Posted on: February 20, 2012
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By Debby Buchanan
Abraham wiped the soot from his face, his fingers curled into fists. He watched the sparks from the pile of ashes shoot into the air only to burn out. His life, or what was left of it, was in those sparks.
This land, barn and house, passed down in his family for a hundred years, held the blood, sweat and tears of his ancestors. Their hard work and effort coated every inch of the farm as they worked to make a living from the earth. The fruit trees planted by his great grandmother stood in a perfect line and brought cobblers and preserves as the seasons passed. The fence built with its posts seven feet apart looked like soldiers standing at attention. His grandfather whitewashed that fence every year in the late fall. “Keeps the posts from rottin’,” he said to Abraham. But Abraham knew when the harvest ended his grandfather lost his reason to be. Sitting idly irritated his grandfather and he spewed out his crankiness like air from a tire with a nail. In order to escape his wrath Abraham and his grandmother often retreated to the upstairs guest room for private games of checkers. But after a few days his grandmother refused to take anymore of his grandfather’s venom and she ordered him out of the house. Each day his grandfather searched for jobs, no matter how insignificant, around the farm. He completed each one with perfection. “Ain’t no reason to do a job if you ain’t gonna to do it right.” Abraham as an impatient eight-year-old didn’t possess the same need for perfection. He remembered last year when he helped his grandfather close in the porch so his grandmother would have a washroom in the house. Up until then she carried the dirty clothes in the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter to the washhouse that sat down the hill. His grandfather, even though he found Abraham to be more of a liability than an asset, allowed him to hammer nails and saw boards. Abraham knew his grandfather redid all of his work and his grandfather knew Abraham knew, but neither of them ever spoke of it. This house, his beloved, weathered house, like the cigar box full of his childhood treasures, held all these memories and more. These memories escaped at family holiday get-togethers bringing smiles, laughter and many tears. Like an old friend, this house protected him from the cold Missouri winters and provided relief from the blistering July and August sun. But now the house and everything it watched over were gone. Abraham shivered from the cold growing inside his heart.
As much as he loved Northwest Missouri this year’s harsh winter brought unbearably cold temperatures and endless snow. Abraham traveled to visit his brother in the city to escape the cabin fever that kept him pacing and looking out the window for spring. They spent the day reminiscing about visits to the farm as kids when it belonged to their grandparents. Even though his brother loved the farm, his heart longed for the excitement of the city. His brother was always the adventurous one taking risks one after the other. When he was twelve on the hottest day of the summer he tried to swim across the river. Abraham watched his brother bob out of control like a cork on a fish line as the current carried him downstream. When Abraham saw him get snagged on a low hanging tree branch, he bolted toward the farmhouse. His feet pounded the hard, cracked August dirt as terrified he ran screaming and crying the two lonely miles. When his brother went out on his own he chose the thrills of the city. This left Abraham as the sole owner of the farm.
After an early dinner Abraham started home in his old 1981 Ford truck that showed the very beginning signs of rust. He bought that truck from a rather suspicious-looking used car lot down on St. Joseph Avenue. At that time the truck was only a year old, but sitting there all shiny and glistening in the sun, it spoke to Abraham. He knew he was almost broke and needed to keep what he had in the bank for the spring seed. But his brother, doing well in the city, had a new car. He didn’t want to be left behind, or let the makings of a bad farm economy control his purse strings at least not on this truck. Things will get better and I’ll cut back some.
The truck didn’t shine or glisten anymore, but he had cut back enough that he owned it outright. As he sang along to Willie Nelson the drive was uneventful. But when he reached the last hill leading to his driveway a faint smell of smoke greeted him. Cresting that hill even though the light was fading, he saw smoke trails in the sky. They floated up and disappeared leaving no evidence of their existence. He pulled into the driveway and couldn’t stop blinking as he tried to put out the memories smoldering in his eyes.
Abraham sat for what seemed like hours staring straight ahead, his eyes fixed on what was left. Not knowing what else to do he gave up trying to smother the silent, gentle cry that simmered somewhere inside him. In a matter of seconds the gentle tears turned to sobs that came and left him struggling to get his breath. His body shook and his head ached. Then his sobs turned to wails. He lay face down in the seat hearing his pain escape in bursts that mimicked city sirens warning of tragedy—his tragedy. Then, the crying became a whimper and stopped.
Abraham left the truck lights on and his eyes became wild like those of a hunting season deer. He stood shivering on the sidewalk leading to the ashes of his front door. As his fear turned to anger his short fingernails buried themselves deep into his palms.
He clamped his jaws shut until he felt the pressure of his top teeth pushing the bottom ones into his jawbone.
Abraham in spite of his biblical name never talked with God. But energized by his building rage he fell to his knees and screamed, “WHY?” He breathed slower and more shallow. He never doubted an answer would come. But after a few minutes in the darkened silence he knew he was on his own. He spewed all of his doubts about God’s existence into the air. Abraham cursed at God questioning the claims of God’s goodness and love for him. How could this be when He just destroyed what Abraham loved most? The wrongs in Abraham’s life surged to the surface and he stacked them one by one onto the head of God. Hatred and rage boiled in Abraham’s battered heart.
His tirade lasted no more than ten minutes but when it stopped, Abraham was cold and exhausted. He had little feeling in his fingers and toes as the cold north wind burned his cheeks. He thought of how good it felt that morning warming himself by his fireplace as he relaxed in his big easy chair. The indentations of the chair that were a perfect fit for Abraham’s body reminded him of his grandmother’s hugs. But now there were only a few bricks standing alone in the smoldering ruins. And except for a few springs, there was no evidence of the easy chair. Abraham never before realized he was just a spark away from nothing.
