First Person / Leona's farm: She'd still be living there if only she could

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One day in May, I decide to head up to Slippery Rock and take my grandmother, Leona, for a drive. We climb in my car and head off towards Nectarine, Venango County, where Grandma's old family farm is situated.

Pavement gives way to gravel and eventually we're rolling over one-lane dirt roads. I don't know where we are, but it doesn't matter. Grandma is telling me stories of walking to her one-room school house, bobsledding down the hills in the winter, and she's naming every person she knew on this side of Route 8.

I start to worry when I realize I haven't seen a road sign in 30 minutes. Grandma waves off my concern; she knows her way. "Turn left, turn right, go straight, just down the bend ... " It has been a decade since she was last here, but these are directions she's not soon to forget.

After minutes of hopping up and down on windy roads, we pull into a clearing. Acres upon acres of hay fields and pastures fill our view. Farms and houses dot the land as we drive down into the valley.

We go a ways, nearly back up into the woods, when Grandma says, "Slow down. This is it."

She taps her finger against the car window. "This is where I grew up."

I pull over onto the berm and park my car. I gaze up past the stacks of wood in the lumberyard, what the farm became when it was sold many years ago, and look at the white house that still stands in front of a row of pine trees. It's not big or grand, but it's sturdy and warm-looking.

Grandma is quiet for a while. Her right hand clutches the seatbelt to her chest and I can see her cheeks flush pink. Eventually she says, "Hasn't changed much." But a note in her voice tells how much the times are not the same.

At home I have a picture of Grandma at the age of 3 wearing a white polka-dot dress. In a picture taken at age 5 she is wearing the same dress. For more than two years Grandma had only one good outfit, which had to be altered and repaired over and over again. Such was the poverty many people shared during the Great Depression. But the misfortune in her youth has never been able to trump the good that came from living on the farm.

That is why when she looks at the farm now it's obvious that she still aches for what she's lost. On a clear blue day like today, she could still be caring for her chickens and dairy cows, tending to her vegetable garden and plowing the fields with her work horse, Silver. At night, she could watch the sky grow big as it filled with stars, breathe in the sweet air from the honeysuckle vines and experience the kind of peace that can only be felt in the incredible stillness of the country.

Grandma would have kept this land forever, given the choice. But she had to let it go.

As we drive away, I know she's left a lot unsaid. Farming is in her blood. Her mother, Ethel, came to own three farms, all in her own name. Ethel's parents also ran a dairy farm near Jamestown, N.Y. I know she loved visiting there, so I ask her what she remembers about going to Chautauqua County.

She says, "You knew you were getting close to Grandmother's house when you could smell the wood smoke in the air." She smiles. "One time she gave us three calves to take home and they were mine to care for. I remember sitting in the back of our Model T Ford holding on to them as we drove home."

Her memories seem romanticized, but it is not in my grandmother's nature to be negative. Although life on the farm wasn't easy, she'd never say it was hard. She sacrificed a great deal to help her family run the farms, including the opportunity to go to college at William & Mary. But when she says she has no regrets, she means it. Even when the isolation of the farm would creep in, she'd still find happiness.

Grandma tells me, "When you lived on the farm you didn't go anywhere. But every Saturday night we'd listen to the Grand Old Opry on the radio and I'd yodel along with Roy Acuff."

As a kid, I always felt Grandma was one in a million because she could yodel. As an adult, I think she's one in a million because she lived through hardships that I could never fathom and yet, if I asked her if she would do it all over again, she'd nod her head with certainty and say, "I loved it on the farm."

opinion_commentary

Katie Forrest is a writer who grew up in Slippery Rock and just moved to Ascot, England, from the North Hills (kate.e.forrest@gmail.com).


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