Just Saying Goodbye: Reflections on a Farm House

This article was originally published in September 2014

It has been a week. It has been a week since I visited my grandparents house for the last time.

My grandfather died in early December of 2013. He had dementia, and it wasn’t wholly unexpected. He died on the farm. He always said that was where he wanted to die, always refusing to move--even when my dad and his sisters insisted. He loved the land more than anyone I know. For so many farmers working the land has become just another way to make money, there is nothing spiritual left in it. But for my grandfather, I think working the land, standing in a field of corn, held something holy.

My grandfather and I differed on every spiritual outlook one could think of, but when it comes to land, and my connection with land and place, I can feel the same holiness that he felt, the same calling. Sometimes, in Nashville a wave of longing rushes over me for home, and it is never a longing for people (sorry mom) it is a longing for the flat, beautiful fields. It is a longing to see the horizon, to watch the sun set, to see stars, clear and crisp. It is a longing to know the flowers, the rivers, the roads. It is a longing to smell the corn, to hear it grow.

I know corn farmers are villainized, especially in the circle of activists and theologians with which I associate. I know what NAFTA did and how farmers benefit. I have seen the problems our farming causes in other countries. I have felt the guilt. I have cried. But at the end of the day we are also just trying to make a living. And that is what my grandfather was trying to do too.

He was born in Kansas, right before the depression. During the worst of it he and his 13 brothers and sisters left , taking the train to Illinois. In his young adulthood he joined the Air Force, married my grandmother, and moved to Texas.

My grandparents were huge world travelers. They went to Europe countless times, saw all 50 states, visited the holy land and so much more. But every time they would come home my grandfather would tell me, there is no place quite like home on the farm. The land called to him. The hard work, the long hours, the unforgiving moods of Mother Nature.

I spent most of my life within a five minute car ride (or a 20 minute bike ride) of my grandparents farm. For years I cleaned my grandmother’s house every Saturday during the summer. Most often polishing her collection of silver nick-knacks she picked up from here and there over the years. The cleaning was never very rigorous, and usually we just ended up at the kitchen sink, staring out the window at the orchard, chatting about life. The day would always end with us either sitting in the big white swing in their side yard or rocking on wicker rocking chairs on the front porch while eating Pepperidge Farm chocolate cake.

The farm was a special place to me, a second home. And so, when I heard that my family was going to take the house down I cried until my boyfriend Ben asked if I wanted to go home and see it one last time. And that is what we did. We drove home so I could walk around an empty house. I get very attached to places and attached to the memories associated with those places. This is probably why I have such a hard time leaving the Midwest behind, even when my heart is screaming for adventure.

We got to the house a little after 5 on Friday evening. I wanted to go out there at the magic hour, when the sun was just right. I wanted to remember the house in the thickening late summer twilight.

It was like visiting a ghost, a ruined shell of what once was. My grandma moved out in June, and my family took the signs in the front yard that said “Nusbaum Farms” and someone had taken the swing. The swing that I sat in overtime I visited my grandparents. Looking at the house was like looking at abandonment. It is easy to tell if a house is not lived in. It just looks empty, it feels empty when you walk up to it. There is no life inside of its walls. This was how I felt when we drove up to my grandparents house, a deep feeling of abandonment–a deep feeling of empty.

My intention was to go through the house. To say goodbye to the place that met so much to me as a child. I went slowly, room by room, thinking of the times I had spent in each spot. In the dinning room, eating countless Thanksgiving meals. In the Kitchen polishing silver and chatting about life with my grandma. In the back bedroom, where I slept every time I stayed the night. And in the front family room, where we sat by the fireplace, watched (terrible theologically and historically inaccurate) movies, and ate lots of popcorn. I tired to picture all of the furniture–to imagine the house as I knew it, not as it felt at that moment, cold and lonely.

We went through the whole house staring with the first floor, going down to the basement, and then going upstairs and even into the attic. In the basement not all of the lights were working so we turned on the flash lights on our phones. We looked through things, talked about my grandparents, their life together, and what an interesting character my grandfather was.

I found some old bottles covered in dust and dirt in a basement cabinet. They were the kind of bottles you would pick up at a flea market. I took them, along with some old door knobs.  I’m not sure I was actually planning to take anything from the house, but as we walked through and I saw things laying around my heart just sank. They weren’t important things, a chair crammed in the attic, old copies of Better Homes and Gardens from the 1930s, some hooks. Things that no one would have ever missed. But when I saw them, I could not let them go. So we took them, and put it all in the trunk of my car. At one point I laughed and said I felt like a looter. But in all honesty I was simply grasping for something. I was searching for memories to hold on to. I wanted to be connected to my grandparents in a very tangible and spiritual way. Having things they owned in my house is the best way I can think to do that.

As the sun started to set we left the house and went outside. Sunsets across the flat of Illinois are one of the things I miss the most in Tennessee. Living in the mountains the sun goes away too quickly, dipping low before there is ever the chance to enjoy it. The sun burned orange across the corn that night, reflecting in all the windows of the house. I sat in the ditch facing the house, watching the sun go down in the reflection. Ben walked away to take photos, but I kept watching the house. The night got cooler, two trains passed, and the sky grew dark. But I watch the house because I knew it would be the last time we would be together. Maybe it is vain to love a house so much but I cannot help that to which my heart attaches.

We went home when it got dark. We locked up the house, I took a deep breath, and I reminded myself that everything changes and I would not love this house as much if everything had stayed the same. I have memories. I have photos. And I can tell the stories. That is all I need.

-Julia Nusbaum, Creator