In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Ode to a Playground.”
October marks a year since my brother, sister, and I sold the southern Minnesota farm where we grew up, where our parents lived their dream, and rest forever beneath woodland phlox in the woods. Until I went to college, ‘The River Farm’ was my playground, a magical place that evolved as I did. I have let go of the physical space but not the memories of my inner childhood.
I first saw this playground on April 10, 1947, the day we arrived at our farm as migrants from New Brunswick, New Jersey. I was three years old and remember the day in shades of gray. The ashen hue of our muddy 1940 Plymouth, the steely tint of the low clouds, the pools of pewter colored snowmelt, and the charcoal smudges of thawing soil.
The sun came out, April turned into May, and a curious three-almost-four-year-old made everything a toy, a fun house. For companions, I had the geese that hissed when I approached the goslings. Mom taught me how to a bottle to feed a lamb. I imitated Dad and gassed my trike, an imaginary tractor, at the tank.
When I was a little older, and my cousins came visiting from town, we played hide-and-seek in the barn, hiding among the bales of hay. At night, we played kick-the-can, lurking until the last minute in the shadows from the yard light, and then kicking the can by the well.
The pasture and its winding creek became my Wild West where my pals and I played cowboys. A little later, as I approached middle school, I often sat there and gazed in wonder at at the cumulous clouds, majestic cauliflowers of air and vapor, delicately tinted in shades of pearl, coral, and blue-gray, sailing like Spanish galleons. They looked so solid, like mountains yet, in the eye of my imagination, I saw narrow canyons and deep caves. Watching clouds feeds the imagination.
Sometimes, the farm wasn’t a playground. As I grew up, I inherited chores suitable to my age. For years, I fed the chickens, then collected, and cleaned the eggs. I hated it. Chicken care was a woman’s job; real men kept livestock. By the age of 12, I spent hours on a Ford tractor tilling the soil for planting, or spreading manure, or plowing. An active imagination is necessary for enduring the monotony and I spent it with dreams about learning to fly.
Most of our fields lay north of the winding, prairie river dividing our farm. South of the river was 120 acres of hardwood forest, mostly walnut, basswood, and burr oak. After the age of 12, the woods became my playground in all seasons.
In summer, I hiked a half-mile to swim in the river’s deeper holes under cut banks. In September, I hunted squirrels among the burr oaks on the ridge. In October, I hunted ducks along the river, and pheasants in the weed patches and cornfields. When I got older, Dad and I spent winter days there thinning the oaks, and hickories, and pruning walnuts to produce good lumber – some day.
Prairie blizzards altered the playground with huge drifts in the windbreak where I dug snow caves and built forts. My pals and I had fierce snowball fights, and went sledding down a hill where I made a ramp so our sleds would ‘fly’ for a couple feet.
Our draughty farmhouse (ca. 1878) sheltered us well, and on winter Sunday afternoons, my parents listened to classical music on CBS radio while my sister and I played Monopoly or read books. We raised crops for exactly 50 years, and most year, we celebrated Thanksgiving dinners with cousins and friends. From the big table, we looked out across the corn stubble and plowing dusted with snow, corncribs filled with the harvest, satisfied and secure at passing another crop year.
The playground changed when Dad retired the fields and enrolled them in a conservation plan. The former fields of corn, soybeans, oats and alfalfa became switchgrass, timothy, and oak plantations. He loved his farm, conservation was the right thing to do, but I lost the visceral connection I felt as a child.
What is the price you put on memories of the places that formed you? Is there a value I can put on the pasture, the windbreak, the pattern of corn, soybean, oat, and alfalfa fields? Their colors changed throughout the year as they matured. What can replace the sound of my mother working in the kitchen, preparing a Thanksgiving meal while chatting with relatives, perhaps dropping in a French phrase? How can I replace the memory of hearing Dad, whistling show-tunes in the evening air as he drove the tractor, preparing a field for spring planting?
I have the memories and photos, but I don’t have the farm. Without the cycle of cropping, plowing, and planting, it isn’t the farm I knew, the farm that imprinted itself on me. Nor is it the same farm without Mom and Dad. They lived their dream to the end. That dream is done. Neither I nor my siblings will live there so we sold it to another family to live out their dream.