When we first moved into the farmhouse that had belonged to Jason’s grandparents, I noticed a newspaper clipping taped to the doorframe of the master bedroom:
“I am a young farm housewife who is spending her first year of marriage learning the ropes. I think the most important thing I’ve learned is appreciation—for the beauty and peacefulness of the country, for waking up in the morning and watching the sunrise or watching it set at dusk, for the work and heart that go into the land to make it productive. But most of all I appreciate my husband. I see him standing outside, tanned and muscular from hard work. I see a man who loves the land and animals and life. I think, as I watch him, if the world had more like him, what a glorious place this would be to live.” (A lover of life, Iowa)
Now, I can’t be sure, but I have suspected Denise is the “lover of life” describing her own experience as a newlywed to Gerald Selby. I’ll probably never know if she was the one to write and send this in to the paper, or if she just found a certain truth in the words of another “young farm housewife” and wanted to post this as a reminder to herself of her own feelings in the beginning of her marriage.
I have no other information, no date or even which newspaper this was clipped from. The tape keeping it in place is yellowed, so much that I’m surprised it can still grip the wall. The paper itself looks brittle, fragile, aged. This is one of the reasons I think Denise might’ve written it. She and Gerald were married for almost 70 years before his death in 2008. That would place her first year of marriage in 1939.
We’ve found numerous such things in this house, items that tell little stories about Jason’s grandparents. All of the “valuable” things were cleaned out long before we moved in, back when some of the land and most of the farm equipment were sold at auction after Denise’s death. So, what’s left here is the real treasure, the trinkets and knickknacks that—when pieced together—map out the decades of life spent together.
Here’s what I know about them:
They were simple people. But by “simple” I don’t mean unintelligent. Denise’s father was a doctor. Dr. Ingraham traveled the countryside by horseback to deliver babies. He was the one Denise trusted to deliver her five children. We’ve found volumes of doctor manuals and health textbooks, filled with anatomy diagrams and descriptions of medicine before we knew everything we do now about chemicals and technology. Dr. Ingraham belonged to the era of physicians who worked with their hands and their minds. Of course, I’m sure he would’ve appreciated access to our state-of-the-art facilities and computers, but he saved lives without the help of modern conveniences.
Denise and Gerald were sentimental. They held onto photographs, greeting cards and letters, sometimes tucking them into the pages of books. On the back of a painting of a duck flying over a pond, painted by 10-year old Grant, Denise wrote: “This picture must be returned to Grant Selby when I’m done with it.” I can imagine little Grant, fearful of losing his masterpiece, telling his grandma to give it back to him when she was done. And she, of course, understood his fears.
They were proud of their family. The very nature of farming requires families to dig their own roots deep into the land and stay put, leaving little opportunity for travel. Instead, Denise and Gerald have postcards from exotic locales, places where it’s always summer and never cools down to the temperature of our autumn harvest time. Though they never visited these places, they proudly displayed the cards and souvenirs from their children’s and grandchildren’s trips.
They were survivors. The refrigerator hosts magnets that detail the sicknesses they endured. There’s a pink ribbon that announces Denise’s triumph over breast cancer. Then, there are the magnetic business cards for their various doctors and specialists, as Gerald had skin cancer, leukemia, diabetes and had suffered a stroke and a heart attack. That’s what happens with strong people, they’re taken little by little. Too tough to be knocked out with one fell swoop, the maladies accumulate, breaking their systems down to weaken them to the point where they can no longer recover from something as simple as the common cold.
I came into the family after Gerald had already passed. When I met Denise, she seemed lost without the man she’d stood by for such a long time. She’d cared and cooked for her husband, and it seemed a piece of her had been taken when he left. At that point, the house—filled with keepsakes and reminders of their 70 years spent together—seemed like just that to her: a place filled with things. Long ago, she had learned the true value of life. And even if it wasn’t her that wrote about watching her husband—the man who loved the land and animals and life—Denise had gained the same appreciation for her husband and their life spent together on this south-central Iowa farm.