When I was a youngster growing up in northern Idaho, my grandparents managed a farm that belonged to Bonner County. Around Sandpoint, which was the county seat, it was known simply as “the county farm,” a massive, 25-room brick farmhouse that rose like a fortress from the pasture land that surrounded it.
The farm was home to about 50 old men who had no place else to go and no one else to care for them. Back then, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, there were no federal or state programs of any size to care for the homeless, the downtrodden or the destitute. But in Sandpoint, Idaho, there was the county farm.
I am sorry to say I don’t know much about its history, though I understand it was originally the home of a wealthy man who owned a brick foundry on the property. Back then I was much too young to appreciate the farm’s significance, but now that I am older and can see what is going on in this country of ours, I am haunted – especially as Christmas nears – by the nameless faces of this nation’s homeless.
There was a story in the Oregonian a couple of Sundays ago about kids younger than my own who were living in the streets of Portland, eating out of garbage cans and hustling pocket change on street corners. Not far from Pioneer Square, where these kids hang out, old men like the old men of my childhood stand silently in long early morning lines, waiting for a hot meal. For most, it is as close to home as they will ever get.
Our careers and our busy families have made it too easy for us to dismiss the emptiness that fills these lives of despair lived out of sight out of mind. Most of us -me included – have never gone to bed cold, hungry or unloved. Perhaps this is the reason why these images of our national disgrace have become such a source of discomfort for me. There must be something more we can do to bring our nation’s homeless home again.
I believe my grandparents succeeded where our society is failing because they provided something money cannot buy: love; the milk of human kindness. There just doesn’t seem to be enough of it to go around any more. Besides, most of us simply assume someone else is doing the reaching out that we would do ourselves if only we could overcome our own uneasiness with our comfort and their discomfort; if only we had the time; if only.
Such sacrifice was never a problem for my grandparents, perhaps because they never forgot the hunger or the loneliness of their own childhoods. My grandmother grew up scrubbing floors on her hands and knees in a Twin Bridges, Montana orphanage that took her in when she was seven, after her parents died. My grandfather almost starved to death one boyhood winter in northern Alberta. His restless father was there chasing Colorado dreams that never panned out.
Thirty-two Christmases have come and gone since our last Christmas together on the farm. I miss my old friends – all of them gone too: Jim Reed, who let me help him gather eggs from the hen house, and who read to me before I could read by myself; Delbert Wendt, who was forever a boy, and who cared for an old whiteface bull he named Dallas; Charlie Westergard, a gentle man with a big heart who could fix anything; Charlie Steele, who taught me how to skip rocks on a nearby pond; wheelchair-bound Ernie Betton, who weeded my grandmother’s three-acre garden on his hands and knees, and whose broad smile always drew your eyes away from his arthritically disfigured hands and feet; Mr. Wespe, an imposing Swiss watchmaker who one Christmas crafted a beautiful crayon box for me from apple wood he’d gathered from a nearby orchard; and Mullins, an old Minnesota logger who stood with his hand over his heart whenever the Star Spangled Banner was played, even on television. They and all of the others who came in from the cold to share the warmth of the home my grandparents made for them also made my life richer.
I miss those bygone Christmas mornings when my granddad and I would go from room to room handing out wrapped presents. It never occurred to me that someone had to pay for those gifts. Years later, I learned that my grandfather had worked out an elaborate bartering scheme involving local merchants and charities and sides of beef and pork that he traded for trousers, gloves, shirts, socks and coats that kept the winter’s cold at bay. Simple gifts from the heart.
After the presents were opened, we would all gather around an old pump organ in the poker room to sing Christmas songs. A blue-haired organist from one of the local churches kept us on key, more or less. We had hymnals, but I’m pretty sure not a soul in the room could read music, except maybe the organist. And then there was the customary bottle of Christmas cheer for toasting the memories of those who had gone on to a better world. Thereafter we would retreat to the dining room for one of my grandmother’s spectacular Christmas turkey dinners – cooked over a wood stove so large that it had three fire boxes and two massive ovens.
After dinner, we would gather in the parlor for apple pie, ice cream and stories of unrequited hopes and dreams, all of them told by young men grown old who had worked their way west building the railroads that bridged our country and made us the greatest industrial power in the history of civilization. I had such admiration for them – these young men grown old. They were my heroes, and in many ways, they still are.
This Christmas morning I hope you will stop for a moment and count the blessings that fill your life, however small they may seem. And when you sit down to Christmas dinner amid the warmth of family and friends, take a moment to remember the homeless and destitute who live among us. They, too, have their stories.
I also hope that in this Season of Giving you will give something of yourself to your favorite charity. It is what Christmas is really all about – and it is what I remember most fondly about Christmas morning on the farm.
Christmas Morning on the Farm is adapted from an essay by Jim Petersen. It first appeared in Evergreen Magazine in December of 1988.