We never went down the same road twice, those Sundays, when we searched for The Old Farm. But whatever direction we headed, the final destination was always dirt — a dusty, July road with scratchy, yellow, grass-filled fields on either side.
And on those interminable summer Sundays, we never discussed our destination. Our parents, silent on the “where?” and “what?” joined forces to minimize harassment – a fragile hope. We children focused our energies on the question of distance and nourishment.
The voyage started with a stern and unheeded warning from my otherwise stoic father not to ask for an ice cream cone because he had no money, and my mother’s insistence that there be no fighting.
Then for what seemed like hours, we bumped along, the five of us stuffed in the back seat, dust spitting up through the cracks in the rusted floor, knobby knees thrusting for space. Until finally, entangled in one another’s hostilities, our sweaty faces grimy and downtrodden, we came to a stop.
The idea of being dropped on to a sunny, open field to fend for ourselves was alarming.
“A flat?” we cried, but no, not a flat. We had arrived. Scrambling to escape the back seat, we shoved and prodded, struggling to extricate ourselves from the sinking carcass.
Father, chewing on a stalk of straw, moved off down the road, and surveyed the scene. Only now do I wonder whether each of those fields looked different to him. To us, they were the same: isolated, deserted, and unnamed.
We were city kids. Not right-in-town, high-rise buildings, public‑transportation-blasting-by-your-door city. Just you-can-take-a-streetcar-to-work, stores-within-driving-distance, and only-two-vacant-lots-in-three-blocks city.
The idea of being dropped on to a sunny, open field to fend for ourselves was alarming. The first thought that came to our minds was food: Where was the store? And a toilet. Because by now, someone had to go. Mother suggested we find a bush. Pee here, in the open? What if someone came?
No one ever did. Not a car passed by, to churn up the dirt in a going-somewhere-friendly kind of way, to suggest that this road did connect to living communities, that other families, by choice, passed this way.
Father stood down the way, so still that you’d think he’d fallen asleep standing up, and mother, once the baby was old enough to fend for herself, would walk down to stand by him. It was the only time they stood together, as if they belonged, existed, in a world without children constantly asking questions, or nagging at them.
Quick as the wind, we kids left the road and moved into the ditches. We ducked carefully under the barbed wire fence and burst into the field like pet rabbits released from a cage. Except for Sandy — the oldest — “but not the wisest,” we would shriek. As soon as mother was out of sight, Sandy sank down in the back seat, and read love comics.
Mother hated comics, claimed they kept kids from learning to read. She would have disapproved of love comics even more than she did our regular Archies, had she known about them. As it was, honor kept us from squealing. Comics were the only thing we all agreed on, and the risk of losing our own bedraggled specimens prevented us from pointing a finger at our depraved sibling.
It was Granny who bought Sandy those comics. She didn’t read them herself, and I’m sure, had no idea of the contents. Saturday, when she arrived, Granny handed out the candies, the games, and to Sandy, the love comics. I read one once, found hidden under my sister’s pillow. Once was enough. The tears — large triangular globules that stuck out of the heroine’s eyes like blue erasers — were disgusting. The girl was always sobbing about Billy or Johnny going off. The heroines were as old as Aunt Freda, but more self-centered. They never had sisters or brothers.
So, come Sunday afternoon, there we were. Mother and Father down the road, stuck against the sky, forgotten; Sandy sunk down in the back seat of the car, and the rest of us scrambling around in the ditches or fields, ripping our clothes, fearless of the ferocious bulls. For bulls there were.
We all knew that every field — however inviting it might appear — held a vicious bull, tucked somewhere behind an innocent hedge or hiding over the hump of the hill.
Mother often warned us of this danger, and we passed on the wisdom. The trick was to make sure that the bull never came at you, never charged, until you were in the middle of the field, exposed. Then suddenly it was pounding towards you snorting like a tornado. Run, run for your life.
But what could these spindly legs do against those fleshy thighs? What could a skinny chest do puffing and huffing, against a tank-sized bull, charging at you?
Jump the fence, scramble up, tear your hand on the barbed wire. Throw your legs over the wooden fence, ignore the splinters and nails.
Bulls kill. The horns pierce your chest, which is bravely clad in a striped t-shirt, purchased in quantity every spring; unisex; two colors. Thick as pirates’ swords, the horns plunge straight through it, and you’re tossed on to the fence, to swing like jeans on the clothesline.
“I warned you about the bulls,” mother would say.
The Old Farm had flowers all summer: hollyhocks, brown-eyed Susans, daisies, sometimes even roses.
Father, too late to do anything but transport the wounded, would carry the tyke (me, for pity’s sakes) along the road, the sun boiling the blood in the wound. The others, sorry now about being so mean, wishing they could have another chance to treat me right, pulling behind, tears pouring from their eyes. Even Sandy would hardly dare groan about getting blood on her new shirt. Even she would have to say, “She wasn’t such a bad kid,” or something like that.
