A former commercial artist—graphics and illustration, specializing in letter design, I have turned to writing as another art form. This is a Storyarts assignment, which began as a telling from class. I am presently working on the final editing process of a novel: Dream Vacation.
The Kennedy Farm
I don't know why she kept it, other than the fact that Lib, my mom, is a pack rat. She hangs on to things; things most would have subjected to a land fill eons ago. She saves almost every letter the mail man has brought her way, and is big on tucking stuff we made in school when we were kids into small corners. She has almost enough craft work like quilts and crocheted doilies from the great aunts or other well-intended woman to hold her own state fair, different party favors, vacation memorabilia from places she or some friends may or may not have visited, toys long grown out of and forgotten, fads prolonged and pooped out, good strong boxes that would be perfect to hold other things and Heaven knows what else. Maybe the things were intended to save a memory, or perhaps just to help her remember. Let's face it: as the moments tick away, these things prove to Lib what a forgotten moment can't.
Like this: it's just a black and white photograph of a big white house with black, maybe green or navy shuttered windows. It takes up most of the picture, standing there so firmly inside the photo's white scalloped edges. The place probably gave the same feeling when you viewed it from the street. Clear, silvery tones suggest the picture was taken on a fine, though one may suspect cold, cold day. Things look that real clear way when temperatures dip below zero: makes you worry everything will shatter like thin ice. The trees that show were leafless; their reaching branches look hungry and groping without their protective greenery, but the sun was shining. A day like that is always a welcome break from Midwest gray. The photographer must have thought so, too. That the picture was taken is proof of that.
The house looked like the sort of place where there would always be something happening: people stopping by to visit or perhaps bring vegetables from their own gardens. A dozen ears of sweet corn or a basket of plums that wouldn't be eaten could, most likely, be used at the big house.
There's a tall swing set next to the house. It gets cut off by the picture's border. When I looked at the shot, I imagined kids amusing themselves on the swings while their parents visited or until they were invited into the kitchen for cookies or some other home made tasty snack.
I liked the house; it had an upstairs where you'd be able to look down on the activities in the yard or to see how different colored flowers, bright zinnias and blinking Black-Eyed Susans would have made the garden plots into geometry designs. You could call to a black and white dog from the upstairs window you watched him from and see how he'd turn in confusion because he'd never figure out where you were. There would have been a lot of laughter in a house like that; I could tell.
The picture was one of dozens, maybe hundreds that permanently waited in the drawer, right side, second down in my mother's dressing table. "Where's this?" I once asked when picking through the unorganized collection. I wanted to think it was somewhere I had resided though had been too young to remember.
"Lets see," my mother took the photograph from my hand.
Sometimes her answers came slowly; like when she didn't immediately recognize a distant cousin as an infant now grown, or places and people from a past that long ago belonged only to her. But this one brought an immediate, and smiling answer: "That was the Kennedy farm."
The Kennedy farm; the name alone seemed to carry a distinction, like you would be proud to hear, "Oh, she's from the Kennedy farm." I wanted that house to be my house, to be the place where I had taken my first steps before I walked into the rest of the world. I pestered my mother to tell me all about it, to color the page that had been turned before I'd had the chance to study it. I wanted to see the rooms with tall ceilings, hear about the funny kitchen, explore vast shelves by the wide fireplace; this was the house I imagined.
When she started through her own mind's memory book, my mother's accounts were not of cupboards and kitchens or friends stopping by to bring a jar of jam. The story was an accounting of another job in another place, another baby born into another struggling situation. But as she wove through what she remembered of the Kennedy farm, the stories were not sad. There were interesting neighbors from Hawaii, there to do doctorate studies at the university, and the guy from Yugoslavia who worked for my father. She talked about his "large" hair and how he peed in the field with passing traffic his honking audience, there was the woman who "was a little weird" because she lived in a barn with her horse, and there was the parolee, Jack Sharpe.
Here Lib seemed to go into another distance; I could see from the way she told about him that Jack Sharpe was a different step for my mom to have taken.
"I guess moving to the Kennedy farm must have been the closest he got to regular family life," she began in a drifting tone, "he loved the kids and he loved living with us."
In retrospect I should have said "No kidding" to my mother, but these were her memories. Not having been born at that point, I guess throwing in "what did you expect?" would have made much of a point.
"He was a good worker," she claimed, and having been in the business of farming for as long as my parents had been at it, I'm certain she was right. "He made enough money to buy a car," she recounted, "and that was the worst thing that could happen." She sighed, "Because then he wanted to leave. He wanted to leave Michigan."
Now I could see my mother was no longer at the Kennedy farm; she was watching a friendship take off and blow away like a helium balloon; she drifted on. "So he came home one night and said 'I'm going to leave; just give me an hour to get out of town.'" She told me they gave him all night. "But they found him again and he had to go back to prison cause he'd broken his parole."
She sounded sad like breaking parole was not really wrong in his case, but just another unfortunate mistake. Somewhere in her pack rat collection, I'm sure my mother still has the paint by number pieces Jack Sharpe did for her when he went back to jail. This obviously hurt her. "And then we found out the poor guy never had a visitor in his whole life," her voice still indicating empathy, "in prison for years and no one ever went to see him. So we'd go and visit, but I don't know what ever happened to him. I have no idea. I often wonder," she almost pined, "I always had a soft spot in my heart for him."
These reminiscences were not what I expected to hear as I looked at the picture of the big house on that cold day at the Kennedy farm. I must admit, though, I certainly was intrigued to think my parents willingly boarded someone from such a situation. I mean, kept him there in their house with three small children and a new baby.
"What was he in prison for?" I asked, wondering what it was about this man that allowed them to take such risks.
"Armed robbery or something?" My mother was still unsure after all the years, "it wasn't anything real—oh, breaking and entering. That's what it was." She seemed to think it was nothing more serious than mistakenly picking up someone else's pencil. "I often wonder," she said and moved on.
I looked again at the picture and thought about the Days at the Kennedy farm: not only were they no part of my life, but my imagination couldn't begin to come up with the all the riches that picture didn't show. I often wonder.
copyright MaryBeth Bush 1998