Farmer Teacher

Oh, for the Love of the Internet

Yesterday, I posted a piece on fall in which I began with James Whitcomb Riley’s well-known poem, “When the Frost Is on the Punkin,” and briefly described the geometry teacher who first introduced me to that poem, if not poetry in general. Memory is a tricky thing and when I wrote that her name was Ms. Conroy it never occurred to me that it might be something else. Until after I posted. Late in the night, after turning in, I had the nagging feeling that her name had not been Ms. Conroy but rather Ms. Conrad. Shortly after pouring my morning coffee, I dug out my sophomore yearbook.

Mary Agnes Conard. Not Conroy, not Conrad, but Ms. Conard.

With her full name, my next thought was to search for her online. I Googled, “Mary Agnes Conard Bloomington Indiana” and with the literal push of a button I found a list of articles, including her obituary, on Ms. Conard. She died in 2010 at the age of 96. Four years earlier, she was the subject of an article in Bloom Magazine, a publication with the tag line of “Celebrating Life in Bloomington, Indiana.” Click here for the article and photos of Ms. Conard who, though a good bit older than when I knew her, was exactly as I had remembered and described her.

In the short homage to her life, I learned my assumptions were correct–Ms. Conard had been a farmer all her life. She never spoke of farming as far as I can recall, but her appearance along with the way she moved, pushing past pain to get to the blackboard, reminded me of my great-grandmother, Martha Swanson, who was also an Indiana farmer. Grandma Swanson died the year before I took geometry, and the comparison of her to Ms. Conard readily presented itself.

That the World May Be Different

I went to a different high school in a different state each of the four years, beginning and ending in Ohio. Two teachers influenced my learning well beyond the time I was in their classrooms. My freshman year, I took Latin with Ms. Kauffman. Before Latin, I regularly received top grades in classes I liked (English, history, art) and failed courses I didn’t care about (math and science). I loved Latin and it kicked my ass. I had to work for an A, which I finally achieved in the last grading term and the effect was pivotal. From then on, all my grades mattered to me and I was addicted to academic success.

I tried harder in Ms. Conard’s geometry class than in previous math courses, perhaps in part because I took it the year after Latin with Ms. Kauffman. However, a good part of my disdain for the subject was that it intimidated me and it seems just as likely that I engaged in Ms. Conrad’s math class because nothing about her was intimidating. Her deep wrinkles were reasonably caused by exposure to the elements, but certainly the other culprit was the way she smiled with the entirety of her face.

Children know when they are in the presence of a teacher who loves her job, just as surely as they know the opposite. In life, negatives experiences are often the easiest to recall. Most folks only remember one, two, or if lucky, a handful of teachers who made learning, if not a joy, than a task worth working for.

James Whitcomb Riley was like a rock star during his lifetime. For many years he toured the country reading his stories and poems at sold out performances. When he died in 1916, the population of the entire United States was only  a little over one million, yet more than 35,000 people passed Riley’s casket during the ten hours he laid in state. Ms. Conard was particularly fond of Riley because, like her, he was a native Hoosier.

Less than twenty years after his death, Riley’s writing fell out of favor. Today he is considered by many to be a minor poet whose work is sentimental and clichéd. But young people still enjoy him. I still enjoy him. When I teach middle schoolers, I bring his collected works with me and read his poems to the students when I can. The kids often ask me to repeat certain pieces. In fact, I don’t remember a class when they haven’t. And when autumn arrives in Ohio, looking much as it does in neighboring Indiana, I think of Riley’s autumn-praising poem and of an unassuming teacher who nurtured my desire for comprehensive learning. In so doing, she changed my world.

Again, here is the article on her life. I hope you’ll read it. Even if you don’t, click the link and take a look at her beautiful face.


The Love of Fall

They’s something kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here—
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin’-birds and buzzin’ of the bees;
But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.


I first heard James Whitcomb Riley’s “When the Frost is on the Punkin,” when my tenth grade geometry teacher read it to the class. Ms. Conard wore polyester dresses that looked home sewn without the benefit of a pattern, boxy garments that covered her solid torso. Often placing a fist on the top of her desk as she rose from her chair, Ms. Conard ambled as she walked to the chalkboard and looking back I suspect her hips were arthritic. Her straw-like hair was kept in what could only be described as a bowl cut and possibly trimmed with the same shears she used to cut the fabric for her dresses. Her face bore the deep lines of someone who spent more time out in the elements than indoors teaching math to sleepy teens, but the eyes in that weathered head were bright and generally merry. I suspect, though never bothered to ask, she was also a farmer. Each Monday, she wrote a new quote across the top of her blackboard and at the beginning of every class, she read us a poem. Hers was the only math class I can say I ever enjoyed and not just for the poetry; I left her classroom with the unfamiliar feeling that I had mastered a math lesson.

punkinsAs autumn stops flirting and settles in, cool weather no longer restricted to the evenings, I begin pulling out the children’s coats and hats, checking the collection of gloves and mittens to see how many pairs we have, and I think of Riley’s autumn-praising poem. In the last stanza, he says if the angels came down from heaven looking for a place to stay, he’d want to board them in the fall, when the land is color-steeped and the farm work nearly finished.

