I signed the papers to sell Mom and Dad’s house a few weeks ago. This closed a 15-month saga that involved a serious relationship with the Louisa County solid waste department, my first (and last) estate sale and an education about deeds, abstracts, surveyors, realtors, subdivision regulations and the county board of supervisors, not to mention prospective buyers who made absurd offers as if they did not understand the concept of math.
My grandmother, Laurel Hanson, at The House
The House (yes, uppercase, it was a law unto itself and deserving of being a proper noun) and farm in southeast Iowa were home to three generations of my family, starting with my grandparents, John E. and Laurel (Gaskell) Hanson, who settled there in the 1930s.
John and Laurel Hanson, my grandparents.
If I were a better family historian, I'd be able to
provide a date but am guessing it was taken in the 1950s.
Signing the final paperwork to sell the newly surveyed acreage (house and farm outbuildings) was bittersweet. Even though I hadn’t lived there for 40 years and the place had given me more gray hair in the last year than any of my dogs and The Farmer combined, it was hard to accept that every signature on every document made it that much closer to no longer being mine.
The House fell squarely on my shoulders after mom’s death. Her sister, who had lived with her since my father died, had moved to a care center and the place was sitting empty (figuratively speaking), never a healthy situation for houses in the country. If anything was to be done with the family farmstead, I was going to have to do the doing.
From October of 2022 through late summer of this year, I spent most weekends making the 200-mile round trip to The House to clean and sort and pitch. It was an odyssey of garbage bags and WTF discoveries and childhood memories.
Mom was a saver and not a terribly organized one. I’ll just leave it at that. I’d find cash stashed in boxes filled with yellowed recipe clippings and 10-year-old receipts for Casey’s pizza. This meant every dusty box, envelope and file folder had to be sifted through, lest I toss Ulysses S. Grant and Ben Franklin out with the bathwater.
My dad, Frank Hanson, before his service in the Korean War
We’re not going to talk about Mom's will, which I may or may not have thrown out. There WAS a will. I found multiple copies, all carefully stamped COPY in red ink. Where the original dwelt remains a mystery for the ages. It was not in any of the appropriate places where one might put one’s will—like on file at the lawyer’s office or a safe deposit box in the bank. Mom’s sister swore it was in an envelope on the kitchen counter.
This was not helpful intelligence.
However, since there were about 5,000 other assorted items piled in teetering stacks on the kitchen counter, I’m sure it was perfectly safe there. No one would have ever found it, including me. By the time I’d started sorting through the archaeological dig that was the kitchen, I’d already stumbled across a box of cash totaling $4,973 in small bills so I was wise to my mother’s proclivities. I threw out nothing without examining it closely first.
Nonetheless, the will remained AWOL.
I admit to harboring uncharitable thoughts about how much easier my life would be if a natural disaster were to reduce The House to ash or rubble. Through the spring and summer of 2023, I held my breath every time a tornado warning was issued for Louisa County. At first, I prayed a nice, short track EF5 would decimate the whole place and turn it into little more than an insurance claim and a phone call to a guy with a bulldozer. As the summer progressed, my thoughts changed to pure panic whenever severe weather rolled through. I was terrified that was exactly what would happen and all my dusty weekend hours of filling trash bags would be for naught.
Spring - 1980s; we never sprayed for dandelions.
The bees must have been so happy.
In the end, The House withstood everything Mother Nature threw at it, just like it had for the last 100+ years. The Farmer and I finished cleaning it and outbuildings, held an estate sale, then hired the services of an estate buyer who waved his magic wand and made everything that didn’t sell, vanish. Including the garbage. Seriously. He was marvelous. I could have hugged him if it hadn’t been August and I was sweating like a water buffalo. By that point I was close to losing my ever-loving sh*t if I had to deal with another box of 1960s kitchenware or the hulk of some antique whatchamacallit that threatened to dissolve into rust if we had to move it one more time.
I met the new owner for exactly 45 minutes at the closing. He was genuinely delighted with the property and even though I think his pleasure was geared more to the barn and outbuildings than The House, his obvious joy made it easier to hand over the keys. I signed the last document and shook his hand, suddenly wanting to tell him about the bee tree in the north corner of the grove behind the barn and how I used to sit near it and listen to bees humming merrily away and if I was brave enough to get close, I could see the combs, dripping honey deep in the trunk. I wondered if it was still there. How long do bees stay in one place?
And how there used to be a row of red cedar trees lining the driveway until straight-line winds (it was a derecho before anyone knew what derechos were) in June of 1998 dropped a couple of them on The House and my parents had them all cut down.
And how the original pocket doors from the first floor were still out in the granary, their fanciful Victorian hardware rusting away, a victim of the energy crisis in the 1970s, when The House’s high ceilings were lowered and the pocket doors removed.
Pocket door hardware. The House had
doorknobs and hinges to match.
And how the second floor bedroom, the one painted Pepto Bismol pink, was mine—my eyrie at the top of The House where I spent endless hours lost in books, only slightly disappointed my parents would not allow me to have a television in my room although my friends thought this was the height of neglect.
And that the draft horse harnesses used by my Grandpa Hanson were still hanging in the loft of the century-old barn with its pegged mortise and tenon joints.
And about all the time I spent in that barn, looking for nests of kittens in the spring.
And the endless parade of wildlife that routinely marches across the lawn between The House and the adjacent field on its way to and from the business of wild creatures in the river bottoms—deer, wild turkeys, pheasants, raccoons, skunks, possums and the occasional fox and coyote.
And the front porch, with its curlicue millwork, where my mom used to sit and watch while I trained my 4-H project dogs on the lawn on summer evenings.
And all the fruit trees (apple, cherry, apricot and persimmon), the asparagus and strawberry beds and rhubarb patch that my parents used to cultivate.
And how the kitchen smell of melted wax when I blew out the candles on my birthday cakes—homemade angel food with Mom’s sticky white frosting—and of tart, sweet fruit and sugar when she and Dad made jam in the summers.
And about the 25+ black walnut trees that still are, thanks to my Grandma Hanson’s love of walnuts. (The guy didn’t look stupid. He’ll figure that out in a hurry.)
And the scent of a fresh cut river bottom cedar tree filling The House at Christmas.
And the suicide stairs to the second floor. Okay, they're the only stairs to the second floor. You got used to them.
And why there is a plaster bust of Native American Chief Keomah sitting in front of the attic door because if you don’t prop the door open when you go inside, it swings shut and even though it doesn’t latch, believe me, when you are 13 years old and already reading too much Steven King and the attic door closes of its own accord, you learn not to take chances. (Chief Keomah’s plaster likeness was a showmanship prize at a dog show back in the 1970s. I hope the new owner appreciates his door stop abilities.)
But in the end, I didn’t say any of it because these were my memories to treasure and didn’t need to be shared with strangers. The new owners will make their own and if any of them overlap, then I hope the discoveries bring them as much happiness as I found there.
The House, autumn 2023