After a week in the country, we are covered in mosquito bites, sunburns, and poison ivy. The kids’ bathing suits are rust stained with well water, sneakers are sifting creek sand, and white shirts are splattered with mustard.
I didn’t grow up in the country, but that farmstead in southern Ohio is where I go “back home.” A no-stoplight town where, at the one-room post office, we slow down to take a right and then climb up the gravel driveway, tires crunching the hill to the house where my parents have retired, and where I got married and my mom got married and so did her mom and her mom.
Summers and weekends growing up, I would fall asleep to the rumble of tractors heading home from the fields at dusk, or semi-trucks shimmying through this hamlet of run-down clapboard houses with a single gas station, once a bustling settler village. When I’m here, the whine of hot tires on pavement and wind whooshing through metal is just as sweet as the coo of doves, at this farmhouse built at the corner of Route 50 and county road 9.
Even though the ruffled sheer curtains still hang in the bedroom that was once my grandparents’ and the entry is still papered with cabbage roses, every time I come back, something is different. A washhouse has been torn down, a cottage has gone up. Corn crops one year, soybeans the next. The barbed wire fence has slid into the creek, the cottonwood in the lower pasture was hit by lightning.
Or my mother has borrowed a pickup truck full of bikes or a box of action figures for the kids. My dad has made a ping-pong table or roped a swing around a branch. Every day we are here something new appears — a badminton net, a puzzle book, a croquet set — up until the last night when my mom pulls bottle rockets and sparklers out of the garage like it was Mary Poppins’ suitcase, and they don’t come to life until my dad torches them with a flamethrower.
This year wheat berries bake in the sun beyond the barn, in fields alive with crickets chirring, where we would sometimes spot a deer, its head and rump rocking above the sea of wheat as it bounded away.
A harvester with a 300-gallon fuel tank and tires taller than a 12-year-old arrived one day to take it all away, eating 40 rows at a time, leaving behind a wake of chaff, and pouring floods of grain into open semi trucks parked along the county road. The air filled with golden dust and the smell of starch, my shoes with bits of straw.
Another afternoon I saw a groundhog moving through the tall weeds like a canoe among the cattails. After my dad’s ride-on mower has trimmed a swath of pasture, it leaves a milky way of white clover balls for me to walk over. And in the evening, lightning bugs on the lawn look like steam rising off a pond.
The boys got to shoot targets with my dad’s 1873 Trapdoor Springfield rifle, and it gave so much kick-back their shoulders were sore at dinner. Whizz, pop, sparkle, bang — fireworks go off in the village below. The flower umbels of Queen Anne’s lace that grows along the fields look like bursts of ignited gunpowder.
Now, back in the city, I burrow into my to-do lists like that groundhog, ruffling up the smooth lawn with rude tracks so that others can see how hard it is to do my job. I reach under my blouse to scratch the poison ivy, the same movement that must have caused those slashes of rash all over my torso, and I remember the burnt marshmallow goo stuck in Diana’s hair, the inflatable pool swaying with well water, grass and bugs, and how the teens in bikinis and bellybutton rhinestones played “Blueberry Faygo” so loud, windows rolled down, flying down the highway, that it made my chest boom.
And I know it was all worth it.