Here in Northeast Ohio, the rolling forested land affords vistas of autumn color as the trees prepare to shed their leaves. Next to the Waldorf school my younger children attend is a grove filled with maple trees. Each spring, galvanized buckets hang from taps on the maples’ trunks as the neighboring farmer collects and sugars the sap. In the fall, the leaves on sugary maples become a yellow so bright they seem illuminated from within. In 2007, the fall weather gradually cooled allowing the leaves to slowly turn. Few of the leaves had yet fallen from the trees when, in late October, the first hard frost hit. After I dropped the kids at the school, my dogs followed me on a stroll through the maple grove in the early morning light. The frost had severed the hold of the leaves, which were descending in a brilliant shower of color. But what struck me was the loud clattering noise the frozen leaves made as they knocked into each other on their way to the ground. It sounded like the snapping beaks of a large flock of geese.

Favorite Season?

I think of autumn as my favorite time of year. But I forget two things. The first is with a household of children returning to school, September often plagues us with the first, if not the worst, round of head colds of the school year. It’s particularly rampant when the youngest children have yet to master proper hand washing techniques and are content smearing the mucous “elevens” onto their sleeves. A friend once told me that if babies and toddlers were international spies, all it would take to get them to talk would be to wave a tissue and threaten a nose wiping.

The other thing I forget is the panicked urgency that comes over me as I wake each morning with a new and longer list of things to do for fall cleaning. I suspect the notion of spring cleaning arose from the days when nearly all homes were heated with wood. When warm weather arrived, everything would be pulled out and wiped down. I’ve cleaned homes that are heated with wood stoves and each load of burning lumber adds layers of ash, which float and fall upon, behind and under all furnishings. We have a gas, forced air furnace, which is pretty clean. When spring arrives, I don’t want to clean the inside of my house, I want to get dirty out in the gardens. Fall, to me, means bringing things in, including the people where we will be on top of each other for six or more months.

Working Like Ants

Until this week, the weather has been mild and we have stayed outside, putting the gardens to bed for the winter while thinking ahead to spring, bringing in the plants, such as canna lilies and lantanas, that cannot handle the hard freeze of winter. Out front, we have a large cement urn on axis with the front door. For dramatic height, I planted a red cardinal plant, which grew over four feet tall, in the middle surrounded by white New Guinea impatiens. The red cardinal is a perennial and likes wet soil, so last weekend we relocated it next to the small pond Max and Jules put in the back yard this summer (Jules had wanted to give the feathered creatures he feeds a substantial watering hole). The pond is in a garden bed next to our back porch, and for months we have been emptying that bed of hostas and day lilies so that next summer we can fill it with plants that attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

The last garden bouquet of 2013
The last garden bouquet of 2013

Last night, we harvested the last of my state fair zinnias, which were a spectacular success. On the border between the front lawn and the walkway where the cement urn is located, these tall and vibrant asteraceaes (my favorite flower family, which includes daisies, sunflowers, chrysanthemums and, yes, asters) were colorful beacons for many months. Great cutting flowers, I filled the house with cheerful bouquets of zinnias the past few months. In the night, the first hard frost of the season fell and with it went my zinnias. I have been thinking that next year I might plant pink and white cleomes where the zinnias were this year and put the zinnias in the new butterfly garden. Max originally wanted the cleomes too, but after this summer’s crackerjack crop, he is lobbying for a return of the state fair zinnias right were they were this year.

Dreams Do Come True

In May of 1996, I bought a Martha Stewart Living magazine with an article on lilacs listing varieties that bloom at different times of the year from early May through late July. Hoping I’d one day have a home with the right space and light to create such a collection of the fragrant flowering bushes, I have carted that magazine with me through at least four moves and over nearly two decades. After Max and the boys removed English ivy and anemic looking japonica bushes out front, we planted a collection of lilacs tall and short, purple, pink and variegated. And yes, blooming at different times of the spring and summer, including a Boomerang Lilac, which overachieves by blooming not only in the spring, but also in late summer. Underneath the lilacs Max planted three flats of sweet woodruff, which is a ground cover that will not snake up and choke the lilacs the way the English ivy would nor will it try to grow on the house.