This time I escaped. This time the bull stayed out of sight.
The afternoon progressed, until finally, after crawling in the tall, buzzing grass, making reed whistles, all the while whining about the heat, we were herded back to the car. “We should have brought juice,” mother would say, which didn’t help; we were thinking ice cream. We eyed one another slyly to see who would dare venture the suggestion first.
“It’s not like The Old Farm,” mother would say, when we had settled in our seats. “The Old Farm was speckled in flowers, wild flowers, even at this time of the year. This earth is too dry.”
She was right. The Old Farm had flowers all summer: hollyhocks, brown-eyed Susans, daisies, sometimes even roses. And a creek — just in the spring, mind you, that flowed along the back; Mr. O’Neil’s property, but he never got out there.
Best of all, The Old Farm had Peter — a raggle-taggle German shepherd, which, like all the family, was actually a mongrel, but as handsome as ever a dog hoped to be. That made all the difference, having Peter. It was Peter who held the thief at bay, up Mr. O’Neil’s apple tree. The thief was only a local boy who couldn’t get work, and had tried to steal some apples.
We didn’t have Peter. We didn’t have any dog; we didn’t even have a cat. Bobby had a hamster once, but it died. Mother said it died of neglect, but Father said it was of old age. Sandy went through about fifty goldfish but they don’t count. Goldfish have no fur. As far as I’m concerned, a dog is the only animal that counts as a pet.
“Where would we keep a dog?” mother would ask, not really looking for an answer, because it wasn’t one of those questions. “He can sleep under my bed,” or “I’ll fix a place under the back stoop,” we would pipe up.
“And what kind of life is that, for a dog?” mother would argue. “A dog can’t be cooped up under the stoop. A dog needs space. If we lived in the country, it’d be different.”
We knew that. We knew that life would be different if we lived in the country. The weather wouldn’t be hot and muggy in the summer, but fresh and sunny. There’d be no chores. We’d spend our days playing in the creek or climbing the apple tree. We wouldn’t fight and shove one another if we lived in the country. And when I say country, I mean The Old Farm.
Our front yard in Ottawa was two somersaults from the sidewalk. Mother complained that our backyard wasn’t even big enough to grow carrots. As usual, she exaggerated. A carrot would only take a couple of inches, even fully grown, and the yard was bigger than that. But it sure didn’t have flowers all summer. Best that it could do was a couple of marigolds or snapdragons in the spring, and dandelions — a sea of dandelions — until the snow came. Father threatened to dig them all out, but never did. I guess he figured that once the weeds were gone, there would only be dirt left. At least dandelions were green.
Those Sundays, driving home, an uneasy alliance developed in the cramped back seat. The goal was ice cream. The risk was being identified as the troublemaker, who started the campaign. The tactic was to put into the littlest head the idea of delicious chocolate ice cream trickling down a parched throat. Little heads are malleable. When Tommy heard the word ice cream, he would brighten up. Even a whisper from us, “Don’t ask for ice cream” was enough. Immediately, he’d start whining, then demanding, and then wailing for ice cream. We kids kept saying, “Tommy, you know you can’t have ice cream” and the more we said it, the more he went on.
Finally, Father would holler, “Shut up, or I’ll stop the car and you’ll have all the ice cream you need,” which actually meant he’d give us all a wallop. The littlest head was beyond understanding this; Tommy’s mind was now stuck on the idea of ice cream, like a bloodsucker latched onto a leg. Then, one of two things would happen. Either mother would pull out her change purse, count her money and find enough. Those were good Sundays. Other days, she would open her purse, count the coins and tell us flat out, “I don’t have money. We’ll have Freshie when we get home. Now shut up.” This, Tommy understood.
On The Old Farm, the family made their own ice cream. You put in hot ice or something and churned it. I never could understand how hot ice made cold ice cream but mother said you had to stir it for hours, so maybe that explains it.
On The Old Farm, on a Sunday, they never had to go anywhere. No long sweaty rides with bony brothers and sisters hissing at you and making you want to throw up. No one yanking your comics and popping bubbles in your ear. At The Old Farm, parents sat on the porch, in rocking chairs fanning themselves and drinking lemonade, while the kids ran across the fields, with Peter following at their heels. Best of all, on The Old Farm, the summers were longer than a dream.
At mother’s funeral I asked my sister if she pictured mother back at The Old Farm. She laughed and said, “If there were such a place.”
I know there is. I’ve been searching for it all my life, but it was always there.
~ Melodie Corrigall
Published in Papercuts Vol.14, Spring 2015. http://desiwriterslounge.net/articles/the-old-farm