25% were farmers.  In 2007, the percentage of farming households dropped to 1.9%.  The family farm is becoming a museum of occupational artifacts—check out the dairy cow, the pig pen, plow blades, rusted fenders, abandoned tillers, the aging man with the overalls and John Deere hat, and up these stairs, the rotting floorboards of the hayloft—watch your step, you might fall through the mirage of pastoral romanticism.

Under two percent of the households in America experience first-hand the early morning dew on the crops, the warm smell of oats and barley mixed with straw and manure, the clip-clop of a horse’s hooves down the center aisle of the paddocks, the hungry grunt of a hog rummaging your palm for corn meal… and it is likely that percentage will continue to decline.  A portion of the remaining 98% might like the idea of rural living and move into their new McMansions in the developments named after the landscape, but they didn’t buy their houses on days when they were standing downwind from the dairy barn. 

Our household falls in the non-farming 98%, though my son vows to become a “tractor man” like his grandpa someday.  From this plot of land, the best training we can give is a sandbox, some die-cast tractors, and regular weekend trips up I-71.

We relocated to Ashland (pop. 21,741) four years ago after living in Akron, a city of over 200,000. There are 3,338 people per square mile in Akron, people squeezed into apartments, people smooshed between rubber-city bungalows, people leaning over fences and off of sidewalks into the pot-hole ridden streets.  People are always everywhere, walking underneath the city lights to the 24-hour pharmacy or grocery or bar or greasy-spoon diner, heard laughing and yelling through the closed doors and windows of your home in the middle of the night. 

Ashland’s 2,099 people per square mile doesn’t have anything on Auburn Township’s 185, but it’s open country compared to our colonial in Akron that seemed barricaded by cheap renovations, run-down bungalows, and newly transplanted mobile homes.  The air in Ashland is not as stifling, the summer heat does not ricochet off every paved square-inch of city street, the road crews wait to spray salt and ash until it’s absolutely necessary, because, let’s face it, most of us in small towns aren’t in a hurry to get anywhere in a snow storm.

When the plow trucks forgot to make it down our street in Akron in the winter, it was because of where we were in the city.  There are currently 118 registered sex offenders within a two-mile radius of our old address in Akron.  I know this because we signed up for an automatic email that alerted us when a sex offender moved into our neighborhood.  Our next-door neighbors struggled with drug and alcohol addictions, kicked each other out of the house, beat their dogs, yelled at their kids, and abandoned cars on the side of the street.  They also ran daycares out of their homes, worked moving-truck jobs and nursing jobs and assembly line jobs, first-, second-, and third-shift jobs, multiple jobs and lousy hours to support their families.  They planted silk flowers in their yards, painted their fences, and pruned the yews and boxwoods into geometric shapes.  They lived in the same house for sixty years with their spouses and watched the neighborhood change.  The people around us were, for the most part, hard-working, blue-collar families, battling against debt and luck and bad decisions and poor educational systems. 

Everyone’s business was up in everyone else’s business, but we were all in that neighborhood together.  If you nodded and smiled and knew Jake’s kid’s kids’ names, you might as well be blood-relatives.  But there were those few houses with those few people, men in “wife-beaters” on rotting front porches, men who look at you for a long time without saying anything as you walk by, men who do not blink or smile or frown, men who just stand there.  Most of the time, though, I felt safe.  We had two 70-pound coonhounds and a fenced-in backyard.  But when we found out that our family was going to grow beyond the two of us and our dogs, the neighborhood bruises started to matter a little more.  I couldn’t imagine walking my children up and down the sidewalks, cutting through crowds of teenage boys.  What are they doing, standing around in front of their houses like that all of the time?  Who is the man in the Cadillac that pulls up on random afternoons?

Ashland isn’t exactly the city.  It’s the town of no fences, the “world headquarters of nice people” (says a billboard off of I-71).  Avenues and streets are lined with mature little-leaf lindens and maples and oaks.  While our yard in Ashland is about one-tenth of an acre and nearly every square foot is sculpted and manicured, we have our garden, and behind our plot of land is a city-owned field.  Beyond the field is an expanse of woods, gravel trails woven in and through.  Reclining in a lawn chair on the patio in the summer evenings with tiki torches lit, staring out across the yard, Ashland feels a little like Auburn.  We let our kids run out to an electric pole, almost to the woods, and back. They often stop to pick a bouquet of dandelions or clover, depending on the season.  Theirs is a smaller version of my childhood independence, the freedom to roam a plot of land that seemed wild and endless.

