May is the time of year when lilac blooms appear in the share.
To be fair, we did not grow these.
The four ancient trees which bear the flowers came with the house when my parents purchased it in the early 1970s. At that point the farm had been abandoned for nearly thirty years. Even at the time, the gnarled, twisting trunks were massive, coppicing out from what must have been the location of some original, planted stem, heaving the soil upward and out around them as they went, as if they were not so much growing as erupting from the earth.
Originally there were five, ensconcing the house at almost every turn. As a teenager, I removed the one that stood abaft the front porch. It's scent was lovely, pouring forth through the dining room window in May. But it had the misfortune of blocking the view to the northwest where the warm-season sunsets were an essential companion at the balustrade after a long day of work. Extracting the tree was a two day task even when I was young and full of energy. The roll of terrain left in its wake remains an object to be negotiated with the lawnmower even to this day.
Perhaps because I am no longer young I wonder increasingly about whoever it was that planted that tree, who passed before me in this place and made it the place that it is. The lilacs – along with the house they boutonniere, large and artfully detailed for a rural residence of the era – testify to someone's enthusiasm and ambition and passion for our farm. The five bedrooms of the house were obviously intended for many children; the tall ceilings, fine moldings, and serving window from pantry to dining room show a determination to live urbanely and well in what what would otherwise have been a remote, difficult and demanding location in the late 1800s. Lives were lived here, blood and tears shed, the place loved, the lilacs enjoyed. Then, after decades, the place was forsaken, abandoned through three additional decades. Now I have been here almost five more; bled, loved, all of that. The lilacs still delight me each May, and I am thankful.
Through most of my years of wondering who had built the house and planted the trees, the past remained a cipher. When I inherited the farm in 2013, I received an abstract of title which at least provided names of past owners and the dates of their occupancy. From the 1850s forward, there were many of them, but none here for more than a handful of years, perhaps either speculating on the land, or clearing some of its timber for cash, or venturing a failing shot at agriculture.
Then, in 1890, “Herman Gates” appears on the document. He draws a mortgage against the property – presumably to build a house – and pays it off by the end of the decade. Ownership does not change again until 1936. Since the house dates from this period, it is certain he was the one who saw it built.
The title abstract finally provided me a name to associate with my wondering. Gates was presumably the only other person – save for his wife and children – who had enjoyed so long a tenure in this spot as I have.
Why should this have mattered so much to me?
I'm not sure I can articulate the reason I imbue it with so much meaning other than that I am natively very attached to place, and time is a slow but inexorable welder when it comes to the things we love – physical objects and places as well as people. Even absent the passion and investment that caring requires, there is something simple and inevitable about the slow bonding that transpires between ourselves and something that is part of our lives as the seconds slip endlessly away – we may observe its slow changes, its rhythms, its gradual evolution, but in any case we feel a sort of devotion both from it and to it. Why this should be I find mysterious. If that thing in our lives is a piece of land that is feeding us – as the farm certainly would have done for Herman and his family, given the era in which they lived – then one also has the bond of physical being with the place, of holding the soil in one's hands and knowing that one day it will become one's hands (or some other part), of knowing that we grow from the soil in the most literal sense, like a mushroom, here, at this particular spot. Only the Gates family would have had the same decades-long bond at Hilltop as I have had, at least since the Ho-Chunk lived and died here for millenia prior to European occupation.
I would look at the name Gates on the title abstract, and on early plat maps for the area, and wonder what any of the family would have told me had I been able to talk to them; what had ever happened to make them disperse; where they had gone in their diaspora.
Then one Sunday morning a few years ago, two women appeared at the kitchen door – an unusual occurrence given the obscurity, length and typical condition of our driveway. They were sisters who had grown up on a family farm about a mile up the road and were on the genealogical trail of a grandmother who they understood was one of Herman Gates's daughters. After reeling in disbelief for a moment, I invited them in and inquired sooner rather than later whether they might possibly have a photo of Gates or his family. Oh yes, indeed, they did.
After having wondered for decades about the past occupants of the house and having given up all hope of discovering anything about them because time was burying that bit of history further and further in the unreachable past, suddenly, from nowhere, the past arrived on my doorstep, having been kept alive and nurtured by someone equally backward-looking as myself living just up the road.
I now have two photos of Herman Gates.
In one he stands with his bride, Wilhelmina Mueller, in 1890, decked out in his finest for their wedding. In the second, from the 1940s, a stern-looking old man bounces a baby on his knee, his daughter Alma – cognizably diminutive and round-faced like Wilhelmina – stands smiling behind with a fashionably dressed granddaughter to one side.
These “before and after” pictures now grace our walls; they fascinate me, and probably only me. The farm was undoubtedly much harder on the Gateses that it has ever been on myself. Still, they are the only other people who know it like I do, who share a bond with it of such length. As much as I would like to, I cannot hear their stories of this place, or tell them mine. Somehow though I think they might get a kick out of the fact that the old house came alive again after 30 abandoned years and near-collapse, and that 50 years after that, the farm is getting perhaps as much passion and creativity and love as it ever has.
Incidentally, I did receive one other set of photos from the two sisters – shots of the house from each of the four cardinal directions, dated 1936. I presume these were taken to help sell the property when Herman and Wilhelmina finally had to give it up and move into town. In each, the lilacs stand sentinel, every bit as big as they appeared in the 1970s or, for that matter, when I cut the blooms off of them last Sunday.
So the lilacs in the Memorial Day share were courtesy of the Gates family.
Thank you Herman and Wilhelmina.
And thanks to Loretta and Rochelle (Hawkinson) for sharing photos and genealogical information from their family.