I almost stole a fish basket. I was fifteen when the family converged on the old farmhouse to divvy up its contents. My great-grandparents had a crackerbox of a house. The story was that someone found the house in a dry creek bed, and hitched it to some horses who pulled it out onto the property.
The annex they added always felt tacked-on. It housed the indoor bathroom and electric washer and dryer. Next to it, the main house was its own animal, rectangular and thin-walled, just like a box of Saltines. Except shorter. It was only two stories. I think Saltines would be three.
My great-grandparents were fond of saying, “When we die, just tear this place down. It’s no good.” This modesty and lack of sentimentality was strange to me.
“Crackerbox” may sound snotty, and I don’t mean to suggest that the house wasn’t comfy and neatly kept. The rooms were simple and the furnishings merely serviceable. Great-grandma served me vanilla ice cream in a pink bowl. Great-grandpa sat in his chair wearing his overalls and spoke slowly. “Well…” he would begin, then pause.
My great-grandma was a schoolteacher, like me. She married late. It was a mixed marriage: Norwegian Lutheran and German Lutheran. Great-grandpa had quite a time convincing her he was mature enough for marriage. She held out for several years. Taught in a one-room schoolhouse. Let him grow up– he was younger than she was. “Marry a younger man,” she told me. “That way, you’ll die about the same time.” And they did.
I had never been upstairs until the day the house was picked clean. My great-uncle lived upstairs. He had suffered some brain damage at birth, and lived at home until his parents died. He scared me. His face squashed and pulled up in the wrong places, and his clothes were extra nerdy, even for a country guy.
The furniture and keepsakes of significance had already been distributed. As one of dozens of great-grandchildren, I could have unopened face powder, a cheap watch, a picture of two little kids in overalls, standing in front of a plowed field, shrugging. I took the watch. My wrist was as tiny as grandma’s. And upstairs I found a basket.
It had a long strap, like a purse, and a flap on top. I hadn’t the slightest idea what it was intended for. Like most ignorant city folk, I only saw my own purpose.
As I headed for the rickety stairs to stash my find, my great aunt stopped me. “Oh, honey,” she said. “That’s Dale’s. We need to leave that for him.”
As gentle as a pink bowl of vanilla ice cream, she told me this, but I still flushed wildly. I already felt weird about playing vulture, and now I knew I was pecking at a live one. I mumbled sorry and surrendered the basket. “It’s for fish,” she explained. “You put your fish in it after you catch them.” I had never been fishing. I was a vegetarian.
On the farm, we got muddy. We found a car half buried in the ground. We held barn kittens. We played hide and seek in the cornfield. When I was little, great-grandpa took me for a ride on his horse. I was never of the farm, though. The house smelled weird, so that it was hard for me to eat the ice cream. It smelled stale, like old linoleum and dry cardboard and cheap linens. The chicken coop was always boarded up, in my memory. The silo was empty, and we called it “the monkey house.”
So if I didn’t know what to take from the farm, that made sense. I didn’t know the smell of the cows or the shape of the milking equipment– the dairy operation was long gone. I couldn’t shoot a squirrel or drive a tractor, let alone guide a slippery fish into a basket.