Five Thousand Days Like This One: An American Family History

Five Thousand Days Like This One: An American Family History

by Jane Brox
     
 

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Amid the turmoil after her father's death-decisions to be made, the future of the family farm to be settled-Jane Brox, using her acclaimed "compassion, honesty, and restraint" (The Boston Globe), begins a search for her family's story. The search soon leads her to the quintessentially American history of New England's Merrimack Valley, its farmers, and the

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Overview

Amid the turmoil after her father's death-decisions to be made, the future of the family farm to be settled-Jane Brox, using her acclaimed "compassion, honesty, and restraint" (The Boston Globe), begins a search for her family's story. The search soon leads her to the quintessentially American history of New England's Merrimack Valley, its farmers, and the immigrant workers caught up in the industrial textile age.

Jane Brox's first book, Here and Nowhere Else, won the 1996 L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and magazines, and has been represented in Best American Essays. She is a frequent contributor to The Georgia Review. Jane Brox lives in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Haunting. . . . Had Henry David Thoreau the chance, he would be happy to quote Jane Brox. —Michael Kenney, The Boston Globe

"This is a clear-eyed and cogent history of farming, immigrant life and one American family written in prose that sparkles like the Merrimack River once did." —Publishers Weekly

"A mature, levelheaded book, thick with emotion but not overwhelmed by it. It is short but dense, and reading it . . . is a genuine pleasure." —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

"This is quite beautiful music, the sound of a family's life that keeps ringing in a daughter's ears." —Kirkus Reviews

"Five Thousand Days Like This One is a superb book." —Yankee Magazine

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Brox delicately interweaves the voices of her late father, Henry David Thoreau and immigrant mill workers in the early 20th century in this elegant meditation on life in the Merrimack Valley in Massachussets. After working in textile mills where "cloth dust [fell] constant as high mountain flurries," Brox's Lebanese-born grandparents bought a farm where her father planted apple orchards and to which she returned after his death in 1995. In a series of reflections using family memories as points of departure, she lyrically evokes the time before the Pawtucket Indians died out from European diseases and the days when Thoreau sailed on the Merrimack River, as well as the 1912 Strike for Bread and Roses, when local militias were called in to contain mill workers striking over 16 cents or so in weekly wages (two loaves of bread). Brox's care with historical detail means women are not omitted from her accounts. She writes sensitively of the girls who "waited for marriage" in the mills, making cloth destined to become "worn and bleached and frayed by time and effort until it was patched and threadbare, and at last cut up for quilts or rags or a child's toy, after which it all but disappeared." She wistfully acknowledges that American farms like her family's are now referred to as "agro-entertainment," while former mill buildings house computer industries and synthetic textile trades. This is a clear-eyed and cogent history of farming, immigrant life and one American family written in prose that sparkles like the Merrimack River once did. (Mar.) FYI: Brox was awarded the 1996 L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award and a 1994 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship.
KLIATT
While quite different in tone, these two family histories have much in common. Both Brox and Simpson trace their families and/or their family homesteads back to the 18th century and muse sadly over the changes that time has brought. Forced by the death of her father to take on the running of what is left of the family farm near Dracut, Massachusetts, Jane Brox meditates thoughtfully on this land near the Merrimack River once traveled and written about by Henry David Thoreau. The living characters in her memoir are her somewhat shadowy elderly mother and aunt, but they are upstaged by the gentle ghosts of her father, her Lebanese and Italian immigrant grandparents, the mill workers of Lawrence and Lowell, and by Thoreau himself. Poring over old surveyor's maps, crumbling deeds and musty journals, she tries to see again the land as it once was, the farm buildings before they collapsed, the orchards when they were still bearing full. The old ways are gone; the old people are dead; the ways of the land are forever changed, but Brox still lives with her grandfather's Italian toast in her heart: "to five thousand more days like this one!" There is no such peace in Jeffrey Simpson's family memories. Tracing his family back to a Revolutionary War soldier who traded the army wages owed him for farm land in Parnassus, Pennsylvania, northeast of Pittsburgh, Simpson details the family houses and members down through the eras of factories and big business to the end of the century and to what he clearly considers final failure. A professional journalist, Simpson writes tellingly, bringing to thorny life his relatives and their struggles. If there was ever happiness in this family, Simpson doesnot record it. Narrow, crabbed, and often mean-spirited, formed by the hellfire of Presbyterian teaching, the various great and again great relatives passed their bitterness and disappointments down to Jeffrey, an only child, the recipient of all their hopes. Homosexual, he will indeed be the last of the line. Read together, these two family histories become more than either one is alone. Complementing each other, they rise above the individual family sorrows and capture a piece of Americana invisible any other way. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1999, Beacon, 182p, 22cm, $13.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Patricia A. Moore; Academic Resource Ctr., Emmanuel College, Boston, MA, July 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 4)
School Library Journal
YA-Pondering the recent death of her father, Brox reflects on her Lebanese and Italian heritage and the people who developed the farm in the Merrimack Valley of New England that she must now manage on her own. Using family reminiscences, archival materials, and quotations from Thoreau, she details the story of the stalwart men and women who formed the working communities of mill towns like Lowell and Lawrence-immigrants who struggled, slaved, and dreamed of a better life. Saving their meager wages, the lucky ones who survived the horrors of the mill purchased farms and then toiled to make the land flourish with dairy farms and orchards. The bitter labor strikes and the influenza epidemic of 1918 became part of the fabric of the valley's history. As more and more land was devoured by the so-called progress of development, Brox's father clung to his farm and rejoiced in his apple orchards. The author remembers fondly the family reunion at which her aged grandfather who had purchased the land toasted the family with "five thousand days like this one." She recounts her family history with nostalgia for the lost beauty of the land but this is no lament. Her writing evokes a love for the past coupled with the hope of saving part of the heritage that shaped the valley and its people. Her story has universal appeal because of the many voices the author calls up to enrich her memoir.-Mary T. Gerrity, Queen Anne School, Upper Marlboro, MD Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Jonathan Yardley
A mature, level-headed book, thick with emotion but not overwhelmed by it. It is short but dense, and reading it… is a genuine pleasure.
The Washington Post
Kirkus Reviews
A lovely and melancholy history of her family and its farm, a holdout in the soil-poor Northeast, from Brox (Here and Nowhere Else: Late Seasons of a Farm and Its Family, 1995). The place has 40 cleared acres, 100 in woodlot, and another dozen given over to peaches and apples-Baldwins, of course, no longer in favor despite their spicy juices. This is a typical New England farm, clasping "its small fields set off by chinked walls and the mixed woods beyond" and typical too in its poor luck, though the homestead has not nearly so bad a case of the dwindles as Brox's father, who commits to her the family past as he lies dying. Brox shoulders her father's mantle. Poring over his papers and walking the land, she experiences (and coaxes life from) the farm as her father must have 50 years before. She also turns caretaker of the family stories and tells with care and artistry the tale of her Lebanese grandparents, come to the Lawrence, Mass., woolen and worsted mills, there adding Arabic to the babel of languages heard over the clacking of the looms. They bought a small farm and raised cows: "Five cents a quart, three cents a pint-the first customers got all the cream-until his ladle scraped the bottom of a can and he poured the last blue milk into a mason jar." Brox recounts all the little ways the Great War made inroads into their lives, the impossibly grim influenza pandemic of 1918, and the workers' strikes that shut the mills of Lawrence and Lowell, where "the noise in the weave rooms was loud enough to break the sleep of earth." Unlike the mill owners, Brox plans to stay put. This is quite beautiful music, the sound of a family's life that keeps ringing in a daughter's ears. .

