The Farm This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

March 15, 2011
Custom User Avatar
More by this author
My dad grew up in Florence, South Carolina on 125 acres. We have always called it The Farm. There’s a small vineyard, a field of blueberry trees, and fig and apple trees scattered throughout. But other than that, it’s never actually functioned as a farm. It nearly borders 1-95 and was once lined with a thick wall of enormous magnolia trees that my grandfather planted by hand when my dad was a child. The city widened the road five years go, flattening the trees and exposing the front section of the gravel driveway before it winds and disappears into the thick woods of pine, draped with Spanish moss. The city replaced the magnolias with saplings that stand a meager eight feet tall, withered and slouching. They were supposed to root last year, but we recently found that the city planted them in the concrete they dumped from the widening. The trees will most likely never grow.

The entrance used to be a well-kept secret. It endured as everything around it developed into a suburban sprawl. As a child I used to imagine that people would drive by in awe, wondering what this place was. They would marvel just as I did. I would call The Farm my home once my parents retired and moved there. One day, my kids would long to have this place as their own. Now it’s just a field of over-grown pines. Now people park their cars inside the gate that’s always open and pick from the apple trees that line the driveway. Only once has my dad found people curious enough to park at the end and wonder around the property, looking for flowers to pick.

In the spring, a line of daffodils on either side of the driveway leads to the sturdy white brick house with black shutters. The front door opens to a large room, with white crown molding and olive green paint, cracked and peeling. My aunt claims it’s not lead-based, but I’m not convinced. The left side of the room functions as a family room, with an assortment of chairs and couches framed around an oriental rug. In the center of the left wall sits a gas fireplace with a portrait of my grandmother hanging above it. Facing my grandmother on the opposite side of the room hangs a portrait of my grandfather in his Virginia Military Institute uniform. It sits above an antique buffet table that matches the dark cherry wood dining table. The only divide between the left and right sides of the room is a stretch of hardwood flooring that is left uncovered by the two rectangular area rugs. As a child, my dad pulled a three-inch splinter out of his heel after sliding across the floor. It wasn’t changed then and it hasn’t been changed since.

Paintings and portraits hang on the walls throughout the rest of the house. There are three copies of a portrait of my dad’s grandfather, the original Marion Dubois. My dad blames him for raising his dad to be a mean, bitter man. He and his wife, whose name I’ve never known, were cold and entitled. When my grandmother, a docile, saint-like woman, met them for the first time, she asked her future mother-in-law what she should call her.

“You can call me Queen,” she replied.

The only other story I’ve heard about them was when they drove my grandfather to college at VMI, dropped him off at the curb and drove away. No one speaks about them much.

The maze-like hallways are narrow and cluttered with various end tables and coat racks. White, paint-chipped doors lead to closets, rooms and bathrooms, none of which are located in a logical manner. I assume the doors used to shut at some point, but now it’s as if they’re all half an inch too big, swollen to the wrong size for the frames in which they were intended to fit. I’ve had a few close calls after forcefully shutting the doors, only to find myself frantically twisting the crystal-like door handles upon trying to leave. A delicate turn to the left and a kick on the door usually does the trick.

My grandparents, Nannie and Pop, lived at The Farm until 2006 when my grandmother began forgetting about the oven and nearly started a few kitchen fires. Her memory had been deteriorating for years, but we could never justify taking them away from The Farm, from where they belonged. When I was little, Nannie would play piano and speak French and needlepoint. She would hold Pop’s hand with unwavering devotion. She loved him through his bitterness and defended him when he said hurtful things. I used to wonder how my dad could feel so displaced with a mother like Nannie. But no amount of her love could make up for what my grandfather lacked.

After Nannie and Pop moved to assisted living, the management of the house and the property was handed over to my dad and his sister, Ruth, the only Lucas children among three other half siblings, Finley, Sherry and Robin. My dad and his sister left Florence as soon as they could. The rest never found reason to leave. They frequent the country clubs. They organize debutant and society parties. Finley’s husband, Albert II, and their son, Albert III both hunt. Albert IV just learned how to walk, but I’m sure he will hunt, too.

My dad, Marion Dubois Lucas III goes by “Luke,” short for Lucas. He received plenty of ridicule for his name growing up. “Who the hell is Marion Dubois Lucas III?” his PE teacher once asked during roll call. He did not wish the same for my oldest brother. He figured Marion William Lucas was a fair compromise. We call my brother “Will.”

