Although the house I woke up in this morning on my grandmother’s farm is not the house we all grew up in, the view out the window, a pale landscape of late-season standing corn, hazy Midwestern sky just pinking up to the east, and section lines marked off by rows of old, half-broken oak and elm trees is one I know in my bones somehow.
The way we learn places as kids is so intense, so different than the way grownups know space that despite waking up in the new house my Aunt built on the site of my great-great grandparents’ old frame house on this little hill in Illinois, the view out the windows, the sound of the trains going by on the south property line, the hazy greys and browns and pinks of this landscape are imprinted somehow on that part of my being that is older than language, older than knowledge, older than consciousness. Somehow, despite having lived in the West for 20 years, despite my absolute love of the Rocky Mountains and the big vistas and those clear clear western skies, somehow my body recognizes this as home.
We were sent down here a lot as kids. Every time there was a disaster, and there were many, we were sent to the farm to stay with our grandmother. I can still smell her old house – dust, mildew, old books, old clothes, in the winter Christmas tree and coal smoke. My grandmother was never one of those maternal lovey grandmothers – she was fierce, and gruff, and took us on adventures. She believed that children should amuse themselves and she gave us plenty to play with – beebee guns and building sets and lots and lots of books. She’s the person who once hijacked us kids from Christmas Night at my uncle’s house – told us there were presents in the camper on her pickup, then loaded us all in and took off for the farm. She’d wanted to do Christmas at her house, and the parents hadn’t, so she just took the four of us. We thought it was a great trick – and thought she was being ridiculous when she warned us not to fall out the back door of the camper, which didn’t really latch, and so was held shut with a bungee cord. What did she think we were? Idiots? We might have been between 8 and 12 years old but we weren’t going to do something so dumb as fall out the back of the camper. Our parents were furious with her for that stunt, and we loved her for pulling it off.
My grandmother tells a story about finding the old Mackin family place in Ireland. When the old relative she found took her over to see the place, she got a shock. It’s exactly like our farm. Same lane lined with trees at the top of which sat a two story frame house with a barn on the right. The house and the barn were even built into the same sort of hill as ours. Thomas Mackin left home, worked on the Erie Canal, made his way to Illinois, started a mercantile (and family legend has it sold potcheen out the back door) and finally saved up to buy a place, And then he built a replica of his home place. The place he’d left. The place he’d left but had carried with him across the ocean and the country as the template for “home.”
And so, I wake up this morning in a landscape I know in my bones, on a piece of land that has been in my family for five generations, in a landscape that I recognize, despite having been gone so long. While Chicago and the North Shore where I actually lived through childhood still feel physically oppressive to me, feel like the sky is too close in and the hopelessness I fled by moving west is falling down in on me, it’s a different story down here in the country. Driving across the newly-harvested cornfields last night I could smell dirt. Wet dirt. Wet dirt and feed corn and flat flat fields stretching out as far as I could see. It smelled like home in that way that when you get back from vacation as a kid your pillow smells like home.