Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Gettysburg, a Ford Mustang and Family Folklore

I let slip through my fingers many chances to pass along family folklore and history to my children. I began to wonder if they would ever care about their lineage once they were adults.

Nonetheless, I believed God’s promise to restore what was lost. I had no idea He’d do that in a muscle car with me riding shotgun.

The first glimmer of hope that one of my kids was interested in their ancestry came when my son, Zak, texted me regarding his ethnicity. During his last year of college he worked a summer internship in Pennsylvania. Many Americans living in the cities, towns and boroughs of the colonial states treasure their heritage. So naturally somebody asked him about his background.
The Kane Family farm in Orrtanna, PA (June 2011)
A few weeks later, I had an opportunity to spend a weekend with him in that state where our family roots run deep. Our time together would include touring the Gettysburg battlefield from atop a double-decker bus. Years ago I’d taken my daughter on the same tour during a road trip to visit our family farm nearby. Sadly, I’d never had the chance to share our ancestral history with my son.

Zak met me on a Friday night in June outside the gym where he exercised. I hadn't seen him since Christmas and was amused by his unusual smile. The inside of his mouth was tinted bright blue from gulping a colored energy drink. We laughed, and then laughed some more over that social blooper.

Deciding to head south toward Gettysburg that evening, he tossed me the keys to drive his souped-up Ford Mustang. We passed Hazleton, the town where my father was born. I told Zak about visiting my dad’s birthplace earlier in the day and finding the church in Freeland where he was baptized in the 1930s. I shared the blue-collar history of our Irish ancestors who lived in that coal-mining region.

Zak on Round Top overlooking the Gettysburg battlefield

The next morning we toured historic Gettysburg and the Civil War battlefield. That afternoon we drove toward the farm that has been in my mother’s family for at least one-hundred-and-fifty years. My daughter was one of the first in her generation to sleep in the farmhouse when she and I visited over a decade earlier. Unfortunately, on this trip Zak would be unable to go inside. Now tenants rented the house since the last of my grandmother’s siblings passed away.  

My son decided he would drive during the search for our ancestral land. Even with printed instructions, finding the farm near the town of Orrtanna proved to be difficult. We were on old Route 30 one minute, but not the next. The valleys and hillsides all started to look the same. I suggested we stop to ask somebody for guidance. Zak wasn’t keen about that idea.

As he drove down a country lane, I spotted an old woman sitting on a porch rocker. A young couple stood nearby.

“Let’s stop. That lady is old enough. She might remember the farm.”

“Oh, Mom.” Zak rolled his eyes. “Let’s not.”

“Just pull over.” I pointed to a patch of dirt near the house.

“You’re just going to stop and ask a total stranger for directions?”

Thankfully, I was able to avoid a gender battle of asking for directions when the couple crossed the road and climbed into a pickup truck.

I shushed my son's protest. “Hurry. Pull up next to them.”

The pair eyed us suspiciously as Zak parked his Mustang beside their truck. I wondered if they’d be surprised seeing me jumping out of a muscle car.

“I’ll tell you who you need to talk to. Her.” The man nodded toward the woman rocking in the chair.

The twosome stepped down from the truck, walked with me toward the porch and introduced Mrs. Vander. A dog lay near her feet, snoozing. I explained to her my search for the Kane Family farm. The widow revealed she rode the school bus as a child with my great-aunts and -uncles. She called them by name. After several minutes, Zak got out of the car and joined us.

“I also remember twin girls coming to visit the farm,” said Mrs. Vander.

“That was my mother!” I playfully punched Zak. “She knew Grandma. I told you she would know.”

Eventually the man left with his wife after giving us directions. I reminisced with Mrs. Vander about my relatives long gone. Several minutes later I thanked her for the hospitality and petted the dog goodbye.

We passed many orchards driving up and down hills on a winding road. Around a bend I glimpsed an old red caboose sitting in the middle of a field, abandoned.

“I remember that caboose from when Rebecca and I came.” I referred to my daughter. “I think we're close.”

As Zak rounded the next curve everything looked familiar: tall evergreen trees, a two-story white farmhouse, and a red barn. And still standing was a large, rusty water tank shaped like half a wine keg cut from top to bottom.

“This is it. This is it.” I clapped excitedly. “We found it.”

My son raised an eyebrow at my child-like joy. Since the renters appeared to be home, I suggested he drive to the newer highway running along the backside of the property and stop on a hill overlooking the farm. Decades ago when the state opened that freeway, traffic dwindled on the old route next to the farmhouse. Hence the era of our homestead also being a family-run tollhouse came to an end.

I took many pictures of the old place that day. I captured it at the same angle as two others prints hanging on my wall at home. One is a watercolor painted from a distance. The farmhouse and barn sit on one side of a country lane. Across the road is a small red fruit stand. The orchard behind the house hints of a plentiful harvest. Autumn colors nestle the foothills in the distance. In the other black-and-white picture, a photographer snapped the same view of the property during a snow-covered winter. Someone told me that years ago one of those photos was featured in a calendar of Pennsylvania farms.

My new print of the summer landscape has lush green trees hugging the foothills. However, the fruit stand is long gone. So are the fruit trees. Now a farmer leases the land to grow crops. One day I hope to return to the farm and photograph it in the springtime to complete a four-season pictorial.

Some things remain the same: the solid farmhouse with its stone chimney, the iconic red barn, and the thin evergreens standing tall. And the water tank, too.

“What’s that?” Zak pointed to the rusty cistern.

“That’s where Grandma used to skinny-dip when she was a little girl.”

My son’s eyes popped wide open at hearing his grandmother swam naked outside. His interest perked as I told the story of Confederate soldiers marching by the farmhouse on their way to Gettysburg. A different branch of our family claimed it was Union troops and Ulysses S. Grant. And that the future President of the United States plucked and ate some fruit from one of our trees. Regardless of which tales were fact and which were sprinkled with folklore, I wanted Zak to know his forefathers witnessed Civil War history in the making.

I described the house once full of antiques and heirlooms. I explained how our relatives canned fruit in Mason jars, and then stocked them on wooden shelves in the cellar. How the women washed clothes with the old wringer washing machine in that same dirt-floor basement. I told him about the farmhouse being a tollhouse also. How family members dreaded their turn at collecting tolls in the late evening and early morning hours. How they served cookies to motorists. Zak tilted his head as I explained how the term Toll House Cookies evolved. A few miles down the road, I showed him the cabins my great-aunts once owned and maintained—a safe haven for weary travelers during the 1900s.

I forgot to mention that one of those aunts concocted a secret recipe for peach brandy that packed a punch.

Photos of my son with the farm in the background remind me of God’s tender mercy. The Lord healed the regret in my soul as I retold the family stories to the next generation. What history I missed sharing with Zak during his youth, God made happen by orchestrating an impromptu visit faraway from our home out west. Our Father does exceedingly abundantly above all we could ever imagine.

Habakkuk 1:5 “Be utterly astounded! For I will work a work in your days, which you would not believe, though it were told you.”