Growing up there was always one constant in my life, and that was The Farm.
Aunt Penny, Uncle Wayne, Sonja and Wayne Jr. – or little Wayne as everyone called him – lived on a 200-acre farm in Winchester, Virginia. Their house was originally built in the early 1800’s, and had been a hospital during the civil war. It was L shaped, two stories, with the addition of a large attic and a cellar.
The dark green cellar doors were positioned in the crux of the L, just off of the front porch. They had to be pulled up and opened, one at a time, before you could descend down the stairs into the perpetually dark and chilly stone room with low ceilings and humble dirt floors. You had to walk a few paces to get to a lone bulb with a pull chain, which was the only source of light besides the two beams projected onto the ground from the small windows that sat almost to the ceiling, at ground level. It was tomb-like, and none of us would be caught dead down there without a grown-up, not even on a dare.
Perhaps in another time it was used to hide prisoners or slaves, or provided shelter from hurricanes or attack. Now it was filled with plastic jugs of water and shelves that held Penny’s numerous mason jars. There was peach preserves and blackberry jam, jars of pickles and stewed tomatoes, everything that had been harvested from her garden to be enjoyed during the winter months. Later, this became her pottery studio, where she would throw clay on the wheel for hours, and racks of beautifully fired and glazed creations sat anxiously waiting to be transported to the next craft fair.
The house itself was red brick, with vast, fainéant porches on both floors that stretched out across the long inner perimeter of the L. The entrance to the kitchen was on the front porch, and the old screen door that creaked with hospitality was the only front door we ever knew.
There were large fireplaces in almost every room, and proud, brick chimney’s extended through the roof, adorning the house with a sense of wisdom. The oversized, antiquated windows rippled in the light, sparkling with omniscience.
If you walked off the porch to the left, and looped around the short side of the L, you would pass a very large swinging black cauldron that looked like it once belonged to an evil witch who boiled small children in it, but now, it was just a planter for petunias.
Continuing around to the back, there was another covered porch with a formal front door in what was once considered the front of the house. This looked out over a large, sloping front yard decorated with beds of colorful tulips and bright iris, facing the entrance to the driveway that was up on the top of the hill. There was a massive oak tree that held our tire swing for decades, and an ancient carriage house at the bottom of the hill. Now, the driveway came down the hill and snaked around the side of the house, concluding its journey in front of the porch by the kitchen.
When Joey and I were kids, we would get so excited about trips to the farm, with the exception of the two-hour drive that felt like an eternity. At least 487 times over the course of the drive we would annoy the crap out of our parents by asking, “are we almost there yet?” Every Thanksgiving and Christmas was celebrated at the farm, but there was something magical about the summer visits. We would stay for long weekends, and sometimes I was allowed to stay with them by myself for a few weeks of my summer vacation. There was simply nothing I loved more.
Once we turned West onto Route 7, my brother and I started jumping around in the back seat like we were on a short bus, because we knew that we were almost there. Once we spotted the weathered yellow sign that read “Betty’s Antiques” perched atop the hill in front of the old house on the right, we went complete batshit, “We’re here! We’re here!” We were wide-eyed and grinning ear to ear, our heads hanging out of the windows in anticipation like two golden retrievers. We turned onto their rural road, and just a short distance down on the left were the large oak trees flanking the sides of their gravel driveway.
As we started down the steep hill, to our left the electric fence spanned the perimeter of the pasture, surrounding the grazing cows, a few of which lazily lifted their heads to acknowledge the kids who were shrieking moo’s at them from the passing station wagon. As the gravel crunched under the slow rolling tires throwing dust into the hot summer air, dad honked the customary beep-beep-beepbeep-beep. Beep-beep, and within seconds, our cousins flew out onto the porch, waving frantically, as excited as we were. Aunt Penny pushed open the old screen door and joined them on the porch; waving in great arching strokes with her left arm while her right wiped off whatever it had been into, on her apron.
The house was up the hill on the right side of the driveway, but you had to drive past it and hairpin turn to come back down to it. There was a little path worn through the sticker bushes and honeysuckle surrounding the yard which Sonja and Wayne ran through, chasing our car the rest of the way to the house.
At the point where you made the hairpin turn to the right to go to their house, the driveway also split and continued off in two directions. To your left was a big, one story red barn that the kids all used like a clubhouse, we called it The Room. It was decorated with old furniture, outdated toys, and random farm equipment, but it was ours.
To the right was the chicken coop, and if you went straight, the driveway looped around in a big circle. At 4:00 was a bank barn, with stalls for the horses, a two-story hayloft, a covered shed for the massive farm tractor, and just past it was the fence that seemed to extend forever so that the horses never even realized they were captive.
At 12:00 was another one story red barn. It was divided into three sections inside with a few rooms, and it was where everything went to die. It was like a treasure chest, an antique store in it’s own right. Old bicycles, telephones, boxes of clothing, outdated baby toys, cribs, mattresses, and old dusty furniture lined the aisles. It smelled like rusted bicycle chains, ancient flowered dresses, and dried hay, all of which were the sum total of the past. I could lose all sense of time in there walking around on the creaking floorboards in the diffused and dusty sunlight.
At 10:00 was a big mucky pig pen, half of which was covered, that was surrounded by a four-foot concrete wall and a rusted metal gate.
Then, at 9:00, the driveway forked off to the left, past The Room, and all the way down to Gramps’ house. Not long after his wife Louise, my grandmother passed away, he built this house on the property and relocated from his home in Nutley, New Jersey. He had a little old golf cart he would cruise around in, back and forth to the house.
We made the turn down the driveway to the house, passing the old springhouse and the barn turned garage, as we watched Penny drag the two German shepherds, Missy and Manor, to their pen before we got out of the car. As soon as we came to a stop, Joey and I flew out of the car as fast as we could, and began laughing and running free with our cousins.