Every year my mother would remind my father that it was “not a vacation” to go to his family farm in Gilmore City, Iowa, but as long as they were married, she went. No matter how old my little brother got, she always seemed to worry about the baby wandering too far into the cornfields and getting lost or that we would somehow forget that we shouldn’t drink the well water.
In the quiet first two weeks of August, our large family would drive from smalltown Ohio to even-smaller-town Iowa to camp out in or around the decaying farm house that my father had inherited from his mother, the daughter of Danish immigrants.
Every trip, my father designated a fix-it project for the property. What he thought was good, wholesome fun, my mother viewed as an extension of her daily life—just magnified by more natural dangers of asbestos, unexpected critters living in house, and the inconveniences of living without running water.
While we scraped, shingled, painted, washed, or burned, however, I saw the ordeal as an adventure.
Each year the house looked more or less the same no matter what we had done the year before. Sometimes it would show less damage, but when we arrived in our overpacked Suburban with a ladder laced to the top, we would find a two-store white wooden home ordered from a Sears catalog at the turn of the 20th Century. Over the decades as my great-grandparents became more financially stable, they added onto it.
On the grounds were several animal buildings in various states of ill-repair, and by the time I could remember which was which, I knew that the roof of the pigsty had caved in entirely, its strong cement base encasing the rubble.
The largest building was the enormous stone barn. Around all these buildings was an encirclement of trees. (I learned very young that if you see a grove of trees in the middle of flat farmland, you could expect that somebody once lived there, even if the house had rotted away or been torn down.)
In our little forest, we often found rampant growth of marijuana plants someone had cultivated in our absence long ago. When we snickered at the thought of our entire family burning it in a big bonfire and getting outrageously stoned, my father assured us that he would kill it with Round-Up and Mom added that we wouldn’t get high from it anyway. Regardless, we dare not take any home to show our friends.
The house was still stocked with 1940s and 1950s appliances that would run on propane when we were there. In the old living room, divans covered in raccoon shit and peeling wallpaper slouched downward in dusty shavings. On the bookshelf, there were old Bibles published in Danish. In an old box, I found glass negatives of dead relatives—women in dresses with puffy sleeves playing guitars and men standing next to the very earliest models of tractors. There were babies in christening gowns, and a curious snapshot of the brand new telephone mounted on the wall behind the kitchen table. When I came, the same wires that connected the Christensen family line to the outside world were hanging limp and naked from the wall because, as the legend went, a family of mentally handicapped pot-smoking squatters stole it and several other family treasures when they had broken into the house some time in the 1970s.
We would spray everything with Lysol so we could eat cold cuts and Sun Chips at the table. When it was dark, and we hadn’t returned to the nearby town at my mother’s behest for an emergency motel stay at the Broadway Inn, we would light cintronella candles to keep away the mosquitoes.