I grew up on a hilltop farm in upstate New York, run by several generations of my family. A lot of the land has been sold off, but family still has the old 1800’s farmhouse and makes maple syrup in the sap woods. I didn’t realize how lucky I was until recently. Even though we didn’t have a lot of money, we had lots of land and a small dairy operation, where my dad worked his butt off, and my sister and I weren’t much help. Mom taught first grade, and I have no idea how she managed to keep track of a bunch of kids and teach them anything. I don’t think I inherited the teacher gene.
I walked the fields, streams, woods and hills of that land, usually with a dog by my side, lands no longer accessible to me. I knew which ones to avoid where the cows and an occasional bull might be, avoided the electric fences. We ice skated on ponds and streams and tobogganed on the hills in the winter. Grew a garden and ate beef and venison, pasteurized our own milk. I played with cats and kittens galore, between the barn cats and the house cats, but we lost a lot of them to the road. My tiny grandma lived on the farm and made the best molasses cookie you could ever have. I swear the woman always had a paring knife in her hand and an apron on. She had to cook for a lot of people sometimes when laborers like the “threshers” came through.
We had Jace, a “hired hand” who was there long before I arrived, and he was there when my father was born in the early 1920’s. He was a bachelor, no kids, served in the military. Enlisted in the army on December 3, 1942, with two years of high school education. Jace was a kind, quiet man who was in some ways a grandfather to me. He liked gardening, making things with his hands and smoking his Camels. He and Dad would hunt. He would see me at the end of a field, waiting for a ride on the tractor, and oblige me a quick trip on the big John Deere. He once told about driving a team of horses into the barn and the floor falling through. I don’t know how he got them out, but he did.
I looked into his history a bit recently, and was surprised by something I learned. About the same time, I heard an interview on the radio by a famous, successful entrepreneur who told about being about 5 years old and his mother dropping him off at an orphanage. Clinging to her skirt and begging not to be left there. I couldn’t imagine going through that as a child. He certainly overcame but never forgot.
As I looked into Jace’s records, I found that in the 1910 census he lived with his parents and a brother. But something must have happened after that, as in 1915 when he was eight years old, he was in an orphanage. In 1920, he was in the orphanage as well. In all the years I knew him, I never heard about his childhood and that part of his life. He wasn’t an orphan, but whether poverty forced his mother to put him there or some other factors did, I don’t know. How afraid a child must be in those circumstances. How did this man live with us for decades and I never knew? I don’t recall ever meeting any of his family.
Life wasn’t ideal on the farm, by any means, but I count myself lucky. I knew a lot of freedom and no one ever gave me cause to worry I would be forced to live in an orphanage. I hope he counted us as family, as I considered him to be.