That old house

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My wife and I have two houses on our farm. It’s not that we’re wealthy; it’s more that I’m a victim of my frugal Norwegian ancestry.

My great-grandfather Charlie Sveen left Norway in 1886 to homestead a farm in eastern Dakota Territory. Charlie lived in a sod shanty at first but was soon able to afford a house made of wood.

Charlie and his wife, Anna, eked out a living and raised their family on our farm. Their daughter, Elida, eventually married my grandfather, Erwin.

Erwin purchased our farm in the 1930s. Erwin and Elida had seven children, one of which was my father.

In 1963, Erwin decided to build a new house. He didn’t quite know what to do with Charlie’s old house, so he hired a bulldozer to shove it out into our shelterbelt.

My wife and I purchased our farm and started dairy farming with my parents in 1983. My wife took one look at that old house in our grove and declared it a hazard. I agreed that we should make a bonfire of it when conditions were right.

I decided to inspect the old house to see if anything valuable had been left behind. Time had exacted a heavy toll. The porch had collapsed, the windows were gone, and the roof was rotting. Upon entering through a window, I got the distinct impression that skunks had resided beneath the floorboards.

It was as though I had stumbled into a forgotten attic. I found such things as old calendars, a gunny sack stuffed with moldy clothes and a thermometer from a grain elevator. But what caught my attention was a cardboard box that overflowed with a hodgepodge of papers.

The box was a time capsule. I found a 1957 tax return, an aunt’s first grade report card and a church circular from 1962.

I spent a pleasant hour rifling through that box. Glancing around the house, I was astounded that nine people had lived there without plumbing or electricity. Dad once told me that, on cold winter mornings, the pail of water sitting beside the cookstove would be iced over.

I began to visit the old house regularly. Each visit rewarded me with new treasures.

The years rolled by and my visits to the old house became less and less frequent. Life became too hectic, and the old house again enjoyed the lonesome solitude of our grove.

Dad died of a heart attack one April morning when we were milking. My entire family was shocked and saddened, but none more than me. Dad wasn’t just my father. He was my business partner, my trusted adviser, my friend. And now he was suddenly gone.

There are some things that are unexplainable. Why I ventured out to the old house on that day shortly after Dad’s funeral is beyond me. It was as if the old house were calling me.

As I stood once again on the ancient linoleum, my eye was drawn to a jumble of papers on the floor. A singular envelope, yellowed with age, lay on top. A blue stamp on the envelope read “Cleared by Military Censors.”

How had I missed this precious artifact? Dad had served in the Navy during World War II and had written home whenever he could. Grandma had saved his letters only to leave them for me to find.     

For the first time in 50 years, daylight fell upon Dad’s handwriting.

The letter was dated September of 1944. Dad would have been somewhere in the South Pacific at the time and 18 years old.

I studied the familiar scrawl. Dad wondered how the oat harvest had gone and how his uncle’s new team of horses were working out. He supposed that his youngest brother was starting first grade. Dad asked Grandma to greet everyone and said that he missed them all.

Here was a homesick young man who had spent his entire life dwelling upon a sea of prairie grass. Now he was on a different kind of sea, an ocean that was roiled by the thunder and lightning of a world at war. Dad had grown up nurturing life; now he was a cog in a world-class killing machine.

My gaze fell to the bottom of the page. In carefully underlined print, my father had passed on one final message, sent long before I was born and received only after his death.

Tears flowed as I read the words that he had emphasized: “All is well here. Please don’t worry. I am doing fine.”

I made a fateful decision that day: that old house can stay there until it rots into the earth.

Jerry is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, have two grown sons and live on the farm where Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry works full time for Dairy Star as a staff writer and ad salesman. Feel free to email him at [email protected].

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