Outbuildings

The property was maybe a forty-five minute drive from my grandparents’ house in the St. Louis city limits, but the contrast between the expansive country acreage and the tidy urban parcel led me to believe that we must have circled the moon and stars to get there. I can’t even remember the color of the outside of my dad’s Aunt Joan and Uncle Dave’s massive Victorian home, but I clearly remember the musty smell that filled me with wonder each time we entered through the parlor (no one else that I knew or even have known since has had a parlor). I remember the secret TV room where the teenagers hung out and where my sister and I spied on them from an even more secret closet that led somewhere that we dared not explore. I remember the velvet couches and the fancy swirling armchairs, the ceilings that nearly rose to the heavens, and Aunt Joan’s homemade dinner rolls that tasted just like the ones that pop out of a can. The best part, though, was the swing: a board suspended from somewhere above the clouds, attached to sturdy ropes that took me far beyond that patch of Eden.

I don’t even cry anymore when the chickens die; at least, I haven’t in a while. This morning, one of the young hens was lying in the roost with her neck twisted. I wondered what had happened as I carried her to the compost pile where she will be returned to the earth. I will never know. Disregard was probably not a very good name for a chicken, anyway. This year has hardened me in so many ways.

“I love outbuildings.” My son’s comment jarred me, mostly because I didn’t realize that he knew what an outbuilding even was, but also because I wondered if I had been thinking out loud. What is it about the sight of a tiny barn wood or rusty iron structure that compels me…and, clearly, my son…to want to know more, to want to venture inside, to want to be part of something that had been meaningful to someone else, however long ago?

If I could get in your soul, and you in mine, the mystery might cease to be. It must be fear of really knowing that keeps us from opening the smallest door.

A few years ago, a treasured childhood friend sent me a kitchen towel printed with a whimsical design, a map of Cape Cod, where her family has a cottage, along with an invitation to visit one day, when the time seemed right. I don’t think she would mind that the towel is now worn and some of the threads have loosened. A mirror to our days, time has weathered us. I hold her in my hands, though, with every dish I dry.

Uncle Dave had a shed on that Missouri property; it had probably been a garage at one time. I don’t remember him ever letting any of us in there with him, but from time to time, he would emerge from that shed, usually with a contraption of wood or wires or something else and there would be a softness about his face and an indiscernible music to his presence. He had been to his place, the place that filled him up.

The grandeur and mystery of that old house will forever be with me. Aunt Joan and Uncle Dave have been gone for years, and I can’t go back there anymore, at least not physically. Perhaps if I did, the magnitude of my memory would disappoint.

It has been hard for any of us to go anywhere this year. The safety of the issued stay-at-home orders brought some relief to me in those early days of the pandemic; I couldn’t go anywhere even if I wanted to. And I didn’t want to.

There has been sadness, loneliness, and loss. What has pulled us down, though, has left a wake of gratitude for simplicity and normalcy: for the rhythm of our earth’s seasons, for the little memories that beckon at every turn, for the everyday chores of tending chickens and drying dishes.

Perhaps we don’t need to go places to know that we have been somewhere. Maybe outbuildings look different to each of us. Maybe if we never bring ourselves to look inside, we’ll miss part of who we are.

Someday, though, I’m going to Cape Cod, and I think I’ll take my son along for the memories.

xoxo

The Purple Couch

If ever you were a visitor to our family at the house on the hill near the university, the Third Street bungalow, or our current homestead, you sat on the purple couch, or, at the very least, took note of its presence.

The purple couch was like an old friend. It accepted us, its people, where we were, with our dirty baseball cleats, fevers, and bad attitudes. It has been sat upon by State of Illinois caseworkers, librarians, hundreds of children, and a chicken.

I nursed my last birth son well into toddlerhood on that couch. I spent the night there with a mug of chamomile tea after disagreeing with a seafood salad from a local sandwich shop. My children lined up on the cushions through nearly two decades for our annual Christmas photo. I sat there waiting for my teenagers to return from first dates and movie nights, and I sunk into the plush purple pillows with my tissues in hand, bracing myself for a good cry as I watched my almost-grown children close the door behind them, crossing the threshold to seek what their futures held for them.

We first spotted the purple couch in all its magnificent glory showcased in a lifestyle magazine in an advertisement for flooring. Much to my great delight, a mom-and-pop furniture store in a neighboring town was able to special order the purple couch.

It arrived on a truck just as promised, with five loose back cushions and two throw pillows which, when folded just right, were the perfect support for holding a sleeping little one (or twenty). Over time, all seven pillows have morphed into somewhat lumpier versions of themselves, having had many runs through the washing machine, and having actually spent more time on the floor than on the couch as intended. Our next couch, I swear, will not have removable cushions.

Over the years, the couch aged gracefully…until recently. In addition to the hairy and puffy cats that we have had over the years, all of whom seemed to prefer this couch as the best nap spot, we added a dog: an old one that loves to roll on fabric things and sheds in the process. The purple couch became his favorite place; this only added to the charm and personality of this beloved piece of furniture.

To some, it was just a couch. Others have fond memories of what this couch meant to them:

“It was a very comfortable couch. It looked good under the painting in the old house, with the green couch (which, also, is now just a fond memory),” recalled one frequent visitor.

One son remembers being bullied by an older brother’s friend, and being told: “you are what you eat, and you eat poo.” He said that he then sat on the purple couch which gave him comfort and made him feel better.

“I liked it. I loved it. It was amazing,” offered another.

