We are all in the big dance hall above the henhouse. It is Friday night, dance night, at Glen Eyrie Farm. Aunt Jinny and I are arguing about whose turn it is to play the piano for this dance.
“Be fair, Ruth,” orders Aunt Jinny, “I distinctly remember that I played last week. It’s your turn to play, if you will, please.” (“Ifyouwillplease” was Aunt Jinny’s cushioning euphemism for any direct order she might give, along with “CIHU,” “Can I Help You?” the mantra she exacted from any child caught sitting and resting in the presence of a busy adult, usually Aunt Jinny.) Usually I was actually glad to help. I adored Aunt Jinny. But I wanted to dance. I wanted someone to choose me. And take me from the big circle into the center.
Choose two, leave the others, choose two, leave the others,
Choose two, leave the others for me.
Swing one, leave the other, swing one, leave the other,
Swing one, leave the other for me.
As I played the song for all the other lucky dancers, I dreamed of being the one left in the center, and then choosing Alan, Aunt Jinny’s son, so handsome in his Navy uniform, and so oblivious to any and all twelve year olds.
This is my second year on the farm. It is my favorite place in the world and these are the happiest days of my childhood, although I will not know this till I am a grandmother.
It is 1999 and we are attending my family reunion in Delavan, Wisconsin. The farm has been sold and Alan lives in town. We reconnect. I call Alan and tell him we will be there in two weeks, and that I can’t wait to see him and Aunt Jinny, who is one hundred years old.
I speak to her on the phone. “Do you really remember me? Aunt Jinny,” I ask, and she answers, “How could I forget you, Ruth? You were the one I fought with about whose turn it was to play the piano!”
“Hang in there, Aunt Jinny,” I say, suddenly tearful. “We’ll see each other real soon”
But it doesn’t happen. Aunt Jinny dies two weeks before I can see her, and kiss her, and sing with her again.
Sing with her. I dream of singing with her. Because Aunt Jinny taught me one hundred and forty one songs. Maybe more. I make a list today, as I am magically transported back to the one place where I was safe and happy as a child.
Alan and I have a wonderful, l though sorrowful reunion, and he asks me if I knew why I had been sent to the farm. That ‘s when I learn, for the first time, that in addition to being a genuine, fully operational farm, Glen Eyrie was also conceived as a haven for abused children from dysfunctional families.
When I was a child I just thought that I was a really bad kid who never did anything right. I thought all mothers could go four months without saying one word to that bad kid. I thought all mothers threw clothes out the window when they weren’t hung up properly. I thought all mothers slapped. I thought all fathers spanked kids who weren’t at the piano practicing at eight AM sharp.
Alan asks me, “Why did you think you were at Glen Eyrie?” and I answer him, “I thought I was at the farm because my mother didn’t want me around. And I thought I was the luckiest girl in the world.”
And I was. Because of the songs. Because of the music, and the circle dances and the play-party games. Because our days and nights were filled with song. And structure. And love. Lots of love.
We begin to sing early in the morning when we bring the cows in from pasture. The sun is still red, the air, brand new. We call, “Come cows. Come cows!” (They would have come even if we said nothing.) We can see their hot breath. They are so friendly that we can walk with our arms around their necks. Or even ride them sometimes. They are full of milk and eager for Uncle Edgar to begin the milking. Uncle Edgar teaches me how to milk. Teaches me about the draught, the let-down reflex. How to strip each udder to make sure all the milk is gone. (Years later, as I nurse my babies, I remember the milking mornings.) How to squirt some milk into the waiting cats’ mouth. We sing “Uncle Edgar had a farm…E-I-E-I-O!”
We carefully collect the warm fresh eggs from the hen house and bring them to the kitchen where Aunt Jinny is making a breakfast that would feed the whole town of Delavan. There are fried eggs, and scrambled eggs. There is oatmeal with brown sugar and fresh cream. There are pancakes and fresh sausage, cooked loose in the pan. There is toast, with jam and butter that we helped to make. There is milk and cocoa. We are very hungry, but first we sing Grace.