In his twenties, my dad moved to Northern Virginia to go to seminary. My mom had always lived there and was working at a hospital near D.C. I don’t know much about how my parents met, but I think it was some sort of set up by mutual friends. I’m not sure why I never asked, but I suppose I sensed there wasn’t much a story. Their divorce became official this past January, months short of their twenty-fifth anniversary.

Dad never fit in in Northern Virginia. His accent was the first indication. Everything about his southern upbringing clashed with the fast paced, cutthroat nature of the metropolitan area. On my brother’s second grade field trip to Gettysburg, the tour guide encouraged the kids to reenact Pickett’s Charge by running across the battlefield. My dad led the group of seven-year-olds in a full sprint, yelling, “DIE YOU YANKEE BASTARDS!” I’m sure all the private school parents thought he was a bigot. A bigot who never went to soccer games or served on the PTA. He was an introvert who shrunk in most social situations. But he always had a brilliant appreciation for humor. He knew people assumed he was ignorant the minute he said things like “daggum” and “all y’all.” Most wouldn’t know it, but he hated the bigotry of the Old South. He was ashamed of the racism in his childhood home. He left to escape it all. But he loved giving yankees grief. Grief for their yankee mannerisms, their yankee accents, their yankee road rage.

Most people probably thought he wasn’t capable of joking. But he led the charge anyway without explanation or apology. His sense of humor was vicious.

Despite any pride he had for the harmless facets of southern culture, I always sensed contempt from my dad about his upbringing. Whenever we spent time at his childhood home, my dad grew dark. He grieved in this place where I found my childhood wonder. On the drives down to Florence, he was silent while my mom would talk about her dreams to live there once they retired. The drive from Fairfax to Florence always took ten hours. The five of us would load in the gold Honda Odyssey, fighting over legroom and the bucket seats. Sometimes our dog came, fitting somewhere between our feet and the snacks stuffed in paper grocery bags. My two older brothers and I bickered and teased and yelled until my mom threatened to turn the car around or begged my dad to intercede. He hardly ever did, stilled in his silence, and we never turned around. We played X-Box and made forts to pass the time, my brothers often getting a kick out of excluding me. I was an easy target. I whined and tattled and cried, none of which helped my case.

“Do I need to turn the car around? Katharine, I think you’re being too sensitive. Luke, you handle the boys, I’m driving.”

Sometimes we’d stop at a Cracker Barrel. Sometimes we’d stop to walk the dog. Sometimes we’d stop to stretch when traffic was crawling.

“Look, daddy!” I’d yell when we would approach the South of the Border theme park. The enormous tower topped with a fluorescent sombrero loomed on the left of I-95, marking our near arrival to Florence.

“The hat!”

We would always arrive an hour later than expected, having left an hour later than planned. The spitting gravel of the tree-lined driveway awoke any sleepers. Arriving at The Farm always felt like big victory.

I can’t remember the last time we made one of those trips. At some point in junior high, my mom traded the mini-van for an Acura MDX. There wasn’t room for the five of us and certainly no room for the dog. So we took two cars. Sometimes my dad left a few days ahead of us, escaping the chaos of a full house of my mom’s relatives. I used to think he was eager to get to The Farm to spend the holidays with his family. But he was just as overwhelmed with his own siblings as he was with my boisterous family from Southwest Virginia. It was a subtle retreat as he removed himself from the picture.

By my sophomore year in high school, my mom stopped talking about her dreams to live at The Farm. She avoided the topic like she had avoided acknowledging the slow deterioration of her marriage for years. She didn’t talk about grandkids and family reunions and how to restore the old white brick house. None of it was hers anymore. Christmas of my senior year, my parents signed the separation papers. My dad went to The Farm by himself that year. He wasn’t escaping and he wasn’t visiting family. He was finalizing an unspoken move that we had all anticipated. Northern Virginia was never his home.

“Is he going to fix up that old house?” my mom would ask me. “How can he live in a house full of so many bad memories?”

I had wondered the same of our own house. Hadn’t she?

