Legally speaking, we own our 27-acre farmette.
But the house, the barn and the fields do not belong to us alone. We are also caretakers of other people’s memories.
That caretaker status was evident again last month through the death of a woman who had been raised in this house that probably had been built just before the Civil War.
Nancy Caldwell Rhodes was a daughter of Blaine and Mary Caldwell, the owners before us of what began as a four-room antebellum farmhouse, enlarged in the 1890s by a kitchen and a back porch, later enclosed to provide a laundry room and mud room.
A few days before Nancy’s death, we got a call from Patty Ellis, her sister.
Patty asked if the hearse could drive off the paved road and through the graveled half-circle driveway in front of our house en route to the Mt. Tabor cemetery a mile or so up the road.
In 2000, Blaine’s family had asked a similar favor upon his death. That happened in wintertime, forcing funeral director Mark McKinney to “put pedal to metal” to thrust the heavy hearse through winter snow and the uphill slope to regain the paved road at the driveway’s end.
Nancy, who planned her own funeral service, wanted to preserve that tradition. We were delighted to be able to offer that small service.
The bonds of memory also brought a ringing of our doorbell just before the funeral. A nephew of Nancy’s, Steve Ferringer, from the Pittsburgh area, had returned for his aunt’s funeral.
He and his wife asked if we would mind if they came to “our” land and looked around, especially inside the towering 120-foot-high barn with its hand-hewn chestnut beams, massive hay loft and tripartite lower partitioned space that once held feed, livestock and machinery.
Steve explained that, when he was growing up, he spent many pleasant times in and around that barn with “Poppy,” the affectionate nickname for Grandfather Blaine.
Again, we were delighted and honored. What is ours also remains in other folks’ hearts and memories.
Some things have changed, of course. A two-car garage topped by a “bonus” room, shingles covering the barn’s former rolled roofing, plus its replaced doors and siding. We also added a half-acre pond and more than 300 blueberry bushes, and relocated garden plots.
Trees that had been saplings a half-century ago now tower above the house. Some have fallen or been removed. The ancient pear trees are shedding weakened limbs in summer windstorms. A 20-foot-tall hemlock hedge replaces the wood-and-wire old style snow fence to keep the drifts from burying the driveway. New fruit trees planted yield apples, peaches, pears and plums, in addition to the heritage apples from the remaining half-dozen in the small orchard.
So the place has changed — and not changed. The barn endures. Though the shape of the house has changed, its core remains clearly visible. Tractors and riding mowers now trim the yards and fields once cultivated with horsepower, but the fields remain as fields.
I am not among those of us who spend all or most of our lives in one house. I have lived in a half-dozen, plus apartments while in college. But even in the more sterile high-rises and the rented houses, a sense of “place” remains. Children, especially, recall as adults the fun that was had using shrubbery for forts or porches for “let’s play school” classrooms. Wood and brick frame sepia tinged mental images, and the echoes of laughter and picnic talk, even the grunts and groans associated with the hard work of clearing snow or digging gardens.
There is a continuity to communities that spreads further than our individual lives.
Nancy’s family’s cortege added a somber yet appropriate grace note to that notion. The hearse made its passage. Some family members saw the old homestead for the first time in decades. Others chose to not come this way. Memories can be painful as well as pleasant, sometimes both; we call that “bittersweet.”
Perhaps someday, the doorbell to the house we now call our own will be rung by our grandchildren, asking strangers for permission to revive memories of their childhood visits by walking, touching, inhaling, envisioning, recalling.
Yes, homeowners “own” land and buildings. But there were people here before us. Others will come after us. Memories are made, shared and passed along the genealogical pathways.
We change those homes, barns, yards, fields, sometimes as improvements, more often because older buildings must be looked after to forestall their falling down. Communities change, yet remain.
What we do with “our” property affects those who were here, and those who will be here.
It unites us, this concept of conservatorship.
Rest in peace, Nancy Caldwell Rhodes. Your final passage endures in our memories.
[Denny Bonavita is a former publisher of The Leader-Vindicator. He lives near Brookville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org]