Favorite Children and Other Family Relationships: a Story, Chapter 4
Returning to the winter of 1950 and Grandfather’s death, family conflict began. Lester, the oldest boy and successful businessman, was named administrator of Grandfather’s estate. He’d died without a will. Why he didn’t have one I cannot say. Was it his low opinion of lawyers, his refusal to accept the reality of his death, or simply that he didn’t care what happened?
After his death, the family had plenty of opportunities to discuss the future of the farm, and the Sunday gatherings of the brothers and sisters continued as before. Occasionally Father, Mother, Gary and I would slip away on a Sunday evening to visit Mother’s parents and sister Veda and her family, giving the remaining siblings an opening to discuss the future.
None of the men in the family could be described as voluble. An expression sometimes directed at Gary and me was “don’t talk unless you have something to say.” For Father’s sisters, “voluble” was an appropriate adjective.
Lester in particular seldom spoke. I remember watching him in the garage in his immaculate white lab coat (mechanics in those days wore lab coats) with not a speck of grease on it, arms crossed on his chest and left hand on his chin, peering down on the engine of an automobile, the customer standing anxiously to the side waiting for the verdict. After several minutes of listening to the engine, Lester would announce: “It’s the timing gear. It’ll cost $15. I’ve got one in stock.”
Then he’d turn away, walking to the next vehicle, while the owner of the car with the timing gear problem followed in his wake pleading with him to go ahead and fix it.
His sisters excused Lester’s taciturn behavior as resulting from his combat experiences in World War I. Father allowed as how Lester had never talked much before the war. In my interactions with him, his favorite subjects concerned hunting quails, pheasants and ducks and fishing “over on the Missouri River,” an hour’s drive to the West. Besides, after marrying Jettie Robertson, they started the Dodge and Plymouth dealership and Aunt Jettie did the talking for him and the dealership.
After Labor Day and before the corn was harvested, Aunt Dorothy, as usual speaking for the rest of the family, Lester absent hunting over on the River, told Dale, “We’ve decided to put the farm on the market.”
The starkness of the preemptory announcement, the absence of his other siblings, and the bearer of these bad tidings, his twin sister, shocked Father. I was living at home and driving the 15-mile round trip every day to Northwest Missouri State College from which my aunts had graduated in the 1930’s. Mother and I knew that Father had never accepted the idea of leaving the farm. Shortly after Grandfather’s death we began pleading with him to sit down with Lester and initiate a discussion to buy the farm from the estate using his one sixth share of the estate, a Federal Farm loan (a 30-year loan was priced at a 4% interest rate), and a small second mortgage loan, if needed, from the other five family members after they’d received the proceeds from the Federal Farm loan.
The next day Father drove into town. Lester confirmed he was putting the farm on the market after the current corn crop was harvested in November. Father returned from the meeting in a catatonic state.
The siblings stopped coming to the farm on Sundays. Prospective purchasers began to appear with the real estate agent to look at the property. Father continued the farm routine and, because of good fall weather, finished the harvest early.
Mother ratcheted up the pressure on Father to find another farm. He started looking at properties around Maryville and surrounding towns. Nothing suited him: the land wasn’t good enough or the properties were too large or too small or the farm buildings were inadequate or they cost too much and on and on. Our family anxiety level crept upwards as nothing seemed to be happening. Father said nothing but looked distracted. Mother was sullen, snapping at everyone, and raising her eyes when Father described the farms he’d seen.
Just before Thanksgiving Lester reported he’d sold the farm. The closing was on March 1 next year.
I was beginning to understand some things about my father that I hadn‘t thought about before. During his 47 years he hadn’t spent 47 nights away from the farm. This was where he’d lived his whole life – the same sunrises and sunsets every day in every year. He was born in the bedroom, occupied by his father, in which his mother had later died. He had been in every corner of the farm innumerable times and had stepped at one time or another on almost every square foot of its dirt. The relationships with his siblings were interconnected with these acres. The grammar school he attended for eight years, his only schooling, was a mile down the road. This community had given him a lifetime of friends.
On Friday after Thanksgiving, I decided to take action. I cornered Father in the living room.
“Dad, I know this has been a tough year, what with Grandpa dying and your brothers and sisters selling the farm. But on February 28 next year, you’ve got to be out of here.”
Father stared at me.
“You’ve looked at several places in the past month or so, probably about all of the farms that are up for sale that you can afford. Now, here’s what you’ve go to do.”
I could see he didn’t like the tone of my voice, but he didn’t say anything, and we continued looking at each other.
“I want you to think back over all the places you’ve seen and decide which three are the best. On Monday morning, get in the car and go look at each one again. I’ll take care of the chores while you’re away, so take as long as you want.”
He started to say something and stopped.
“When you’re looking at these farms, don’t think about whether you like them or not and don’t compare them with this place. Decide which one of the three, come next spring, you’d rather be planting corn on. That’s all. Everything else will work itself out when you’ve made that decision. Okay?”
“Okay, “ he finally said.
On Monday morning he left and didn’t come back until Thursday evening while I was finishing the chores.
As we were sitting down to supper, he said: “We’re moving to Cameron.”
Mother and I had never been there but we knew it was about 70 miles away. He began describing the farm he had selected, the house and out buildings and its proximity to the town of Cameron. Mother hadn’t seen it, of course, and later she told me she didn’t really care. She just wanted a decision out of him, and she was prepared to make do with anything.
When spring came, they moved to Cameron to the farm they lived on for the rest of their lives. It was a perfectly good farm, I thought.
“Just as good,” or if he were feeling really chipper, “better than the one we had in Maryville,” Father would say.
“ I don’t miss Maryville at all. Cameron’s got more goin’ for it than Maryville,” he’d report when I visited them. Father was accomplished at making lemonade from sour lemons. Mother definitely liked Cameron better than Maryville. She soon returned to bookkeeping at a lumberyard and a few years later became an officer at the bank. In storybook terms, they lived happily ever after until Mother’s death in 1989.
The relationship among Father and his brothers and sisters, however, was never the same. They managed to get together two or three times a year, talk on the telephone occasionally, exchange Christmas cards and attend each others’ funerals as one by one they died.
As for favorite children, I learned that life might have a happy ending even if we aren’t favorite children.
After Father’s funeral in 1992, Mother having predeceased him, I drove up to Maryville from Cameron to have a last look at the Babb family farm. It looked about the same as it did when I lived there. The tennis court and golf links were gone. I didn’t stop.
* * * The End * * *