Down a lane off County Line Road in Lukin Township, Lawrence County, Illinois, a pile of rubble, which used to be the farmhouse where I lived with my parents, lies surrounded by briars and weeds. Some years back, one of the giant maple trees I remember from my childhood fell on the house, and it collapsed. Another family owns the eighty acres upon which our house once stood. The place, as it was, now only exists in my memory.
This time of year, autumn, I find myself recalling gathering hickory nuts in our woods where the trees were ablaze with color. I remember the sound of the wind rattling dry leaves on cornstalks, and the way my father worked to pick the corn. We always kept enough ears in our corncrib to feed our hogs. I remember standing in the wagon, pitching ears through the open windows of the crib. I remember a corduroy jacket, and my mother’s headscarf tied beneath her chin. My father wore overalls, faded and patched, the cuffs rolled. When our leaves came down, we raked them onto our barren garden and set them on fire. The piles smoldered past dusk, the embers refusing to go out. We lay down to sleep in our beds in our house on our farm, and just like that the hours rolled on and became days and weeks and months and years, and the tree fell on the house, and the house came down, and the rubble lay there on what had become another family’s land.
In my mind, though, I still hear the squeal of the handpump at our sink as my mother draws water to prepare our breakfast. I hear the scratch of a kitchen match on the stovepipe as she lights the gas burners on the cookstove. I hear the weight of a cast iron skillet. I smell the sizzle of the lard. I smell the bacon frying. My father comes in from his morning chores, and he carries the scent of the cold air on his clothes. Later, my mother will do a load of laundry on our wash porch. The motor on the wringer washer will chug along. By then, the day will have warmed, and my mother will put the clothes to dry on the clothesline. Late in the afternoon, she’ll set up her ironing board and go to work, a bowl of water handy to dampen the shirts and dresses and handkerchiefs and pillowcases. She’ll dip her hand into the bowl and with a dainty turn of her wrist she’ll sprinkle the clothes, and her hot iron will steam when it touches them. The dark comes on early these days, and we eat our supper under the fluorescent light ring above our table. The oil cloth that covers it shines. And then it’s time for bed again, and we sleep in the heart of the country and rise again to live another day.
A few years ago, my wife Cathy and I got permission from the new owners to pay the homeplace a visit. We walked the perimeter of what had once been my house, and we just happened to come away with a piece of a door jamb that Cathy turned into a shelf that now hangs in our house and holds old family photos and mementoes. We also took a section of hardwood flooring, upon which Cathy painted an excerpt from one of my favorite Bible verses: “. . .for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge. . . .” This is, of course, Ruth, the Moabite, pledging her loyalty to her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi. This piece of flooring now hangs in the bedroom at Cathy’s and my house. It serves as a reminder of all we promise each other, but it also speaks of the life that went on in a farmhouse that no longer exists in the physical world. Despite that fact, I still carry it with me. What places do you carry with you? What concrete details bring them back to you? What stories can you tell to resurrect them? Who were you when you lived in those places? Who were the people you loved? What troubles did you have? What joys? How glorious and how complicated were your lives? I hope questions like these might lead you to a piece of memoir. Often, when we revisit the past, we come upon what we’ve never been able to let go—the things that haunt us, the things that cause us to question, the speculations we have. Isabel Allende once said, “A memoir forces me to stop and remember carefully. It is an exercise in truth.” Exactly. Begin with the facts—the sound of the handpump, the scratch of a kitchen match, the sizzle of an iron—and let the details take you where you might not even know you need to go.