The Farm: Or How I Learned to Live With a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker in the Freezer...
In the mid 50's, around the age of four, my parents left a wonderful, normal life in New England and moved to a 65-acre farm in the middle of nowhere, well practically nowhere, Greenwood, Delaware to be specific, to help out my aging Italian grandparents.
Not that my 27-year-old father had a clue about farming.
Let me Set the Scene
Growing up, I didn't appreciate the stately Victorian-style house that must have been considered a mansion to the surrounding neighbors. Gracing 65 acres of bucolic farmland, it featured doors with large oval windows, one at each end of a wrap-around porch with dadoes, massive stone steps, a parlor, formal living and dining room, a dark basement with a monster furnace, creepy attic, hidden staircases, and pocket doors. Ornate moldings graced the doorways and mahogany staircase.
Nine huge Norway maples line the driveway, their golden leaves covering the ground each fall. Surrounded by a large lawn, the house was encased in acres of flower and vegetable gardens, redbud, dogwood, catalpa, mimosa trees and shrubs such as Anthony Waterier spiria, and hydrangea. A spectacular Southern Magnolia tree was once listed on the state's "Big Tree" list. A spectacle to behold when in bloom, was the iris garden, designed by Grandma Jennie, a iris enthusiast and amateur hybridizer.
Over the years THE FARM hosted cows, pigs, chickens, cats, dogs, rabbits, ponies, harness race horses, a banty rooster, a pet sheep, an alien or two, a ghost and a parakeet named Chico. Otherwise, it was just life as usual.
As was the case with most farms during this era, there was a big red barn, a milk house, chicken houses, a pig pen, a little hen house for eggs, and a privy, or out-house complete with a Sears catalog to use for toilet paper.
Then there were the neighbors, a mix of curious Mennonites, devote Catholics, and gossipy Methodists who must have looked on in wonder at this bunch of Scotch-Irish and Italians who had moved from eastern Ohio out of the blue and had the audacity to try and farm.
I'm sure it was a huge culture shock to my grandparents as well. Especially when it came to understanding the local lower, slower Delaware accent. For two weeks they kept hearing about a "fire" in Harrington, Delaware and finally asked a local about it. Turns out, the "fire" was the Harrington Fair, which takes place the last two weeks of July every year. Recently, while watching the local weather forecast on WBOC, the meteorologist was broadcasting from this very fair, and signed off from "the Harrington Fire", then sheepishly corrected himself, and said "fair". No kidding. Seriously.
Inquiring Minds Want To Know...
Why did my Italian grandfather leave his entire family, which consisted of 4 brothers and a sister, all of whom crossed the Atlantic in the 20's and lived practically side-by-side in Ohio? Hmmm? He left to become a union boss, you know, like Tony Soprano.
The "Family" Connection
My grandfather's cousin was the Chicago mob boss, Big Jim Colosimo, who was killed on May 11, 1920. Shortly before Colosimo was murdered, my grandfather went to Chicago to get a job in the mob. But Colosimo must have had a premonition about his impending death as he bought my grandfather a suit and put him on a train back to Ohio where he worked in a steel mill. Apparently, Papa had higher aspirations or perhaps he was on someone's hit list.
Let the Fun Begin
As I said, my father had no farming experience. He probably didn't know a Holstein from a Hefer, his previous experience being a rear-seat gunner in the Navy on the aircraft carrier The Ranger. But his dictatorial father had called him for help and so his fate was set.
An early crisis arose when one of the cows had a problem with it's eyelid. The local vet came, put the cow to sleep, performed the surgery, tied a rope around its neck and told my father to hold the rope until the cow came to. Fast forward several hours, still no "come-to". The cow died while my father was still holding that rope.
Those Italians...So Spontaneous.
The big old red barn was a place in which I loved to play. But it was a dangerous place, in need of repair, with several floor boards missing in the loft. I recall slipping through one and falling, blacking out on the dirt floor below. I don't know how long I was unconscience or if anybody knew it at the time. I suspect my father discovered me, but didn't tell my mother.
One day, my young father apparently woke up and decided to burn the big red barn down to the ground, tools and all. It was quite a sight and drew a crowd. The neighbors were entertained, and the volunteer fire company guys got to play fireman for the day. One can only imagine what was going through their minds.
The Godfather Dies
Three days after my brother Frankie was born, September 29, 1954, while my mother was in the hospital, my grandfather suffered a massive heart attack and died in his bed. I recall our last conversation, which is strange because this day is the only day I recall anything my PaPa ever said to me.
We were standing on the screened-in back porch. It was dark outside, and moths by the hundreds were drawn to the single lightbulb hanging from a chain in the ceiling and beating against the screen.
