Last week was one of those obligatory trips. Back home to Illinois. Family tensions. A 93-year-old mother in assisted care who treats everyone with respect except for me. A controlling, unkind sister.
These I expect. I have weathered their insults for many years and have learned methods to safeguard myself from becoming too depressed, too hurt.
But what my system was not prepared for was the shock of seeing the vast changes in the countryside I used to consider home.
On the Saturday after my arrival in my southern Illinois small town community located 30 miles from St. Louis, I expanded a short trip to the local Tru-Valu grocery store to the tree-lined residential blocks nearby. First, I drove past the big house in which my in-laws used to live. Now it is painted an attractive blue and has banana trees in front of it right next to the old pear tree!
Then I drove past the house where my first married-life apartment still stood. A few window air-conditioners have been added, but otherwise not much change to this plain white house.
Then a drove down Lindenthal, Highland’s most lovely street, lined in Linden trees. This street leads past the high school I used to attend, now an elementary school for many years since a new high school has been built on the north edge of town. A little further on was Lindendale Park, home of the Wednesday Night Dances and the public swimming pool that gave me my first job as a refreshment stand/ticket seller employee. The parking lot was roped off for a special event (a wedding dance, I believe. Do they still dance the schottische and polkas?) So I kept on down the road past the homes of former schoolmates, past the VFW with it’s WWII airplane still displayed outside, past the few remaining corn fields on the edge of town, as most land has been converted to subdivisions.
So now I have reached Arkansas Road. I used to get teased as I would speed into town from the farm I grew up on, five miles southeast of Highland. I felt compelled to keep driving. I passed the one-room country school my father attended as a youth. It is still there but long ago was enlarged and converted into a modern home. As I approached Iberg Road (named after my relatives; my grandmother was an Iberg), I saw the Bircher Farm was still intact. This was the place my father was born. When he was one year old, the family moved one mile away to the 200-acre farm where I grew up. My father lived there the rest of his 83 years.
The road climbs a slight hill then slides down to the bridge. Long gone is the rickety wooden bridge of scary fame nicknamed Hook Bridge from the legend of the man with the hooked hand who might attack you at night if you were one of the teenage “parking” couples from town that frequented the dark woods nearby. Those notorious woods, however, are what I considered MY woods. My father owned much of that timberland. The forest blended with that part of it owned by another farmer closer to the bridge. Only an insignificant wire fence demarcated where one property ended and the other officially began. I knew that there had been some building going on in that woods. The small gravel lane that once allowed entrance into the dense woods was now a little larger, a little wider. I turned my borrowed vehicle into the woods. And kept driving. And kept driving. One after another along the wooded drive were large lots with manicured lawns and large, ample new homes. Around every curve were more little roads leading off to additional homes. I drove to the end of one such lane, past the small lake where I used to sit on hot afternoons watching the water bugs and dragonflies. Now there were people in small boats fishing and boat ramps at the back of their houses that bordered the lake! When the road became an un-graveled field road again, I parked the car and got out and walked. I felt shock and walked along in disbelief. This was the woods I would tramp through on spring mornings after a light rain hunting for the delicious morel mushrooms that had sprung up overnight. This was MY tramping grounds! I was astounded at how completely it had been developed. I had to admit that the houses were attractive and the settings even more beautiful and idyllic. Yet my feet plodded along in some sort of dumbfounded interloper walk while my head involuntarily shook back and forth indicating a silent, “No, no, no.”
Then I tried to think more rationally, less emotionally. After all it was 50 years since I was a fourteen-year-old roaming these woods alone, often melancholy. I climbed back into the van, backed around among the trees and wound my way out of this transformed woodland. I continued past Geiger’s farm, the house gone but the silos still there and the farm pond I used to swim in looking fresher and more “tailored.”
I turned onto Rinderer Road and then turned again a few yards later into the quarter mile lane that led to my former homestead. I had been told that the old house I had grown up in had been razed the year before but I had to see it for myself. The barn is there, now painted a brownish-red. The attached milk house looked deserted and decrepit. The sticker weeds in the pasture were so high I could barely see the small scummy pond I used to skate upon in winter and fish for catfish during the summer. Or sometimes I would just slowly walk around it listening to the multitude of frogs croak and jump into the pond as I passed. The green shed was still there, but the pigpens we used to jump roof-to-roof were gone. So was the large walnut tree. The huge elm I had once immortalized in a painting done on the back of some throwaway graph paper from the Highland Box Board (where my father worked) was still there and another one guarded the turn in the lane.
There was no remainder of the two-story house. No sign of the cellar or forsythia bushes or stoops. The concrete walk just suddenly ended. But the well house was still there and so was the cherry tree. The pine and the magnolia were now huge.
And my particular refuge, the apple tree in the pasture, was still there. I would sit in its comforting branches and cry or dream while my best friend, my dog Ragsy, would stand guard at its base.
There were no longer Holsteins in the pasture. Four alpaca of various colors had taken their place. And the garage had been transformed into a small, temporary home.
In the background, among the large oak and shagbark hickory trees, was the new brick one-story home my parents had built in their later years. Now it is owned by nice folks who raise and stable horses in the large new barn behind it.
The graveled lane now ends at their driveway entrance. I, however, proceeded down the ungraveled field road to the fields and timber. Most were still planted in corn, beans and alfalfa. I remember kicking over hay bales after rains so they could dry out. Sometimes a black snake could be found hiding underneath.
And as I stood on the road leading to the back fields, I remembered vividly the day my father had gotten his right hand caught in the corn picker. My sister and I were gathering hickory nuts in the pasture when we heard loud shouts. At first we thought it was a neighbor calling. But I ran to investigate, soon realizing it was my own father. As I approached him, he yelled for me to turn and run for help. Already out of breath, I raced the ½ mile home and alerted my mother, who alerted neighbors, doctors, ambulances and more. Still, it took hours for the rescuers to cut my dad out of the machinery. He lost three fingers ultimately.
I had noticed new signs posted, indicating the direction of a development called “Swiss Valley Estates.” I drove past Rogier Road and Zilles Road (both farmers I had know well and whose dairies we had stopped at when I rode with my dad on his milk route. Nothing yet, even this far out. Finally, I came upon this new extremely upscale development. Homes worth $600,000+, one after another! The irony of this struck me immediately. This was the area where the poorest farmers used to live and eke out their existence!
I decided to continue another mile and check out the farm where my grandparents used to live. Going there was also a bit surreal. Gone was the house and the Stein’s house across the road. But there was an earthen home, built into the side of the hill that I used to run down into Grandpa’s pasture. Did gnomes live here now? Well, they had done some improvements! The lane that I used to walk down to catch the school bus in the mornings when we’d spent the night with Grandma now was lined with fruit trees. And the crabapple trees in the orchard were still there! And so was the plum tree, the fruit of which was used to make plum jam. And the well pump, now painted bright white was also still there, though the smoke house and chicken yards weren’t.
I headed home thinking I had seen enough. But one more shock remained. As I drove back down Iberg Road, I saw the town limits sign. It was now all the way out to Plocher Road, edging the farm where my father’s youngest uncle had lived.