I’m on maternity leave this summer.  It is our fourth year here after relocating for a job at the university.  Once Henry wakes up, the kids get out their bicycles and the five of us head down the street.  Lydia and Elvis laugh and scream down the sloping sidewalk, shouting out hellos to each of our neighbors, whom we know by first name.  They wait for us to catch up to them at the intersection so we can cross Morgan Avenue to our friends’ house on the corner of Morgan and Chestnut.  The kids get a kick out of running up to our friends’ front door, ringing the doorbell, and then running away to try climbing the magnolia tree in the side yard.  Miles and LeeAnn open the door, and we chat about church, work, upcoming barbecue nights, books, and so on.  Brandon and I round up the tree-climbers and keep on our walk toward the seminary park, a small playground adjacent to apartments on the seminary’s campus.  The kids continue squealing and laughing as they chase each other up and around the playground equipment.  Brandon and I sit down at a picnic table in the shade.  Some of our friends are students at the seminary, and we keep watch in the parking lot for their cars.  We decide to see if Tony and Jillian want to grill out and send them a text message, shepherding Elvis and Lydia back to their bikes.  On the way home, a car honks and an arm reaches out the driver’s side to wave and we wave back, sure we know the man attached to the hand.

The grill is hot and barbecue chicken is sizzling.  A casserole of zucchini we just picked and eggplant from another friend’s garden is bubbling and ready to be pulled out of the oven.  Tony and Jillian brought green beans from their garden, too.  Elvis and Lydia race around the house in their Power Wheels modeled after the kind of equipment you might see in the yard at the farm—a John Deere Gator and silver Ford F-150—with a couple of baby dolls hanging out the back.  Elvis is sporting a pirate hat and sword, Lydia has on her Belle dress, and both are wearing cowboy boots handed down from Brandon’s cousin’s kids.  It’s a cool, clear summer evening, a whisper of fall in the breeze.  After dinner, we all decide to go to the Red Barn at Brookside Park for generous servings of ice cream, and there’s an Army Corps brass band playing at the Myers Bandshell.  Lydia practices being a ballerina in the grass, and as the band plays “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, another set of friends walks up with their lawn chairs for date night.  There’s more chatting and smiling and waving at passersby we recognize from our jobs, our street, our schools, our church, and then it’s time to head home to bed.

Tonight, I am grateful for the brick patio and cozy backyard with the vining petunias, Stella d’Oro daylilies, and Knock-Out roses, grateful for the kids doing laps and the husband cracking jokes at the grill, grateful for fenceless backyards and community parks and large portions of ice cream, grateful for these friends within walking distance of our home whose blood relatives live out of town like ours.  We have adopted each other as part of our Ashland family.

The open spaces of my childhood are becoming more rare and sweet.  The farther from the fields I get, the more I look back, and yet it isn’t the hills and dales that I want to run to, it’s the little girl and her herd of cousins around the canopy on the corner selling vegetables with her aunts.  She is surrounded by familial life, supported and loved in spite of her insecurities, embraced, for better or worse, by a single rural culture.  She doesn’t know that 98% of the population hasn’t navigated through a field of corn in a beat-up S-10 pickup truck.  She isn’t aware that most kids only see their cousins on holidays and certainly don’t spend their Saturday mornings picking vegetables together.  There’s no such thing as “family reunion” in her vocabulary—the family is always reunion-ing.  They celebrate every holiday and birthday at a relative’s, spontaneously flock to the living room of their grandma’s house.  There is something in her core that longs for the presence and stability of family.  She’ll realize this as a hard-working, well-educated adult, plugging away in a private office on a university campus, standing miles from all of her family in the front yard of her little house with three children of her own.

My three kids will experience their childhood different than the way I experienced childhood.  Perhaps they will remember the late afternoon walks down Morgan and over to Samaritan Avenue, or strolling to the university and riding bikes in circles around the flag pole on the quad.  Or maybe they will remember walking across the field to the edge of the woods behind our house to pick the raspberries growing in massive, wild tangles.  They’ll probably have a collective memory of the hot-air balloon festival in the field on the Fourth of July weekend, and the fireworks show from our friends’ backyard.  Maybe they will remember grilling out with all our friends every Thursday night, or walking to friends’ houses on a whim.  Certainly they will remember playing in the sand pile at Grandma’s house, swinging from the rope swing tied to a branch in the maple tree, riding the tractor around the lawn.  I want to give them all of this—the farm, the town, the friends, the family, love braided and woven between each memory.

On the way home from the farm, our kids accordion-ed against each other asleep in the back seat, I watch the suburban sprawl give way again to rural fields, tractors tilling up soil, horses grazing in pastures, barns casting long shadows across the earth.  The highway divides the farmland into strips pockmarked with light poles and billboards. It stretches in a long diagonal line from Auburn to Ashland. It is this interstate that makes this daytrip possible.  Brandon and I hold hands between the seats and sing along to some country song about watching corn pop up in rows.  We take turns looking behind us into the back seat at our tired children and steer our car home.

Day, Jennifer Cheeseman, Projections of the Number of Households and Families in the United States: 1995 to 2010, U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, P25-1129, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1996.

Hoppe, Robert A., and David E. Banker. Structure and Finances of U.S. Farms: Family Farm Report, 2010 Edition, EIB-66, U.S. Dept. of Agr., Econ. Res. Serv. July 2010.

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