He was sweating profusely, wiping his face with a handkerchief. I must have been chattering away, annoying him, and he looked down at me and said in his broken English: "You have a bigga mouth." And then he went upstairs to bed and died. Oh no, I don't need therapy.
Anyway, no big surprise here, my father look over my grandfather's business agent job and I became a Mafia Princess. But that's another story. Let's just say, I thought everyone called the Governor on a daily basis.
By the way, my father was the business agent of a labor union at the time that Joe Biden was first elected, and played a large part in getting him in office. In my early 20s, while working at the state legislature, a senator introduced me to another senator who said: "Senator Adams told me to bow down when I met you".
Roast Brother Anyone?
Living around my Italian grandfather, "PaPa" Frank, and Scotch-Irish-Italian Grandma Jennie, I naturally took to cooking. After searching the grass around and under the magnolia tree, PaPa would return with mushrooms and morels, and scramble them with eggs or toss them into our pasta sauce. PaPa Frank also stirred pig brains into the scrambled eggs. He had a small vineyard and made wine. A typical Italian from Calabria.
Sunday was always the day we served spaghetti for dinner. The smell of garlic, bay leaves, oregano and basil filled the house and "stir the sauce" was yelled to anyone coming or going from the kitchen.
Inspired by all the culinary action, I once served a visiting cousin a very realistic piece of "spice cake" made of red clay, into which he took a huge bite within minutes of his arrival at the farm. Poor kid, he didn't know what hit him.
An aspiring little cook, I honed my skills outside in my little hen house. My little brother, Frankie, who was about three at the time, was fed all manner of weeds in my imaginary kitchen. One blustery cold day I decided to keep him warm by placing him in a wooden chicken coop, which I placed over a little bit of fire stolen from the trash pit. Back then, it was common practice to burn your trash outside in a designated area. By some miracle, my father discovered the situation just before my brother was roasted like a chicken. That was the only spanking I ever received from my father. But look at this way: I'm sure Frankie's bowel movements were regular due to his daily diet of dandelion, chickweed, and an occasional poke berry pie.
Owls, Sapsuckers and Roosters, Oh My!
My mother, when she wasn't buried in a magazine, while her five children ran helter and skelter, was a very talented artist. A founding member of the local art league, her watercolors, oils, and pastel renderings graced the walls of our huge Victorian house and the homes of her followers. She was also a bird watcher, and because she liked to paint things as realistically as possible, it was not unusual to open our freezer and find a stiff yellow bellied sapsucker beside the frozen vegetables, (talk about losing your appetite) or other critters she was going to paint "someday" or perhaps take up taxidermy and stuff for posterity.
So, because of our mother's eccentric personality, it was not unusual to hear my brother Frankie yell: "Hey Mom, where'd ya get the owl?" when he discovered an owl in the upstairs bathroom, in the bathtub. The creature had escaped the attic, come down the stairs, and was trapped in the bathroom. No big deal. Just another day in paradise. Frankie, by the age of 10, was catching bullfrogs and frying up their legs in a skillet on his own. One memorable Thanksgiving, after offering him some turkey to take home, he replied: "No thanks, I've got a squirrel in the freezer".
Then there was poor Rudy, a colorful pet Bantum rooster, who managed to end up on THE FARM. How he managed to keep all his feathers is beyond me. Anyway, my mother tells the story of the day Rudy entered the back door to our kitchen, which he had never done before, (but we'll never know for sure will we?) walked up to my mother who was sitting at the kitchen table at the far end of the kitchen (reading a magazine), and apparently thought nothing of a rooster strolling through the kitchen ("Oh. My. God. There's a live chicken in my kitchen!" Nope.) looked up at her, gazed into her face for a few moments, then simply turned around, walked back out, and died that evening. As far as I know, Rudy escaped the freezer.
An especially vivid memory is the day Chico died. My brother Frankie is responsible for the little green parakeet's death. He probably beat me to it. Apparently, while my mother was engaged in conversation with the insurance man who stopped by the house to collect the monthly premium check, Chico bit my 4-year-old brother, who wandered outside holding the poor bird by the tail and said: "Bad birdie". My mother was not amused.
George, another pet rooster, was your common, everyday white chicken. By some miracle, or curse, he fell off a local chicken truck in front of our farm on the way to the processing plant and was adopted and named. Some time later, this was a coincidence (or was it, who knows) my father announced that George needed a girlfriend. So, next morning, voila'! Martha appeared. George and Martha enjoyed a serene life at THE FARM. One day George stepped on a discarded hot cigarette butt, and picked up his foot towards his head, which he cocked (no pun intended) at an angle, as if to say: "What the hell?".
I Have Questions
"Are you gonna marry my grandma?" I asked of Grandma Jennie's gay gentleman friend who shared her love of iris. A precocious (obnoxious?) child, I was always asking awkward questions.
