“Out in the County”
Some folks shed old lives as snakes
slough off their skins and never
give a thought or look behind
but come here and pretend to be
no more nor less than what they are.
The natives have no hiding place:
A country memory is long.
You see, we knew you when you weren’t a farmer,
didn’t have a beard but wore a tie
and shiny shoes, and knew you as a boy
and with your folks, your parents’ son,
and know you now as man and boy.
We remember how you broke that horse
that no one else could touch—
kept him out to Gaertners’ place
and ran the mile across the fields
after school to ride him
as if he were part of you
and you were part of him.
Then when you fell in love with Lise,
the two of you would ride
or walk together hand in hand,
the horse a step behind,
down to the creek and through
the woody bottomlands as seasons turned.
We watched as hurt replaced devotion
in her eyes as years went by,
and anger dominated love in yours.
And then you went away for four long years.
And came back with a wife that no one knew.
Agnes: We remember her first days.
You worked as clerk in Holder’s store;
she tended lonely flowers, beautiful
as stars and quiet as the dawn.
her smile held secrets.
Lise kept home, then disappeared
the first mild winter, never to return.
(But we can see the two of you—
your winding path through swaying wheat,
her distant laugh like music from a bell,
your horse’s pounding hooves after his wait.)
Until you die, you’ll never hear the end
of plowing too soon in the spring
your first year on the farm.
That John Deere’s angry roar still sounds
around the coffee counter every March
as we relive your cocksure stubbornness.
Herman Froelin tells it best.
He remembers just how deep in mud
the wheels worked themselves and how the rain
moved in before the rescue mission’s end
and how you threatened Agnes you would leave
if she so much as told another soul.
Word gets around: she didn’t have to tell.
Seems you enjoy the story now
as much as anyone.
Some things we remember we keep quiet on:
the year that Jenny stayed with relatives
in Kansas seven months; the baby boy
that Agnes bore between the first two girls
qhose tiny face could not be made
to pucker in a cry; the year you got so crazy:
1953. You spoke to no one,
but you worked like three men,
headlights on your tractor through the night,
the neighbors said. The animals were numb
from lack of sleep, with lights on,
engines running in the barn around the clock.
We never knew the reason. Must have been
your thoughts, not anything you’d done.
We’d have known what you had done somehow.
Your house has lost its sharp contrast
to nature, softened, settled: lilies,
iris, daffodils gone wild to the south
like forests springing up where
pasture used to be. A young man works
your fields now, and you and Agnes
tend the chickens, pet the dogs,
and keep a smaller garden. Rich folks
come around and ask you if you’d like to sell.
You’ve gotten short on answers, put up signs
to warn trespassers off.
Your neighbor sold a year ago.
You keep aloof, for he pretends,
this weekend country squire,
to be only what he is.
His income in its metered increments
defines him to himself, and he is in June
what he was in fall and will be in the spring,
amused to hear our stories while he guards his own.
We cannot weigh this man, although we see
his kind in waves increasing every year.
They come for privacy and little realize
that that commodity is native to the city.
Rosa grandiflora hedges, redwood fences
by the sauna give illusion only.
Character reveals itself by look and deed,
and we will know their children as we’ve known
our neighbors of each generation in the town
and up and down each road and hill,
and with our knowledge comes not judgment
but forgiveness, tolerance, acceptance
of uniqueness, and the crazy, claustrophobic,
smothering closeness of a timeless family,
though open spaces stretch between our hearths
and wind howls plaintively against
the stillness of the country night.
- Pamela Grath, in The Small-Towner, a quarterly magazine published in Leelanau County, Summer 1984
I'm the one who wrote it, and it still gives me shivers. Then, transcribing the lines this morning, I realized for the first time that the old farm where David and Sarah and I live has “lilies, iris, daffodils gone wild to the south,” as if I’d seen into my own future all those years ago.