[This essay was published in Red Cedar Review, Volume XXIV in the fall of 2022. Red Cedar Review is published by the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire through its Barron County Campus. It’s a print- only journal, and its editors and staff consider art, prose, and poetry from northern Wisconsin residents. I decided to post this essay in honor of Thanksgiving because when I reflect on my childhood, I’m very thankful for our old farmhouse and our wonderful neighbors.]
Wrapped in thin white clapboard, the two-story farmhouse built in 1907 was 57 years old when my parents, my two sisters, and I came to live there in October 1964. It looked older to my five-year-old mind, much older, in the way a person of thirty or forty seems very old to a small child. My parents sold their duplex in Milwaukee where rows of houses sat a handshake apart, fronted by sidewalks and busy streets lined with parked cars. They moved their dysfunctional marriage and children to a country road with a smattering of houses fronted by rural mailboxes and a narrow road, on which no one parked. From age five to seventeen, I lived there with my parents, two sisters, and a brother, born in 1967.
A week after we moved into our farmhouse, a knock rattled the front door that opened into our large kitchen, the kind where a farmer’s wife could cook a hearty meal to feed her husband, their children, and the farmhands all in one shift. Mom was working in the kitchen while my sisters and I played on the floor. She was twenty-four. Her face, scrubbed clean of makeup and her chestnut-brown hair pulled up into a pony tail, made her look far too young to be the mother of three small girls. She gave birth to me, the oldest, when she was eighteen.
Mom opened the old wooden door and on the other side of a modern aluminum screen door stood John Giese, Sr., whom we’d soon come to refer to as “Old Man Giese,” distinguishing him from his son, John Giese, Jr.
Old Man Giese stood on our front stoop, clutching two dead chickens by their feet, one in each hand. He and his three grown children, John Jr., Mildred, and Leona, lived across the street in a white farmhouse as ordinary as ours. But the Giese farmhouse, surrounded by fields to be planted and harvested; by cows and chickens to be fed and tended; by cherry trees, blackberry bushes, and current bushes bearing fruit to be picked and preserved, appeared grand. Our farmhouse, surrounded by two acres of mowed grass then acres of overgrown farmland, looked tired. Giese’s bright red barn stood proud in contrast to our barn layered with various shades of washed out red, which made it appear mostly pink.
“Ma’am,” began the old gentleman, for although he wore a frayed cap and shabby blue denim overalls, he exuded a dignity the two dead chickens and his working clothes couldn’t erase. Old Man Giese was the first real farmer I ever met. My previous knowledge of farmers came from watching Mr. Green Jeans on Capitan Kangaroo, and in my five-year-old mind, Old Man Giese was the opposite of Mr. Green Jeans in every way.
Mom, a city girl, gawked at his welcoming gift of two dead chickens. She knew nothing about cleaning them.
“Your dog,” Old Man Giese continued, “killed my chickens.”
Fritz, our six-year-old German shepherd, lay on the family room floor and made no move to join the conversation.
“I’m so sorry,” Mom said. “Can I pay you for the chickens?”
“No, just keep the dog off my farm, ma’am.” Old Man Giese put his back to us. A lifeless chicken in each hand, he descended our front stairs and returned to his farm. He never called on us again, and a few years later he, too, would be dead, gone to join his wife who died before we arrived.
Mom, relieved she wouldn’t have to clean chickens but mortified Fritz might have killed them, shut the door and strode into the family room. “No chickens,” she yelled at Fritz. “Never again.” He understood and stayed away from the Giese farm, but he still ran loose, up and down the country roads, chasing female dogs in heat.
That evening at dinner, she told Dad, “At first I thought the chickens were an apology for his cows chomping on our lawn the morning after we moved in.” But the chickens had been an indictment, not an apology.
In our new neighborhood, Fritz had committed the first faux pas, setting the standard by which my family’s behavior could be explained. When my parents fought in the middle of warm summer nights, their shouts crawling in and out of open windows, the neighbors could say, What do you expect? Their dog kills chickens. When my sisters and I threw apples at passing cars, but the parents of two older, well-behaved children, from down the road got a visit from the police, their parents could say, They can’t control their dog either. When Dad sped down the country road or set off cherry bombs in our yard, the neighbors could say, What do you expect from a man who lets his dog ignore good-neighbor etiquette?
Our existence in the neighborhood was like a hoppy beer—an acquired taste. Some people come to love the taste of hops, but others can’t force it past their taste buds. Most of the families up and down our sparsely populated road came to accept us, and we were welcomed into their homes and yards. Only two families never warmed to us, not bad considering our parents’ occasional nocturnal fights, dad’s shenanigans, and our string of dogs that never stayed home.
Dad, despite his bad-boy-James-Dean manner, was handsome and charming. An excellent mechanic, he was always willing to lend a hand to neighbors and offer them a beer. Mom was hard-working and friendly, and if she borrowed a cup of sugar or a roll of toilet paper, she always repaid her debt. My siblings and I stopped throwing apples at cars, and we behaved ourselves so no one had to call the police on us again. We were polite or Mom would’ve walloped us or grounded us for life, depending on the prevailing winds of her mood that day. Most of the neighbors decided we were okay.
And the Gieses? They didn’t hold Fritz’s chicken incident against us. After all, their cows had grazed in our front yard the day after we’d moved in. Old Man Giese and his son fixed their fence, and the cows stayed home. Fritz defied fences, but he obeyed Mom’s command and stayed out of their yard and away from the chickens, easy for him because they didn’t own dogs. To prove there were no hard feelings, when my siblings and I were old enough to cross the road, the Gieses gave us an open invitation to play in their yard, to eat fruit from specific trees and bushes, and to cross their fields in winter to ice skate on the frozen river running through their property.
None of Old Man Giese’s children had youngsters of their own. Looking back, I believe they enjoyed seeing us run through their yard, roll down the hill by their barn, and eat the fruit they grew. I believe they smiled when they heard our voices on the winter wind, echoing through the trees as we skated on the frozen waters just behind their fields. And I wonder what they thought, when as a teenager, I sat on a large tree stump near the barn and talked to their cows, who gathered by the fence, eager for gossip about my teenage troubles.
[I want to thank the editors and staff of Red Cedar Review for selecting my essay for their Fall 2022 issue. The ending of this essay is slightly different from the version that appears in their 2022 issue. I added the last two sentences because I felt the ending was too abrupt. As a writer, I often see ways to improve something I’ve written, even after it has gone to press.]