A month before my graduation, he began to move everything out. My brothers were both out of the house and it was just my mom and me occupying that big, empty space. He took trips back and forth from Fairfax to Florence, but I never really knew where he was. I didn’t know where he was living in the mean time. I was completely removed. I stayed out as late as I could on weeknights and slept elsewhere on the weekends. If my dad and I made plans to get dinner, I cancelled them.

One day I came home and everything of his was gone. The garage, which was always more like a storage room, was emptied and pristine. His drum set was gone. The vacant hooks on the walls remained as the only evidence he had been there at all.

I had retreated like he had for so many years. I had missed it all. Growing up, I never saw a definitive shift of when my parents became cold. It just was always that way. My dad was the quiet type who spent most of his time drumming or playing golf. My mom never understood why he was so withdrawn. Why that humor of his had evaporated. But his job of many years as a pastor at an Episcopalian church was draining. He counseled people who drowned their puppies. He counseled people who cheated on their spouses and were abused. He had his own counselor to sort out what was his and what was thrust upon him. As he explained it to me later, he needed home to be a refuge from work. However, after years of bickering, work became his refuge from home. So he golfed more and drummed more and wasn’t present at all. I learned the art of escape from him.

I felt vacant after he left. In my early teens, I had been so angry with him for never knowing me. For never reaching out. But I hadn’t given him the opportunity. The only memorable shared experience we had was going to a Muse concert a few months earlier, where we reveled in the music together. We sang and swayed and shouted, but we hardly said a word.

Would we have talked even if we had been able to hear one another?

I knew my dad had always been scared. Scared to push us away like his father did. Scared to lose us in all our rage toward him for leaving. But now that he was gone, I didn’t feel rage. I didn’t feel anger or abandonment. I remembered the small things I had never taken into account. The picture of us he had on his desk at his office. The concerts he recorded for us to watch together. The books he thought I’d like to read. The cards and the flowers and the voicemails.

I was the one who had left.

Over the summer, I drove to The Farm in my Honda Fit to spend a few weeks with him before going to college. I gutted my room of all the belongings that made my house a home. It all fit neatly in my hatchback. There was no X-Box, no bickering, no threats to turn around. The drive took six hours. Once I unloaded everything, I could call The Farm my home.

I spent the rest of the summer there with my dad, without internet or much to do. I guess it was a form of retribution for neglecting his attempts to reach out to me months before. I wanted to prove that he mattered. That his home could be mine. Most days, we both did our best to settle in. But the house hadn’t changed at all from when he grew up there, and his drum set didn’t quite fit with the antiques.

I found very quickly that this place was not my home. I was a guest living out of a suitcase. Some mornings, my aunts and uncles would arrive early, dressed in Talbot’s and Brooks Brothers, to organize and divide up my deceased grandparents’ possessions. I would wake to their chatter about the quality of the different silvers and auctioning of furniture. I made sure to change out of my baggy t-shirt and sweats before emerging.

On a recent trip to The Farm, I asked my dad where my favorite centerpiece had gone. It was a set of two silver peacocks that faced one another on the dark cherry wood dining table, whose beautifully detailed feathered tails curved to form a circle.

“Finley took it. The dining room set and portraits are going, too. It’s all going. Even the rugs.”

He showed me the legal pad with everyone’s names next to their possessions. Everything was systematically itemized and divided. Everything was claimed.

I wondered why I had ever thought any of it was mine.

Later that day, my dad and I sat in his truck in the driveway, speaking about the divorce as the engine idled.

He stared blankly ahead and picked his fingers. He told me the divorce eats at him everyday. That he hurts daily because of what he had to do.

“I just hope you’ll forgive me,” he said, shaking his head. “I love you dearly and I’m so sorry if you feel torn or displaced.”

I’m not sure I’ll ever feel at home at either one of my houses. Neither of them will serve the purpose they intended to serve. There will never be rest in the vacancy of my house in Virginia, or familiarity at The Farm. But I don’t have to feel displaced. I don’t have to feel like a complete stranger in the places I reside, despite how temporary or fleeting they might be.

I don’t have to escape.

I imagine there won’t be much left the next time I go to The Farm. There will be no clutter of antiques. No portraits or rugs or silver, or even furniture. The Farm will be a shell. A suggestion of the house it once was.

It certainly won’t be my home.

Post a Comment

Be the first to comment on this article!

Site Feedback