Becoming Ours

The real estate picture that hooked us
The real estate picture that hooked us

“It’s not fair,” Claude complained good-naturedly when we moved into this house the summer before his senior year in high school, “I only get to live here for one year!”

My big boys all like looking at houses. I’ve pulled the car over for open houses that looked interesting, whether or not we were in the market for a home, for as long as they all can remember. In my head lived an image of the home I wanted to raise my children in: a big, but not too big, old house with lots of land, a stream and a barn. Other than not having a stream and a bit more stately than a farm-house, this house is as close to that image as I have ever found. Instead of a barn, we have a large outbuilding that includes a garage just for bikes, sleds and other outdoor toys.

This is the only house my two youngest children know and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the only one they’ll ever need to know. The rooms are sunny, the spaces flow and the doors are solid wood with brass handles. Built in 1940, each nail was hammered by a man’s arm, not a hydraulic tool. We have plenty of space, but not so much that we are ever far from each other. One of the quirks of the house is the central staircase acts like an acoustic chimney and everything sounds nearby. If asked, “Where are you?” the answer cannot be “Here,” because it is impossible to determine where “here” is. When sought out, we have all learned to identify the room we are standing in. Whether the answer is a second floor room or the basement, it all sounds the same.

For the first year, it felt as though we were living in a cool house that belonged to someone else. Busy wallpaper covered the kitchen walls, while several rooms and the hallways on the first and second floors were painted a pre-faded yellow. Old wall-to-wall carpeting was in three bedrooms, smelling of time and dry rot and, because it was white, never quite clean-looking.

Flanking the windows on the front of the house were shutters painted the taupe-green color of chicken poo. I hate that color, I’d think every time I pulled in the driveway but painting them was not at the top of our project list. Then late this summer one of the larger shutters next to a ground floor window was damaged in a storm. Max pulled it off and we realized that it covered decorative brickwork. “I don’t think these shutters are original, Holly,” said Max, “Let’s get the ladder and pull them all off!” When finished, we walked to the front sidewalk to assess the transformation. The house reminded me of a woman who scrubs off overzealously applied cosmetics, revealing a fresh face underneath. We posted the shutters on Craig’s List at $10 each and sold every single one. Three of the four purchasers bought them to make headboards for their beds, leading me to believe instructions for such a project had been posted on Pinterest. What fortunate timing!

Formal Versus Fruitful

The previous owners had professionally landscaped the yard and I’m glad they did because I would never put that kind of money into a yard, yet we enjoy many of the results. The backyard was graded and filled with healthy topsoil. An underground watering system was installed in all the flowerbeds and the back lawn, not unlike a golf course. However, the plants in the flowerbeds seemed more appropriate for landscaping an office building off an interstate highway, shade loving hostas and rhododendrons withering in hours of full sun. And while the dogwood trees in the front and the rows of sweetbay magnolias in the back add a stately appearance to the yards, there was no whimsy to be found. Long before Max and I became lovers, I told him how all my gardens, no matter what I do, become riotous, a furzy mélanges with all the plants growing into one another, in part because birds also love asteraceaes, the seeds of which they eat and distribute in the most organic way. But the birds can’t be blamed for all the clutter in my gardens. Rocks that the boys have collected on our journeys are stacked in tottering obelisks near every back door I’ve had since I’ve had boys who slip rocks in their pockets. Broken bits of brightly colored crockery are wedged in the soil next to flowering plants as though working their way to the surface at some archaeological site.

After describing it all to the man I did not know would one day be my partner, he sent me a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “A Strange New Cottage in Berkley,” so perfect to send to me, of all people, for so many reasons, but how could he know all those reasons when he didn’t know me well at all? And yet it seems, in hindsight, that was the moment when the tiniest of seeds was planted; growing eventually into this abundant, furzy life we now have together.

And today: shutters gone, zinnias a-riot
And today: shutters gone, zinnias a-riot

For two years, we have made incremental progress, indoors and out, and now, just in the past two months, we both feel like this is becoming our home, surrounded by our gardens, reflecting not just what we like, but who we are. Brighter colors on the walls, wilder plantings in the yard. Yes, we still have too much stuff, but we continue to sell, donate and discard our possessions large and small. The basement no longer has goat paths through stacked boxes of books and the back garage no longer looks like a furniture store.

We found a house, we have made it home.