Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hallenbeck Farm

Written May 12, 2011 

It’s been a while since I spent the night at the farm.  One year, 11 months and 18 days to be exact.  The night of Gumpy’s memorial service was the last time I spent the night here.  There are a few more things in the Shrine (otherwise known as Uncle Jim’s bedroom) because Ema is sorting through things again.  The crickets and frogs are bellowing as I’m typing.  Sure I’m tired, but I don’t feel like sleep is coming.

This room seemed a lot bigger when I was a kid.  The walls seemed straighter, the floor seemed more level, the stairs seemed wider.  I guess after 148 years, the old home needed a break from active Hallenbecks, save one.  It still has Ema, and I’m grateful for that.

I guess everything seems a little surreal tonight.  Some of it is guilt, Gumpy wanted me to help take care of Ema and the best I could do the past two years is stay away from the farm.  I was tired, Mom and I practically lived here weekends the last few years of Gumpy’s life.  My life got in the way, with my new wife, grad school and a business that I didn’t see myself starting.  I’ve always looked up to Ema and the times in life that I have fallen down, she’s always been the one I’ve hated disappointing most.  And I really do feel like I've let both of my grandparents down. 

Some of it is a growing realization that I am an adult now and that I’m probably at the end of the line of family that truly loves the farm.  My earliest memories of the farm are chasing Shep, Gumpy’s Australian Shepard, around the outside of the house.  The farm has always been a place of peace and comfort for me, even in my darkest hour.  And I hope to always be able to call it home.

And frankly, some of it is because I still miss Gumpy terribly.  There have been so many things I wish I could share with him, good and bad.  I could always count on him to tell me he was happy to hear from me or that he was proud of me.  While I do mimic some of his behavior when I’m here, like patting my arms at the dinner table or clapping three times when it’s time to leave, I will always be uncomfortable sitting at his place at the dinner table. 

While I am a bit melancholy tonight, I am also reminded just how fortunate I am to still have Ema in my life.  She’s healthy, active and more mentally sharp than most people I know.  Most importantly for my sanity, I can still call and hear her voice at the other end of the phone when I’ve hit a rough patch or need a reality check.

The past two years have ushered in a completely different aspect of our relationship.  Ema’s taken to tell me more stories about her childhood and her parents.  Her parents were a bit older when she was born than Gladys and I are now, so Ema’s stories have given me a good measure of confidence that Gladys and I can raise a happy, healthy child. 

Ema doesn’t stop in mid-sentence to apologize for blathering on anymore (her words, not mine).  She always felt she needed to when she was telling me family stories, which she never did.  Maybe she’s more comfortable telling me the stories now or maybe she wants to make sure they are heard before she loses the ability to tell them anymore.  Regardless of reason, I’m glad Ema is sharing her stories.

That’s only one aspect of our changed relationship.  Ema has always felt she needed to be the disciplinarian, and I suppose she was right on some level.  After 37 years of this, I’m use to her expectations of me and her questions when I am not meeting those expectations.  The change has been when I’ve needed to cry, she lets me cry on her shoulder without question.  It was never her role before, but she does it with ease and grace.  It’s a side I didn’t expect and a side of my grandmother I am truly grateful for. 

Admittedly, I am really attached to the farm but none of it matters as much as the memories my grandparents helped create for me there.  I am among the fortunate in life for having so many years to enjoy Ema and Gumpy.  My tears tonight are a mix of sadness, guilt and gratefulness.  The tears of gratefulness are winning. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

The glue that held our family together

Saturday's visit with the old boy
This post will be a bit of a hodge-podge.  Classes are over for the semester, my mother in law is back home in Tampa and I finally feel like posting again.  Thoughts of Gumpy are never far away from the front of my mind.  I still cry occasionally and yearn for his counsel.  It's been almost two years, and while I know that his suffering ended the day he died, it sometimes feels like my pain is just beginning.

A colleague forwarded a great blog post to me yesterday, I read Cranking on my phone in the garage because there was something in Jer's message that compelled me to read the post immediately.  I couldn't help but relate to much of Merlin Mann's story.  Sure, I wasn't a kid when Gumpy died, but I can relate to the feeling of drifting away from the things that I truly find important in life.  While I am fortunate to be writing about the city I love and pursuing a degree that fascinates me, I still need reminders to be take a few minutes out to appreciate my family.  Gladys was a little surprised when I walked upstairs and hugged her. I always give her a peck on the cheek and a hug when I get home, but today I needed that hug to last just a little longer.

Saturday it dawned on me that Gumpy truly was the glue that held our little family together.  Instinctively I guess I knew that but the events of a normally happy mini-reunion at the Syrup Festival really made me take notice.  None of us would have dreamed of behaving the way we did if he were still alive.  We all let our pettiness and bitterness of arguments new and old taint the day.

There is always tension in any family, ours is no exception.  Where we were once very different was in the way Gumpy would handle it.  His laugh was infectious and it was hard to stay sore at someone when he could get you to join in on the laughter.  If that didn't work, outrageous statements like, "that will make you a man before your mother" would be leveled at the offending party, which always made us chuckle.

It was his way of making sure we all stayed together.  His biggest worry when he died was that we all stay talking, that we all remember we are family and that we all stuck together.  My grandparents purposefully paid for our immediate family to spend the weekend in St. Ignace, MI with them ostensibly for their 50th anniversary.  Gumpy's real reason was to make sure that we knew his nephew Frank and that we had time with my Uncle Jim and his family.  His family was his proudest accomplishment and his greatest torment.

This isn't a post to air the family's dirty laundry, rather I am lamenting Gumpy's ability to make us all laugh, to come together and to stop the games that pull us apart.  He was our carpenter's glue if you will. After reading Mann's post and reflecting on the events of our family time at the farm together, I couldn't get my mind off the void I still feel every time I think about my grandfather.  

Ironically, when I was a teenager, he was afraid I would never be able to laugh again.  I was always so dour.  His patience with me showed me how to laugh again.  He had a great sense of humor and timing. I miss the nicknames.  I miss the jokes.  I miss the outrageous statements.  I miss going up town for a crappy tasting cup of coffee at Ken's Standard Station with him.  I miss the pancake breakfasts at the fire barn during the Syrup Festival with him.  I miss the way he would clap his hands when he was ready to leave.  I miss his smile.  I miss hearing him admonish me not to strain my milk.

Most of all, I miss his ability to bring us all together.