Sunday, October 23, 2011

Pioneer Family: Childhood in the Land That Time Forgot

I never understood how strange, by many standards, my up-bringing was until a few years ago. In trying to give a brief description of my youth to a new friend, I began to see the stark oddness of my experiences.

My family had a nice, modest home in a suburban neighborhood in a university town. Nothing out-of-the ordinary. My parents were both children of the Great Depression, so they were proud to be able to purchase a single-family home after being married for 15 years.

The unusual part started when my parents purchased an old, run down farmhouse on 10 acres when I was about ten. That purchase sent our family on a unique journey. The farm became our home on weekends and over summer vacations.

The farm was on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, otherwise known as the “land that time forgot.” The structure had been built in the 1890s of heart pine, and was two rooms over two rooms with a rickety kitchen addition.

Originally the kitchen must have been in an outbuilding, but in the 1920s the back porch was enclosed to make a modest cooking area and dining room. The wide planked pine floors sloped and the peeling flowered wallpaper was at least fifty years old. My parents paid $2,500 for the house and ten acres. The farm was a three hour drive from our suburban home.

There was no indoor bathroom of any kind. Cold running water flowed to the kitchen sink from a well on the property. We sponge bathed with old porcelain wash basins, sometimes in a bigger galvanized washtub, or at the kitchen sink.

In one of my brighter moments, (I think I had been reading an old stack of Mother Earth News magazines), I hit upon a plan for a hot shower. I stretched the long garden across the yard, past the former pig wallow, to the outhouse / latrine.

In no time, the sun heated the water in the hose. With a bar of soap and the hose inside the outhouse, I managed to have a hot shower! The only drawback was when I burned my arm on the bare light-bulb hanging low on the john's ceiling. While rinsing my hair with the hose nozzle stretched up over my head, my arm made contact with the bulb for quite a few seconds before I realized I was being scorched. Of course, the thought of electrocution hadn't entered my enterprising little head.

The farm had electricity in only a couple of rooms (and the outhouse!), no phone, no television, and --the horror of it-- there were no home computers in the 1970s, no smart phones, no video games. We played checkers or cards and read at night. We spent half an hour killing mosquitoes before putting the lights out (if you've ever been to the Eastern Shore, you know it's the mosquito capital of the world). The family slept on beds and cots, dorm style, in the same downstairs room off the kitchen.

I brought a suburban girlfriend down to the farm with me one weekend, and we slept upstairs on a mattress on the floor. One of our cats curled up with us. In the middle of the night, we awoke to a crunching sound. Startled, we turned on the flashlight to see Little Boots eating a mouse. My friend was a good sport about it, but her parents were appalled when they heard the tale.

On the farm, we grew vegetables: corn, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, cantaloupes, cucumbers, yellow squash, zucchini, pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, onions, beets, turnips, and cabbage. A sweet cherry and a fig tree came with the house. My parents planted apple, pear, and peach trees. Mom planted annual and perennial flowers everywhere. From alyssum to zinnias, she had flowers in bloom nearly year-round. The soil must have been superior; nearly everything they planted, thrived.

I'm amazed as I look at that list of vegetables, fruits, and flowers. These days I'm lucky to keep a few herbs and cactus alive. Did my parents drink a lot of coffee? How did they grow all that on the weekends, work jobs, and keep five children alive, too?

The farm was about two miles from the Chesapeake Bay. We fished and caught croakers, spot, flounder, and bluefish. We fried them and had veggies from the garden. We dug clams, eating them raw, steamed, in chowder and in fritters. Using a chicken neck for bait, we caught blue crabs for steaming. Dang, we ate well!

We swam in the bay. Crabs nibbled our toes, and sometimes jellyfish stung us. We sunburned and Mom rubbed us down in Noxema from a cobalt blue glass jar. We slept with two portable fans trained on us and the windows wide open-- air-conditioning was not part of the farm's accoutrements. We heard the owls and whip-or-wills at night.

After the sun went down, it was rare for a car to pass on the narrow, blacktopped road in front of the farm. The silence was intoxicating. The stars were incredibly bright. Dad pointed out the constellations.

It's funny that it took me many decades to realize how different my upbringing was. Honestly, at the time I was a little embarrassed about how un-cool and primitive our farm was. I avoided mentioning the farm to all but a few close friends. I groaned about it, saying “We're going to the farm again?”

It didn't seem unique or special. It was just there; it was what we did on weekends and over summer vacation. When we talk about it now, we laugh and shake our heads. Living there was glorified camping, with the benefit of a roof that didn't leak.

I'm not ashamed anymore of growing up, at least part-time, on a farm. I can see what a blessing it was, and it's almost like being in a secret club when I occasionally meet someone else who was raised on a farm. Among many lessons, it taught me that most of the luxuries I enjoy these days are just that, luxuries and not necessities.

My heart is full of memories of the farm. That run-down place is part of who I am.

Do you have special memories of a place from your childhood? Please share!


  1. This is absolutely beautiful! I was raised in the south, swam in the Chattahoochee River and had a monthly friendship with poison ivy. I remember a summer that I barely came out of my tree house and broke my arm roller skating down Suicide Hill. We walked or rode our bikes everywhere. Johnny Quest was the only cartoon I would watch. We played red rover and whip chain out front. I would spin in circles until I fell down. That was how we got high. Thank you for reminding me!

  2. Sounds wonderful! If I rode my bike as much as I did back then, I'd be in much better shape, for sure. Thanks for stopping by, Bad Luck! :-)