NS April 15th, 2010
The following was written for Josie’s Writing Workshop #20, using prompt number one: ‘Tell me about a time you decided to move house’. I may write a second part to it, describing more about the house itself (which was fascinating in its own right, and just as dear to me as the farm).
Of the seven houses I lived in as a child, number six is the only one that ever stole my heart.
It was called Shadow Lake Farm and was off a country road, in a country town. We rented the farmhouse which sat on a 362-acre plot of land and could only be accessed by the winding, gravel path that twisted for a quarter mile from road to hearth. I walked up that lane on the way home from school many a time, kicking up gravel dust with my school shoes and shouldering my heavy backpack, unable to even see the house until I was almost upon it. At the height of summer the corn on both sides engulfed me, making it seem as though I was in a crop tunnel. Just the crickets, the corn and me. When I got to the top of the lane I would often turn, one hand shielding my eyes from the golden sun, and look all around me, at the corn and the waving wheat, the scattered masses of grazing cows, and the grain silos that punctuated the cloudless blue sky like exclamation points, clinging on to the remains of an era slipping by. My heart swelled with a quiet joy and sense of pride; ‘This is my kingdom!’ I wanted to roar. And it was.
I never needed to go to theme parks or petting zoos or hiking trails to get my fill of adventure and nature. It was all around me, every day. Anywhere my legs and imagination could carry me, I went. Book and apple in hand, head in the clouds and calloused, bare feet dangling on either side of my horse, Applejack, I could do, go and see anything I wanted. I secretly fancied myself a female Huckleberry Finn.
The land, owned by a renowned surgeon in the nearest city, included three fishing ponds, a disused cottage and an old abattoir, its red-streaked walls and rusty meat hooks evoking in me a sense of fascination and sadness on the few occasions when I stacked up bricks to peek inside the barred windows. In my younger years I often sat on a rock by the side of the pond, casting my rod into the water below, hoping to catch one of the fish darting between my submerged feet. I used worms I dug up in the gardening patch. Failing that, I would borrow my dad’s tackle box with its vast, colourful array of lures and bobbers, hooks and lines. He was usually too busy cutting the endlessly-growing grass surrounding the house to even notice. I remember looking at him on the riding lawnmower executing sharp turns, narrowly avoiding trees and rocks and forming neat rows of shorn lawn for us to enjoy for a whole week before he had to do it all over again. I sometimes wondered if he ever felt like throwing his hands up in the air, saying, “I give up!” But he never did. Instead he mopped his sweat-soaked brow with his red bandana and then headed inside for a large glass of iced tea and a rest in his favourite chair before getting up resignedly to confront another vast expanse of grass.
Down by the pond, my yellow labrador, Dino, often sat beside me, occasionally jumping in to cool off and then splattering me with the droplets when he decided to shake dry. We’d had ducks at one point but Dino, being a fowl hunter by nature, had taken them out one by one, often depositing their heads in odd places around our house. I used to joke that he was like a one-dog mafia. As far as the fish went, I rarely caught anything of size and even when I did, rarely kept it. Gutting and cleaning fish was not something I’d ever been particularly fond of, though my fishing-crazy cousin had patiently shown me how many times. One would think I’d be tempted to go vegetarian as a veterinarian-wannabe with all this animal killing going on around me, but it was just part of life at Shadow Lake Farm.
As I got a bit older and outgrew fishing and playing in the fields, I took instead to one of three favourite ‘hiding spots’: in the tree house, at the top of the hay stack in the barn or underneath a grove of pine trees near the abandoned cottage towards the back of the property, where I could sit for hours on a bed of soft, fresh-smelling needles, protected from the sun and the eyes of anyone who wanted to find me. If I grew tired of walking or taking Applejack (who often dumped me off and raced back to the stable to bury his nose in the oat bucket) to the far corners of the farm, I would sometimes hop in the golf cart or red go-cart that were kept behind the barn, alternate modes of transport for those of us who couldn’t drive cars yet.
When I ventured home, hungry for lunch, I could usually find my older sister sitting on the sofa, flipping through magazines and listening to her favourite radio station. Her allergies and asthma prevented her from pursuing many of the things I did so she was always more ‘indoorsy’ than me. I sometimes wished she could come out and go on one of my adventures with me, but at the same time I relished the independence. In retrospect, it did me a lot of good. Perhaps that is why, even today, I crave solitariness when I need to get out of head for awhile. To be joyful with other people is lovely, of course, but to be alone and happy is a gift, one I feel that time alone on the farm gave me.
On warm nights when we had company, my dad would get the grill out and barbecue some burgers or chicken. I’d always volunteer to pick a few ears of corn from the field to add to our meal. I loved standing on the edge of those majestic plants, like so many soldiers in neat rows, before stepping into the maze. I never ventured too far towards the middle, being too nervous of getting lost, but the fire flies, always thick in the sky at nightfall, lit the way home. Back at the house, I prepared the corn with my sister. Peeling away the outer layers (called ‘shucking’) to reveal the sweet, golden kernels within was almost as enjoyable as slathering the finished product in butter before it hit our plates. Oh, how I loved summer on that farm.
My childhood was a charmed one in many ways, despite its sorrows and hardships, not because we were well-off (we weren’t) or because I had a perfect family (we weren’t), but because I had the gift of space and time. Space to roam and explore and time to be and do things on my own. The land we lived on wasn’t mine, we didn’t own it, but it was just as much a part of me, and I of it, as the seeds were part of the soil.
When we left Shadow Lake for a much smaller house on a much smaller plot of land in the middle of town, I was heartbroken. Leaving my horse, the ponds, the fields, the lane, the house….it was almost too much to bear. In retrospect, it was the perfect time to leave as I was entering into my teenage years and the new house’s more central location was ideal for getting lifts, going to friends’ houses and so on, and I probably would have quickly outgrown all the wonders of the farm, but at the time it felt like a loss; another loss on top of the one we’d already suffered.
But as with many things in life, I adapted and moved on because I had to. Like a childhood friend who fades from your life but never your thoughts, this house, number six, will always live, perfect and true, in my memory.