He crawled back into the truck and started the engine. He had enough gas to run the truck off and on throughout the night. He hoped a little sleep and the return of the morning sun were what he needed to make this scene only a nightmare. But as the dawn ended his restless dreams of days gone by Abraham realized this new day brought no peace.
Abraham ventured out of his truck as the sun started to rise. This early morning sunlight only magnified his devastation as it highlighted the lonely outlines of the appliances and bathroom fixtures. Terrifying thoughts raced through his head as he walked the perimeter of the house looking for anything to reclaim. For the past several years Abraham hoped things would get better. Competing with the industrial farmers who inched ever closer to his land grew more difficult each year. Abraham watched farmers around him put their entire soul into just breaking even. And he knew they tried to pretend breaking even meant a good year. He watched farm wives work at minimum wage jobs when their husbands failed to scratch a living from the dirt they worked so hard to tame. He saw farmers around St. Joseph become nothing but shells of manhood as their farms were taken one by one. Willie Nelson, with the help of Neil Young and John Mellencamp, even organized the Farm Aid concert in 1985 to help the family farmers. But it was too little too late. Determined to keep his farm, Abraham somehow survived with a little profit even in the leanest of years. But even after all the years of eighteen-hour days and short sleepless nights his house, the part of the farm he loved the most, was gone. He searched deep within his soul for a tiny bit of hope—just enough to survive this day.
Finding nothing of value in the remains and too distraught to dig further he sat down on the stump of the old apple tree he cut down last fall. The strong winds of a thunderstorm last spring ripped off two of its major limbs. In spite of this, the remaining parts of the tree struggled to produce apples, but by fall the tree was almost dead. Abraham loved that tree. As a boy he climbed to its top for his grandfather each year to pick the apples that hung on in spite of the autumn breezes. Abraham used the wood from dead trees for firewood, but this time he just couldn’t. This wood deserved better than to end up as ashes in his fireplace. Abraham felt sadness at the loss of this tree. He took the wood and built a table to put by his easy chair, carving his grandfather’s initials into its top. Each time he looked at that table his mind went back to those days high in the tree with his grandfather directing him from below to each apple. “Go to the next limb toward the East, there’s two of ‘em up there.” He heard his grandfather’s rough voice. It felt as rough as the sandpaper his brother dragged across the end of his forefinger. That was the day without a proper tool for pricking fingers they attempted to become blood brothers.
As he sat on the stump looking at his loss, he remembered the years when his grandfather lived alone in the house after Abraham’s grandmother died. The loss of his wife left him bitter and angry so Abraham never picked apples with him again. But most of all Abraham remembered how his grandfather stood in the yard under this apple tree looking toward the sky shaking his fists and railing at God. “She was too young for You to be takin’!” Abraham remembered his grandfather screaming, “It ain’t fair, it ain’t fair, it ain’t fair,” until it echoed across the farm.
Abraham’s grandmother was a special woman who knew no strangers. Her kindness and generosity known throughout Buchanan County made his grandmother a popular member of the farming community. Abraham loved spending time with his grandparents and he knew no one in his life ever cared for him as much as his grandmother. His brother locked him in the corncrib one day and went fishing with his friends. When his grandmother heard his screams and pounding, she rescued him. Then she used the tears glistening on his cheeks to teach him one of her lessons. “Abraham,” she said, “I want you to know how brave you are for letting me see your tears. For someone to know you deep down where it counts, to know who you are and what you are made of, you must show them your pain. What you do with your pain determines the life you get. If you keep your pain hidden blaming someone or something else for it, freedom is not possible. Abraham, own your pain. It is you and only you with the power to feel it, live it and let it go. Life goes on, my dear child, it goes on with you, or it goes on without you, but it goes on.” His grandmother saw his struggle in grasping her meaning. “Someday you will understand.”
Abraham knew his grandfather never learned this lesson. He watched life go on without his grandfather after his grandmother died. It was as if for the next five years, the harvest had ended for his grandfather and never began again. One day worn out from his private battle with God he got into his old beat up truck and drove to the river. A few hours later Abraham’s father, unable to get his grandfather to answer the phone, went looking for him. He found him sitting in the setting sun, his fishing pole in one hand, his pistol in the other. When Abraham’s father returned with the news of his grandfather’s death, tears rolled down his father’s cheeks landing on his shirt like raindrops in a downpour rolling off a roof. Abraham had never seen his father cry. But that day Abraham started to understand his grandmother’s lesson.
Abraham continued to sit on the stump. It was warmer today than any other day this winter. He saw the snow melting leaving behind small puddles like land mines in his yard. It confused Abraham as to why he now felt compelled to remember his grandfather’s bitterness and hatred toward God. Then his thoughts shifted to the night before when he fell to his knees seeking answers, but getting none. He blamed God, doubted God, cursed God. He felt in those minutes bitter and full of hate. The one thing he loved most in the world, his house, was gone. Would he spend the next five years in a private battle with God cursing at the sky only to lose like his grandfather? Abraham got on his knees and looked up. He cried out as if again locked in the corncrib. Then his grandmother’s words came back to him stronger than ever before, “Feel your pain, live it and let it go.”
As the melting snow soaked into the knees of Abraham’s jeans, his crying continued. Through his aching heart he felt his grandmother’s finger brush his cheek and he saw his father’s tear-stained shirt. He now understood if there was a God it was not His responsibility to take away Abraham’s pain. “Own your pain,” he heard her say. “Life goes on, my dear child, it goes on with you, or it goes on without you, but it goes on.” Abraham swallowed hard as he looked across the burned out remains of his house. I have the courage, the strength and the knowledge to start over. Now I need a reason. It was only late February, but in front of him appeared from nowhere a tiny bit of hope. The little robin, oblivious to the significance of its visit, hopped along the edge of the ashes. Abraham watched the bird and knew he’d found his reason.


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