"Are you my cousin too?" I innocently asked the child of the black gentleman digging up her tulip garden.
"My mother can take her hair off", I decided to announce on a school bus full of children, one of which was the town gossip, who my mother, who suffered with alopecia universalis, didn't especially appreciate, and for which I was severely beaten with a belt and rescued by my Grandma Jennie. But more about that in another hub. This is after all, supposed to be a "humorous" hub. Granted, it is about Italians. But I digress.
The Lamb Who Thought It Was a Beagle
After my grandfather died, my father took his place as the local business agent for a labor union and he played at farming. Now, the only farm animals were pets.
One Easter, father gave us a lamb as an Easter gift, which we named, appropriately, "Lambie". Lambie grew up with two rabbit dogs, and a doberman pincer. So she naturally thought she was a dog and it was not unusual to see the three dogs romping across the soybean field, and Lambie, having never been sheared, and by now a huge ball of wool, bouncing up and down behind them, chasing a rabbit. And, yes, the Doberman thought it was a hunting dog as well
Mother Where Are You?
Where was my mother you may ask while I was preparing to roast my brother or preparing a dish of who-knows-what as his (last) meal? Probably inside the house chain smoking, lost in a Taxidermy Today Magazine or painting a magnificent watercolor. Obviously her interests did not include raising noisey children. The oldest, I spent my childhood babysitting my four younger siblings. I roamed the woods and streams alone, once I was even approached by a man in a truck who offered to take me for a ride (sometimes I wish I had taken it). There was a farm pond, full of turtles, catfish and snakes in which we swam, floated in tractor tires or rafts fashioned from who-knows-what from some trash heap. How we managed to survive our childhoods is a miracle.
Someone must have been watching over us.
By the time I was 16 my mother had given birth to my brother and 3 sisters, my grandfather had passed away, and my Grandma Jennie, whose beautiful iris bed was full of children who enjoyed picking the buds off her iris just before they bloomed, left (fled) THE FARM to live with a daughter in Ohio. In retrospect I hardly blame her: her lovely home was overrun with 5 children aged 3 to 16 (me), her daughter-in-law was a fertile, chain-smoker who did little but read Better Homes & Garden magazines all day, her son was turning into an alcoholic, and her husband was deceased. Run Jennie! Run! She left her bridge club, and her beach friends, and never looked back. Grandma Jennie was my life boat, my anchor, beside whom I read novels we would borrow from the Bookmobile and ate graham crackers in bed. I don't think I ever saw my mother read a novel. After she left I discovered an unfinished novel in Grandma's dresser, based on a family not unlike the Clampetts from that 60's television comedy series about the backwoods people who move to Hollywood.
Adding to the Insanity: An Alien Connection
Somewhere between summer days on the pond and winter afternoons beside the fire, something strange was going on.
Aunt Carol Lee, who lived at THE FARM until she graduated from high school and married, shared with me that she would see people in the clouds while waiting for the school bus to pick her up and take her to school.
She also claimed to have seen a cigar-shaped UFO on the way to the Harrington Fair "Fire". She had a strange scar spontaneously appear on her back that doctors told her could only have been done by a surgeon. Before she died, she did an interview with Bud Hopkins, author of Missing Time.
I did see a large glowing orb on the upstairs landing after dabbling in the occult (another story) and would find myself outside on the lawn at 3 a.m. occasionally, but I never associated these events with aliens. At the time.
I've sorted through things, and put together some anecdotes that may lead somewhere.
My mother's mother died, Grandma Hastings, and after the funeral her brother, my uncle, shared with me that strange lights were seen hovering above her farm house. This is the grandmother who gave birth to three bald children, one of whom is my mother.
My sister, Jamie, under hypnosis, recalled being visited by large-eyed aliens who teleported her out of her bedroom window into a UFO and placed on a metal table inside. She suffered from terrible nightmares for years.
Is it just a coincidence that the History Channel recently revealed that UFOs were seen off the coast of nearby New Jersey for several weeks?
The UFO connection can be read here: Is the Chesapeake Bay Home to a Hidden UFO Base?
My Aunt Carol Lee, who may have experienced an alien abduction, was interviewed by Budd Hopkins.
Did You Grow Up on a Farm?
Growing up on a farm with an eccentric mother, a manic-depressive mob boss father, four siblings, Scotch-Irish and Italian grandparents, who yelled "stir the sauce" a lot, and a host of animals, has given me quite a bit to digest over the years. It definitely was not a normal childhood by any stretch of the imagination. In retrospect I am certain our neighbors, and especially the Mennonite family who were REAL farmers, must have had plenty to chuckle about around their kitchen table.
Oh, and the ghost? My father claimed to see a hooded figure in the hallway outside his bedroom.
In the late 70's the house mysteriously burned to the ground.