Winter was relatively quiet on the farm where I grew up. We spent more time with neighbors and relatives in the long, dark evenings, after dads and uncles had spent the day repairing farm equipment or logging.
In my memory, a lot of this wintry time takes place at my uncle’s comfortably ramshackle, two-story farmhouse. This house had a big potbelly stove in a spacious living room, where my aunt used to put me down for naps in a cupboard drawer and where we watched her “stories” with her in the afternoons. It had a huge kitchen, dominated by an enormous, legendarily cluttered table. I remember the smell of fried potatoes, and the sink filled with dishes, and—am I remembering this right? —an old, mangle washing machine in the corner.
But mostly, I remember the voices. On a given winter evening there might have been a dozen of us clustered around that table, perhaps with a kid or two perched on the countertops, balancing plates on their knees. Dinnertime was a sort of performance; speaking up was a big deal because it meant people would listen to you. If you didn’t have something worth saying, or better yet, worth laughing at, the conversational gods would quickly pass over you. There was a lot of pressure to be compelling.
Much more enjoyable was the after-dinner talk. Technically, this was a grownups-only zone. Kids had mostly scattered to the cousins’ attic bedroom or in front of the TV, leaving the adults to talk among themselves in a pleasant, low rumble, punctuated by laughter.
I was the kind of kid who is drawn to the delicious drone of voices like a bee to the sweetest nectar. So I was usually lurking around the edges of that big conversation, tucked under the table or burrowed into someone’s lap. In the same way I can hum certain songs from my youth without recalling more than a snippet of the lyrics, I could not tell you what the adults at that table spoke about. It didn’t matter to me in the least. It just mattered that the voices I loved were swirling around me like a protective cloud. It meant that the grownups were on the scene, and I was safe. (more…)