Many years ago, when I was 21 and a recent college graduate, I chose to live for six months with my elderly grandfather at his farmhouse in central Illinois. As an education major and a December graduate, finding a good teaching job was not in the cards until the hiring season of summer were to roll around. I was also unsure of my career choice and was busily applying for and being denied entry into journalism programs in my grandiose hopes to be an ESPN commentator.
So, I spent my spring semester in 2002 substitute teaching in this small town living on a retired farm with my 80 something year old grandpa.
I remember the weekend of my junior year prom five or six years before. I was sitting in our family room alone early in the morning. My dad came down the stairs before anyone else was awake and with tears in his eyes and a quiver in his voice said, “Grandma Clary has passed away.” I couldn’t believe it. Although she was in her early 80’s, she was healthy and happy from all I knew at the time. She had gardened that day and she went to sleep just like normal only to never wake again.
My grandpa had never been required to cook, to clean, to do the laundry, to organize, all the traditional things the wife of a farmer took care of. My cousin, the indisputable best human in our cousin clan, (sorry all other cousins) had lived in this town growing up and moved in with my grandpa and helped my grandpa transition from a dependent husband into independent widow. When my cousin moved out and moved on, I took his example and chose to live with my Grandpa to help him out while I waited on a career.
My days consisted of a wake up call from the local school district with my assigned class for the day, checking the floor for mice, and heading off to work. I often was able to drive home for lunch and make Grandpa and me some cold cut sandwiches with a side of Lays potato chips before heading back to the school of the day. I’ve never been accused of being a good cook, but Grandpa was always thankful for the help and the company.
After school, I’d go for a long run past the farm land and through the nearby neighborhoods or head into the local YMCA I had joined for a workout. On weekends, I’d sit on the front porch on the iconic white porch swing dangling from the porch roof watching the cars drive by knowing that I was always watched by the neighbors across the street whose property was elevated giving them the perfect view of our front door at all times.
Some days I’d walk the property and reminisce. I’d walk out to where Grandpa would bury the poor piglets who died too soon and the beloved dogs that kept the entire family entertained and loved over all the years. I’d walk out to the crick, never creek, and watch tadpoles remembering being a child collecting all the critters that lived in this water. I’d walk in and out of the old barns and imagine them as they were in my youth full of cattle or pigs.
Every day, my uncle, the judge, would stop by to say hello and make us the best, most sugar filled jug of iced tea you could drink. It was a daily ritual to sip on the cold tea while talking about things happening in the world. Then, each night, I’d make my version of a homemade dinner of mostly pre-prepared foods. We’d look out the window into the yard, the garden and the pasture beyond and watch for bunnies, or, if we were really lucky, deer. We’d watch the news, some crime series episode that always confused us both. We would laugh because we never could predict “who had done it” until the end of the show. And then we’d end the night watching the “funny guys”, usually Leno, who entertained us until we were too tired to be up any longer.
I slept on the second story where my mother and her siblings’ beds were as children. The stairwell was narrow and creaked loudly each time I walked up and down them. And each night, Grandpa would come to the bottom of the stairs and say “Goodnight Allison” in his elderly kind tone before I’d drift to sleep.
Although I am now a wife & mother myself, and have built a successful career, I long for those times, a simpler time. A time that filled my heart and not the minutes of my day. A time when you had to watch the crime series that was on prime-time TV and not one you can choose from on your phone. A time when I could step away from work to spend lunch with a loved one.
Society, in these last twenty years, has sped up. I wonder if I had been 21 now, if it would be the same experience. Just sitting on the porch, a book in my hand, the smell of green fresh cut grass, and the low humm of the passing cars going by. How cherished that time was for me then and is as a memory now of a simpler time.