When I was a little child, I would often visit my grandparents at the farm where my father grew up. In a small village in Poland, less than an hour away from the grey Soviet-era apartment block where I lived in the city, the farm was the home my grandparents had lived in since the 1940s; the home where my grandmother had borne five of her six children; the home where the village school operated for a time, with my grandmother as teacher, until a building was constructed for this purpose.
I don’t think the way they lived was much different from what it would have been one or two or even five centuries earlier.
When in my first pregnancy I first considered giving birth at home, my father was the first person who gave me confidence.”You have five hospitals within twenty minutes of your house” he said. “And the baby’s due in May. There can’t even be a snowstorm.” I imagined his mother giving birth at home, with no car, the nearest hospital hours away by horse and wagon. I knew as soon as I had my first child that if my grandmother could boil cloth diapers in a pot on the wood stove to sterilize them, I could at least load them into a washing machine. Later, when I decided to homeschool my kids, my sisters joked that this too was predestined by father’s experience.
The wooden house was, I believe, originally built more than a hundred years ago with a regular floor plan: a front door with large rooms on either side, a kitchen, and a large bedroom. But for a time one of the front rooms was used as the schoolroom. For a time, the other front room was where the village doctor lived. Then the schoolroom was converted into the room where the frames were stored from the beehives, honey was extracted, beeswax was melted and shaped. As for the doctor’s room, it still housed a bed, but it was rarely used other than for storage and the occasional guest. The front door of the house was closed firmly shut.
As long as I could remember, the real life of the house started in the kitchen, entered through the back door and through a small mudroom. The kitchen was dominated by the giant wood stove, with a deep bread oven above. A wooden table, a wooden bench, one wooden armchair with a cushion, some stools. Later some plastic chairs. Bumpy linoleum-covered floors. A curtained-off area in the kitchen was the washing area, where my grandmother – until well into her eighties – hauled buckets from the well and used them to fill large metal bowls for washing dishes and people. It was a well-organized system. A small metal tub by the stove was where children and later grandchildren were bathed.
Off the kitchen to the left was the room where my grandparents slept. In the absence of a hallway, my grandparent’s narrow bedroom needed to be crossed to enter the back room, which housed three beds for their children to sleep on, and a square table that could be used as a dining table for holidays and guests. Each of the bedrooms had a tiled wood stove of its own.
Behind the house was the root cellar. The vegetable gardens. The fruit trees. The beehives. Two barns: a brick one for animals and a wooden one for grain. And behind the grain barn were the fields where my father and his siblings grew up working the land with their parents.
Beside the animal barn was the outhouse. But at night, my grandmother would tell us, there was no need to walk all the way over there. Just behind the house would be fine. Or, if we were too cold or afraid of the dark, there was a chamber pot behind the washing curtain, which was always empty again when we got up in the morning. My grandmother was always the first one up.
I realize now that so many of my earliest sensory memories are from this farm. The smell of the grain barn, with its sloped piles of wheat and rye reaching up to the ceiling, the dizzying dives of the swallows with their forked tails, the huge storks’ nest perched on the barn roof. The squealing of piglets trotting in and out of the barn, and the grunts of the huge sow, their mother. The sweet smell of beeswax, still one of my favourite smells in the world. The curious and distinct and warm smell of the house itself. The clang of the metal buckets and basins used for washing. The warmth of the wood stove, which heated most of the house, and along with the chickens and the pigs helped dispose of anything that was no longer needed.
Drinking foaming milk from a cup dipped straight into the milking pail. Fresh cheese being made, whey dripping from a cheesecloth. The grain of the giant wooden bowls used for kneading dough.
I say this is how it was, but not much in the house itself has changed. The furniture is the same; the same pictures hang on the walls; the old milk pails stand inside the closed front door; the front room is full of frames from the hives. However, there is now running water in the screened-off area in the kitchen, which is still used for bathing as well as for washing dishes. The well is blocked off. There is now – very recently installed – a flush toilet, behind another small curtain in the kitchen. The grain barn was torn down decades ago. There are only chickens left in the animal barn. The beehives are active, but as has happened everywhere, many of the colonies have disappeared. My uncle has built a comfortable gazebo on top of the still-used root cellar. The fields were sold long ago. The roads are paved.
The houses in the village have mostly been rebuilt and renovated. Some of them are supported by jobs in the city. But small plots of crops checker the fields like a patchwork quilt. The front gardens are exuberant with flowers.
There are still reminders, in the house and in the village, of earlier times of turmoil: a bullet hole in a bedroom door, a monument across the road. After the clouds and storms that have passed through these lands in the past century, there’s a stillness here now. A deep breath out, a feeling of gratitude for the calm.
Is it possible for any place to remain the same while the world around it changes? And is it fair for me to come here, from a distance, and expect to step back into the past?
Both my grandparents have died, my grandmother not so long ago, each living in this house until the very end of their lives. Both of their deaths have stories connected with this place, my grandfather’s with the bees and hives, my grandmother’s with the root cellar.
Perhaps I’ll tell those stories another day.