The Imagination of Land

My family has traditionally traveled a couple times a year to be with my mother’s family, just north of Pittsburgh. Our gathering place was originally my grandparents’ home: several acres of magnificent rural land that is still so vivid to me now. My mother had four siblings, and in addition to my own four siblings and me, one of my aunts also had five kids who were close to us in age. These cousins have often felt like a second set of siblings. We all ran amok all over that land, but my main partners-in-crime were Shane and an older female cousin ours. Shane was never afraid to get dirty or wet, and Samara and I would at least follow, if not embrace, his lead.

There was no shortage of treasures to explore. In one direction were my grandparents’ chicken coup from which I ate many-a-fried-egg for breakfast, courtesy of my grandmother. Going away from the house, there was a “y” of grassy path with the coup in the middle. Either way you went – left and up the hill or right and down through the field – you would end up in the same place: a forest. We could entertain ourselves there for hours, but I actually remember spending more time on the end side of the property.

Again, there were two ways to get there. If we exited the house to the left (the higher side) we would pass my grandmother’s elaborate garden. Then we would walk or run by the barn, which stored, among many other things, my grandfather’s riding mower, on which he occasionally gave us rides when we were real young. He was a farmer who had come out of the Great Depression willing – out of necessity probably – to leave his home in order to find enough work for his big family to get by on. As a result, he juggled several part-time jobs over the years. Past the barn, we could run all over an open field. One time, for example, several of us were playing dodge ball in that field. I remember the game because my sister, Angela, broke her ankle when Jason, one of my older cousins, landed on it. I have never heard such shrieking; it was the kind that almost makes you feel the pain Angela must have felt in that moment.

From the open field, if we moved toward the road, we could climb on and around my grandfather’s woodpile. The house’s living room had a wood stove, and when we were inside in the winter it was always burning while we watched the non-cable television programs (football, game shows) that my grandfather wanted to watch as he sat on his part of the couch spitting tobacco into his spittoon. If he wasn’t occupying his part of the couch, my grandfather was apt to be in the kitchen, sitting at his desk – piled high with all kinds of documents and letters – and pounding away on his typewriter, sometimes writing love poems to his wife.

The real outdoor gem sat in the middle of another, smaller wooded section of a land. A small creek (or “crick” as the Pennsylvanians would say) cut right through the trees. When the weather was warm enough, and probably sometimes when it wasn’t, we waded in and out of that creek more times than I can count. Sometimes we would take nets with us and catch small crawfish. Another time several of us saw a snake slither through, and you have never seen so many kids scatter so quickly, probably running right through the patch of poison ivy our aunt had warned us about so many times.

The land was so imaginative that we all pretty much knew that when we were in Pennsylvania with relatives, there would be very little reason to leave the property, other than the occasional trip to Baldinger’s, an old-fashioned candy store in a town close by.

When I was a teenager, my grandparents’ health began to deteriorate. My grandfather suffered a stroke and got mean, while Alzheimer’s whittled away at my grandmother’s basic functioning. To this day, that diagnosis is disputed in the family, but I don’t know enough about the science to know if the protest is legitimate or just one more example of our working hard at denying something important about our family. What I do know is that my grandmother’s dementia was clear enough for everyone to see, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when she would ask or say the same things over and over again.

Eventually my grandparents needed the constant care of an assisted living home. I don’t know my family’s financial details from that season of life, or even who was in charge of things like that, but I do know that there wasn’t much money to go around. Generational poverty in every direction, dependence upon government assistance to survive. So doing something like getting my grandparents into a nursing home was a big deal. Things started to get pretty ugly between  some of my relatives. I didn’t see most of the conflicts, but I would hear whispers of them, rumors that someone wasn’t speaking to us anymore, often because of a disagreement about what to do with a particular item that had been at my grandparents’ house. It got to the point where my dad would stay home in Indiana because he didn’t want to partake in the war.

Worst of all, the payments for my grandparents’ facility took obvious precedence over paying the mortgage for my grandparents’ home and land. Again, I learned that not so much directly, but through a series of clues and inferences. And that’s when I found out for the first time that when you stop paying on your house and land that you’ve been living in for decades, it all gets seized from you.

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