My Grandmother was born in Montana, a child of the Old West. Unfortunately her mother died young and her father liked emptying out a bottle more than feeding his four children. So she and her older sister Edith were sent east, adopted by relatives in the farming hamlet of Elvaston, Illinois outside of the slightly larger town of Carthage. This bit of family history shapes everyone in my family’s identities, as my grandmother and Edith exported their adopted Midwestern mindset to Los Angeles and spawned a brood of introspective, lapsed Methodists. It only made sense therefore to visit Carthage and ‘Elm Row Farm’, our semi-ancestral home while we were a mere two hours away in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
We collected my mother from the cozy bed and breakfast she was staying at with my Uncle Jan and his girlfriend Mary, and practically stuffed her into the car while she thought of reasons not to suffer the long drive to the old homestead. After all, she’d been there as a child! – she protested meekly. But as the glorious Iowan landscape unfolded and neat red and white barns hailed our passing beneath canopies of autumn scarlet she began to enjoy herself. The land flattened out and we found ourselves crossing the Mississippi River, singing “Old Man River” in folksy baritone. The greatest American artery signaled a shift between ‘Back East’ and ‘Out West’, the soil itself feeling more ancient and storied as we entered Illinois.
I’d been to Carthage for my grandmother’s memorial soon after she died in 1998 and as we’ve learned, my mother last visited as a child. My Uncle Jan, who is able to remember what he’s had for breakfast every day since being switched to solid foods, drew us a detailed map to the farm. Unfortunately my mother had “misplaced” this map, Freudian for “tossed it in the bin”, so we were driving somewhat blind as we approached Elvaston. Fortunately the school house my grandmother had walked to as a child was a memorable brick milestone and we recognized it as we approached. From there it was simply a matter of retracing her steps home from school, through all three streets of Elvaston, across railroad tracks, past open fields lined with dried corn husks and then there, on the right, we found the Chapman family barn standing fronted by a row of young, healthy elms.
When the Chapmans moved to California they sold the farm to the Wilkens family who have been farming the land ever since. More interested in the farmland than the old house on the property, the handsome Victorian brick home has sat unused, aging gracefully under an ever thickening layer of dust. Dutch Elm Disease swept the country decades ago, killing the farm’s namesakes. As a symbolic gesture at my grandmothers memorial, we replanted the row with saplings that were resistant to blight. As I remembered from my visit in the 90’s, the air was both still and filled with a monotonous din. When I was there in mid-summer there was the consistent drone of cicadas. This time the din was the constant wind, a noise which overpowered all others but the rustling of the new elms’ golden leaves.
There was a car in the driveway but a quick peak inside the old house told us no one had been inside for some time. A McDonalds coffee cup sitting on the table was the only sign we weren’t gazing back into a scene from the 1970’s. Shafts of thick afternoon light illuminated green peeling linoleum, cobwebs and packets of rodent poison. As we walked from window to window, looking for a way inside, one of us noticed a man walking along a muddy road far across the fields. I waved to get his attention and thought I had, but as we walked out to meet him, he climbed into the cab of a giant combine and drove off in the other direction.
Returning to the Subaru we wondered what to do. We’d come all this way, it seemed a shame not to see inside of the house. On the other hand the combine had disappeared behind a thicket of cornstalks, its distant thrumming barely audible above the wind. Magda walked the grounds taking pictures, my mom and I admired the progress of the elms and pictured her mother playing as a child exactly where we stood. At the point when we decided we should head into Carthage for lunch, the big machine appeared out of the corn and stopped alongside a truck. The combine filled the truck with a shower of kernels via a long metal pipe. When it was full, the farmer moved into the cab and began driving towards us. He looked interested but not particularly friendly when we waylaid him in his own driveway. Without turning off the big rig, he stepped down to the dry earth and let us introduce ourselves before allowing a smile. He’d not only inherited the property from his uncle Joe, but also Joe’s thick southern Illinois accent I remember from years before. He had his uncle’s appreciation for the history of the farm and our family’s ties to it. Without bothering to turn off the rumbling truck, he invited us to have a look around inside before continuing on to the granary.
Unlocking a padlock hanging off of a back door, we filed into the musty old house. Joe had remodeled the place a bit in the 70’s, trying to make an old drafty farmhouse comfortable for his wife. She never took to the place, so despite the renovation, they lived in a house in Elvaston while Joe used Elm Row as a place to drink coffee and shelter from the relentless wind. The rooms which had once housed a big busy prairie family were empty of sound and furniture but filled with shafts of dusty light and shadowy nostalgia.
We quickly toured the inside, opening long closed doors and running our hands against exceedingly fine woodwork. Along with a cast iron fireplace, the banisters that ran up three flights of stairs and the wood paneling that adorned the living room were all that was left of the original detailing. Despite the tattered carpet and peeling floors, the woodwork looked as if it had been recently polished. I pictured the tutting ghost of an unknown aunt making nightly rounds with a bottle of Pledge.
We made it as high as the attic before Steven politely noted that he didn’t have much time to get his corn to town. We followed him out, shutting poorly fitting doors behind us and stepping over little bags of poison that had been fatally chewed apart.
We spent the rest of the day haunting Carthage. We paid visits to the remains of Carthage College which my grandmother and great-aunt had attended before moving to Los Angeles, and to the city jail where a mob of angry citizens had defenestration Joseph Smith and his brother, the founders of Mormonism. Across the street from this now Mormon shrine stands the Kibbe Museum, a repository for any number of artifacts from the era of my grandmother’s youth. It was as if when the house at Elm Row Farm had been emptied out the contents had landed here. We examined the artifacts under their glass lids and looked for our relatives in framed school pictures from the 20’s that were hanging neatly on the walls.
Hours later we returned to Cedar Rapids in the dark. We were all tired from the drive but in a good mood having managed to travel back in time to glimpse a healthy slice of our family’s past. My mother treated us to dinner at the fanciest restaurant in Cedar Rapids, and happily admitted that she was glad we’d dragged her along. More than having a chance to revisit old memories though, much of our good mood derived from the hours spent cooped up in the car together, enjoying each other’s company, and watching in reverence as the motherland rolled past.