There was chicken wire instead of a fence. It was nothing more than rusty, twisted wire caging dust and slouching, fading headstones in the middle of nowhere. All the sparse grass stayed out, as if cast from the perfect deadness of the small cemetery. It lay at the edge of the street of what was left of Baden, Iowa, a town someone in the German branch of my mother’s family had founded some time in the early to mid-nineteenth century.
My father parked in front of a building the same color as the unpaved road. Nothing was painted, and if it had been, it had been a long time since the last touch-up. Mom walked toward the cemetery to look for relatives, and my little brother and I wandered around what looked like a movie set from a Clint Eastwood western. About a half-dozen buildings with false fronts lined both sides of the street, and every one of them seemed emptied of life years before we showed up that summer afternoon.
Although the church wasn’t padlocked, it was vacant and likely without any congregants but a few field mice. The general store had the only open door we found, but the windows were boarded shut. An old Pepsi machine on the front porch still had working lights, and I hoped we’d be able to get a Coke or Dr. Pepper. Mom didn’t trust how long the cans had been in there, so we left it disappointed and walked inside. One man stood behind the counter in a warehouse of dust and junk. Broken toys and tools sat on shelves and in cracked barrels. There were horseshoes and legless ballerinas in music boxes. I wound one and watched her twirl to a lullaby on a dirty pedestal, then closed the case.
We stayed long enough for my dad to chat with the lonely proprietor, and then it was time to get back in the car to move along to another site of abandoned family history. Our century farm where we spent the first weeks of August for several summers while I grew up was only a few hours away northwest. It, at least, could be found on a Rand McNally atlas. The diner where all the farmers ate stayed in business because their families took turns managing it. Down the street, a post office, a freshly painted water town, and a sign near a silo downtown with crop prices changed daily signaled life.
Yet every year we returned to our old property, something else was falling apart. Wild animals dug holes in the foundation of the house ordered from a Sears catalog. Raccoons pooped on the divan and ate the eyes and nibbled the fingers from old baby dolls. But the roof didn’t leak, and the propane stove and refrigerator from the 1950s still worked, so we stayed. The toilet upstairs even flushed, if you dumped a bucket of the well water down it. For the whole week, we scoured the floors, burned citronella candles, and painted the wood siding. No matter how much we swept and bleached, it still smelled of hot must and old sun burned into the moldy carpet.
During the day, we worked from just after breakfast, breaking only for lunches of Sun Chips and cold cuts, until early afternoon when we were free to run or make a trip to the city pool that was 15 miles east. There we would shower and cool off until we had to meet a distant relative or the farm manager for dinner at a Bennigan’s or Mexican restaurant.
Without cots or air mattresses at night, some of us felt more comfortable sleeping in the back of the Suburban together with the tailgate down. That way, we were separated from any of the animals we hadn’t chased out yet. When it got too rustic and we weren’t prepared to camp, my mother convinced my father to check in to The Broadway Inn, a motel in the nearest town with a Pamida and Hy-Vee. There we could watch television — even MTV, when my parents weren’t around. My father thought she was being soft, but she feared chemicals in the well water might hurt us in the event that we forgot it wasn’t potable. And this was supposed to resemble some kind of vacation.
I didn’t mind the working vacation most of the time. My cousins came to visit, and we’d play cards while the older kids and my parents burned stacks of old letters my grandmother kept. It seemed wrong and arbitrary which parts of the past we were deciding to preserve. All the letters and get-well cards provided clues to who these Danish immigrants were, even in all their turn-of-the-century northern European formality. From the piles of correspondence we rescued some letters between my grandmother and grandfather written during their courtship. My grandfather, the reverend with an uncommon athleticism and Hollywood looks, was a prude. He didn’t believe in “necking” or “petting” before marriage, and he had worked hard to escape the many come-ons of women he met during his early days in the pastorate.
Later, I understood this brag to be an awkward pledge of allegiance to his dear little Freda.
In addition to the letters, we had early photographs. While cleaning what I thought to be the pantry off to the side of the kitchen, I found a box of glass negatives and took it as my personal responsibility to wrap them in dust-free towels used for cleaning car windshields.
My paternal grandmother’s family seemed to do well. According to my father, they were among the first to have running water in the whole area. They also had a car and time for playing music.
My father gave us endless and confusing accounts of our ancestry, listed names of people we’d rarely or never met; I remember very little of it. In my later grade school and junior high years, I recorded some in my journals or on tape, but I remember only a few favorite myths and people connected to those acres of farmland.
Some time in the ’70s before I was born and when my dad was married to another woman, a wandering family had broken in and squatted in our place. My father alleged that they were the ones to steal the old fashioned phone that was once mounted on the wall and they were also responsible for planting all the Dutch Angel in the woods behind the house that he still hadn’t killed yet. My older siblings always joked about harvesting and throwing all the weed on one of the bonfires, but they all knew it wasn’t cultivated properly to take any effect.
Despite all the work and knowing that none of my friends took “vacations” like mine, I missed it every time we left. It made no sense why I felt home in a place so dilapidated. The decay scared me; still, I believed that there had been something worth keeping here. Whatever it was, it eluded us. I imagine it was a feeling of possibility and renewal. There was a promise of wholeness there in that old property, if only we could get it back into working order, which was my father’s sad pipe dream: a fully functional farm and retreat for family to gather where there would be room enough for the numerous crowd that we have become and he has never seen to run wild. His grandchildren could blast bottle rockets and roman candles into the dark country nights when no cars would pass for hours.
As the animals continue to burrow underneath the home, it sinks into the earth. I’ve seen it and taken my daughter there, almost five years after my father died and was buried down the road. I let her crawl where it was safe and documented the continued decline of the buildings. She won’t remember it, and she won’t have memories of a place that feels like home but never will be. It’s possible that the next time I take her there, it will be nothing but an extension of the quarry recently cut a few miles away across the street from where several branches of my father’s family tree lay underground but above the stones people want.
Or the buildings will have been razed and the plot with the buildings subsumed in the continuation of soy and corn in neat rows. The land was never that desirable, and what pieces we had that once bolstered the acreage’s attractiveness as a package had been sold when my grandma’s brother became a missionary and needed the money. Still, the crops grow on the rocky soil and the farmers plant anyway because it’s worth the risk.
The house will fall first and the old stone barn will go last because it’s strongest. Compared to a lot of the forgotten farms I saw while driving up from Missouri and through southern Iowa, our place didn’t look so rough. Maybe the buildings will stay there and continue falling for a long time.