In later years, the purple couch began to stab us in the back, not intentionally, but because the cushions were always strewn about, and because the wood and springs were gradually wearing through the fine purple fabric which had so many memories woven into its threads.

“I want a black leather couch. To replace it,” chimed one small son who perhaps didn’t fully appreciate what the purple couch stood for.

And then: “it smells like a butt. And bad feet.”

Oh. No.

What about the wedding? How could we replace the purple couch before the wedding, when it had borne witness to so many other celebratory moments with us, it’s family? Should we take it to the burn pile? That was a heartbreaking thought, but, after all, it smelled bad.

After a little online research, out came the baking soda and the vacuum cleaner, followed by a thorough essential oil spritz. The cushions went through the laundry. Guests to the morning-after wedding brunch sat on the purple couch, and I don’t think anyone suspected a thing. It had seen our family through another rite of passage, and it had served us well.

Soon after the big day, its freshness faded with the wedding flowers, and we knew it was time.

I just couldn’t bear to think of all those years of life lived going up in flames. I decided to try passing it along on a social media marketplace site. But why would anyone want the purple couch? How could they not? How could we not? We did, but…it was just time.

While cleaning out the purple couch, I found a fork, a whole lot of legos, and two phones.

Within the course of a few hours after posting the ad, which apologetically offered a well-used candidate for a college apartment or basement, seven locals expressed interest in the purple couch. One by one, appointments were set, and excuses were made.

“I wasn’t able to get the truck.”

“It’s too big.”

“I forgot that I had to work.”

“Go on to the next person.”

Until it came to the polite lady at the end of the list: “yes! I will be there soon!”

Within about ten minutes, she appeared on the front porch, where the purple couch was already waiting for her. She was so gracious and grateful. As our husbands strapped the couch to the roof of her vehicle, she shared that just a short time ago, she had lost most of her possessions in a fire. She was so happy to have a couch again, and it was so ready for its new adventures.

We rolled out our forty dollar estate sale find from the extra bedroom into the living room to stand in place of the purple couch. It was never intended as a replacement, for no one couch could ever hold as much meaning within its cushions. But we needed somewhere to sit.

People that come to the farm for the first time will never know about the purple couch. The lady that came for it sent a photo of two of her cats resting comfortably on the purple couch. It makes me wonder, just a little bit…did we act too soon?

The legacy of our beloved couch carries on. At our home, it had enabled teenage romance and supported my coffee habit. It had been the seat of numerous video game battles, a retreat for grieving children who had come through our doors bearing burdens deep within their souls, and simply a place to just rest with one’s feet up.

The purple couch was not ready to go up in flames. We have trusted it with our secrets, which we know it will not share. It has room to hold another family with more animals, more butts, and more bad feet.

We love you, purple couch, and we will always miss you, though we are kind of glad you are gone.

XO

Photo Credit: EMILY STRATTON

Ode to My Child’s Teacher

You have been my child’s teacher, and I am grateful.

For a span of nearly twenty-five years, children of mine have had the privilege of being taught, nurtured, cared for, and loved by so many extraordinary teachers, men and women who have helped to form these young beings into who they are.

My nearly grown son stopped by the farm earlier this week. He was about to leave on a business trip, but he made time to deliver a bag of apple cider donuts from the nearby orchard. I had been harvesting watermelons when his car pulled in; I have a bit of time now to work on the chores that have piled up for too long, as the littlest boy is now at school for a few hours each morning.

My son drove off just before the bus returned my preschooler to me. Time has a way of turning our boys to men even as we spin around to tend to the things that fill our days.

In the early years of motherhood, we hold our little ones close. To them, we are the whole world. The doors open, though, and there are influences that reach past our own fingertips, influences that help to form these tiny souls into who they will become.

And that’s where the teachers come in.

I am busy with the things of adulthood; I have waved to my child as she looked back at me through the school bus window, and I hope I held a thought of gratitude for the teacher who was moments from receiving my teenage bundle of attitude, unrest, and great promise (who just happened to be wearing pajamas).

Because you have always worked to forge a partnership with us, and to find something good in difficult circumstances, even when actions and behaviors were beyond understanding; for your tenacity, I am grateful.

Perhaps the nature of my family makes for a good longitudinal study of some sort. At the very least, it has allowed me to see over and again how the great love of a teacher can make a vast difference in the life of a child.

You made me feel like I am a good enough parent, through my tears and frustration, when life’s forces were bigger than me; for your support, and for your kindness, I am grateful.

For seeing past my child’s dirty fingernails, for praising him for his careful coloring, and for asking him to tell you more about his special train engine; you have done these things, and you have made a difference.

For helping my little boy to see that he is magic and brilliant even as he struggles with below-grade-level work; for your compassion, I am grateful.

For giving my daughter the time and space that she so desperately needed to be ready for learning, and for lifting her up so the burdens she carried were just a bit lighter; for your understanding, I am grateful.

I sometimes wondered how we would ever make it through the day. Then I turned around, and a whole year had passed. The year turned to decades, and I see grown children whose lives reflect the gifts they have been given by their teachers through the years.

I love those cider donuts, especially at this time of year. I ate three in a row that morning, right from the bag.

Perhaps it’s the time of year: transition, gratitude, thanksgiving as all around me are fields in the throes of harvest. I am grateful for the little things, which really might be big things. I am grateful for my children, for what is before me, and for you, the teachers that have given so much of yourselves for so very long.

I am grateful beyond any words I could write, and I hope you know that as you offer your hand, once again, to my child.

Thank you.