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord,God Almighty
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee
Then there is a long spoken prayer, Aunt Jinny asking blessings on several Wisconsin lawmakers including the numbers of their bills. We sing:
If we have earned the right to eat this bread, happy, indeed, are we.
But, if unmerited, Thou gives it to us, may we more grateful be.
It is summer and we put salt shakers into our pockets as we sing our way to the to the garden and the ripe, red tomatoes. We pick a tomato, wash and cool it with the hose, and take a big bite. Then we shake salt on the open part, and proceed to eat at least two tomatoes, which are sweeter than candy. Always singing, we pick strawberries, peas, onions, squash—a different song for each vegetable. We move easily from hymns to humor:
For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies.
For the love, which from our birth, over and around us lies,
Lord of All, to Thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise!
O you can’t get to Heaven, with Alan Buzzell.
Because. With him, you’ll go to SHHHH!!
Shelling peas and stringing beans is always round-singing time. Usually it is just three or four girls and Aunt Jinny, outside the summer house and the root cellar. Aunt Jinny doesn’t “teach” us the round, .we just sing the melody over and over till we all know it and can divide it into parts.
We don’t even know we are learning—we’re just singing! To this day, as I shell peas or cut the ends off string beans, I begin to hum:
White coral bells, upon a slender stalk—
Grasshoppers three a- fiddling went—
The big meal is at noon. Longer musical graces and more lawmakers blessed. At supper I am allowed to play the piano for:
Day is dying in the west, Heav’n is touching earth with rest—
I love playing and singing these old hymns—I still do. (I am probably the only Jew in Los Angeles, maybe the world, who knows one hundred Christian hymns. I know I am the only Jew in LA who can sing What a Friend We Have in Jesus in Cherokee. Sometimes a whole week goes by and no one requests it!—but that’s another column.)
Aunt Jinny is strict. And consistent, and fair. Uncle Edgar is a pushover. He takes us into town and we take turns riding on the running board (remember?). Singing, of course, at the top of our voices. Uncle Edgar always buys us ice cream cones in town. Vanilla. Still my favorite. And every Sunday we make ice cream in the old fashioned churn, salt and all.
In addition to our Friday dances, we sing on the porch of the Lake House, every Sunday night.
There are no guitars, no banjos, there is no piano, no autoharp, not even a harmonica. Just beautiful, clear, true voices, floating out over the lake.
Singing every song in the world: Love’s Old Sweet Song, Sweet And Low, Tell me Why.. Kookabura, Loch Lomond, Annie Laurie, Beautiful Dreamer … my list is still over one hundred songs.
Sometimes I dream about the farm. I am on top of the hay wagon, thirteen years old with a pitchfork, tossing the hay into the top window of the barn. (The barn. I have two big pieces of wood from the barn in my garage studio. A gift from Alan.) When the hay is pitched, hot and itchy, we throw on our bathing suits and jump into Delavan Lake.
I dream of winter. Sleigh rides, and coasting on my sled, downhill on the snowy road in front of the farmhouse. Singing in the living room in front of the fire. Singing, always singing.
I must know thousands of songs now. And I write songs. Some are funny, many are very serious, even sad. But the songs I sang on the farm gave birth to the person I am today. The person who, at the age of eleven, was happy for the first time in her life when she wrote:
The pony rides, the peaceful nights, the place with all its charm,
Shall call me back when pleasure I lack—I’ll never forget the farm.
The swish of rain comes again and again but there’s never a cause for alarm.
‘Cause they treat you well and you sure feel swell at good old Glen Eyrie farm
And, add I would that the food is good, and the cook is the best in the land.
And the reason why the kids here don’t cry, is because this farm is so grand.
Wherever I stay, wherever I play, wherever I happen to be,
I’ll always say in a homesick way, Glen Eyrie’s the place for me!