Through the leaves
the words we share
I loved the lattice print it could leave on the body of anyone who lost track of time. The lawn chairs were specially crafted by my Grandpa. It seemed like half his day was spent repairing, tightening, and cleaning the straps of nylon and plastic that decorated the metal frame. Each chair was slightly different. Only Grandpa could tell which visitor sat in which chair by the print it left across the bottom of their thighs and the tops of their shoulder blades. He named each chair after parts of a newspaper. We were the only ones that knew that Grandpa couldn’t read well. However, bringing Grandpa a small-town newspaper was the only way to sit in one of his beloved lawn chairs. When people would leave, he would say a section of the newspaper out loud followed by a crisp snap of a newspaper he pretended to read. The visitors would assume he was enjoying the freedom of the press. We knew grandpa was finding joy in noticing the marks from the chairs. If the visitors paused or attempted to talk to him he would say something like, “Nothing like a good obituary to make you appreciate life.”
When I was younger, I would become saddened by the sight of those marks. As loving as Grandpa was, I couldn’t understand why he found such delight in the imprints. As I got older, I began to understand that many people came to visit so they could lose track of time. The marks that caused me to question my Grandpa’s heart were the same marks that showed a little peace was imprinted onto the hearts of guests. As I began to understand my Grandpa, I learned to find joy in the prints, too. Those imprints were ephemeral badges of honor for anyone visiting the Home of Middle America.
It was Grandma’s idea to give the name to the place. On the outside, it looked like the same barn that was built in 1928. In many ways it was. Of course, it’s been repainted many times, but the carved heart in between the well-worn initials of my great-grandparents are still there. Countless latches, hinges, and brackets have been replaced over time, but somehow that steel Rooster weather vane has remained the same. Every warm-scented perennial you can imagine has found a home at one time or another on the side of the barn. However, the set of Morning Glories planted by my mother’s grandmother, my great grandmother, has the longest tenure of them all.
If anyone wanted to see nature in a loving relationship with something created by humans, they could take a walk to the east side of the barn just before dawn. The way the Morning Glory vines hugged the window frames and snuggled around the edges of the roof as fresh sunlight warmed the embrace appeared both innocent and intimate at the same time. Observing hummingbirds and butterflies fellowship among the violet-tinted blossoms would make perfect strangers communicate with soft smiles, subtle head nods, and an occasional double-armed handshake. Grandmother taught me how to look for the special convening magic of the Morning Glory.
I would often play in those vines. My mother would remind me of how hard her grandmother, my great-grandmother, worked to care for and cultivate the Morning Glories. She mostly protected them from the many men who felt uncomfortably softened by their presence. For years they thought my great-grandmother was just trying to have something special for herself in a man’s world, but when she died they found out just how wise she was.
Her father, my great-great-grandfather, was a proud, hard-working Midwestern farmer. He was a good provider by any reasonable standard. However, he always felt he wasn’t getting his fair share of this great land of milk and honey. Every second of his life went into farming the land to compete with the larger, wealthier farmers. He stayed sullen and died bitter. My great-grandmother said the only time she saw him smile was when hummingbirds would appear. It was faint, but it was unmistakable.
When my great-grandparents built this barn, my great-grandmother insisted on growing Morning Glories. She grew them to attract the hummingbirds. Whenever there were planned visitors, occasional wanderers, or hired farmworkers, she would take them to the east side of the barn at dawn’s break. They were not allowed to leave until they stood there in silence for 30 minutes. My great-grandmother told my mother, her oldest granddaughter, this story before she died.
Before my grandmother died, she told me the story behind the naming of the barn. As special as the outside of the barn is, most people came from all over to walk inside our barn. One day my great-great-grandfather came home with a baby owl. To this day, nobody knows how he got it or why he brought it home. There was just a small box of hay with a baby Great Horned owl inside. The box was handed to my great-grandmother directly from my great-great-grandfather. There were no instructions. There were no words. My great-grandmother raised this owl on her own. She would later befriend and raise many different types of owls over the years inside this barn. Out in nature, the same owls might fight over territory, but it never seemed to happen inside the barn. That is why there are so many owls that come and go as they please in that upper, southeastern corner of the barn.
Great-grandmother would never share how she got them there or how she made them appear like family in that upper, southeastern corner. Was it that calming light produced by the morning sun filtered by the Morning Glories? Was it because the owls could always see anyone enter the barn before anyone could see them nesting there? Someone once counted as many as 28 owls in the barn at one time. Educators, hunters, birdwatchers, scientists, and novelists were among the more frequent visitors. We would also get wanderers in search of purpose and young lovers looking for a special place to pronounce their mutual commitment to each other.
Regardless of any tension people held against each other before walking into the barn, people walked out of the barn at least cordial to each other if not newly-created old friends. As much as it was the chance to see the owls that brought many visitors in, it was the smell of the barn that brought them together. The fragrance from the Morning Glories, the nesting of all the owls, and the sun-baked smell of natural hay made everyone who entered the barn take in a deep, full breath. They would involuntarily smile while allowing amazement to fill in their eyes. People would talk to each other in friendly whispers while slowly scanning from one side of the barn to the other. Unsolicited, strangers would share what special moment in their childhood the smell conjured up. ‘You know what this smell reminds me of ...?’
It’s hard to not be cordial when reflecting on the best moments of your childhood. Young reporters, ambitious scientists, and peaceful-sounding charlatans would try and classify the smell and attach a name to it. Eventually, Grandma put up a sign that read, The Smell is Middle America. Welcome to the Home. Before she died, she told me that she worried people would forget how much they came together inside the barn by fighting over something as trivial as naming rights to the smell. It took her a full month to come up with the words for that sign. Words can both bind us together in fondness or splinter us in pain.
You’re my oldest daughter. I’m telling you this because we’ve opened up the barn. My mother, your grandma, wants you to go inside. She has a story to tell you.