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780807021071
Publisher:
Beacon
Publication date:
04/28/2000
Edition description:
New Edition
Pages:
192
Sales rank:
769,847
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

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Chapter One


Afterwards


IT HAD BEEN A DROUGHTY SUMMER. THE ORCHARD grasses turned sere by late June, the brook beds shrunk to dried mud, and the apples reached no more than half their best size. The worst of them—ones marked up with codling moth scars or scab—weren't even worth hauling to the apple cellar. Strange to see bushel after bushel of Cortland, McIntosh, and Northern Spies in heaps under the trees. Even stranger was the way the sweet smell of those fermenting apples drew the deer out of the woods—more deer than anyone in living memory had ever seen here. They'd forage through the fallen leaves under the bare crowns of the trees, coming more and more frequently as the apples frosted and thawed by turns down the shortening autumn days until they froze through at last and were covered with an early December snow.

    Through the first quiet winter storms, the deer stayed in the part of the orchard that bordered the woods, nosing the snow near the apple bark, raising their heads every now and again, wary, listening. But as the snow deepened they came further into the orchard, and I could trace their tracks from tree to tree. They came at all hours—nine of them once—filing along the edge of the pines at eleven in the morning on a cloudless day. Even my father, who'd seen them all his life, remarked: "Look at that. In broad daylight."

    We talked about them every day as I stopped by my parents' house in the late afternoon, my mother in the kitchen, my father at his desk going over the farm year on paper:

    "I saw three under the Cortland trees, one couldn't have been more than a yearling."

    "Is that so? They must be finding apples still. I hope they don't start grazing on the branches."

    "Oh, you think?"

    As long as the deer kept to the fallen apples, they stood clear of any concern of ours. Just beautiful things even for the hunters in our family—my father and uncles—all of whom were too old now for the hunt, though seeing those deer brought up the old stories about ones tracked years ago here, or in Maine, or Nova Scotia.


    Our talk about the deer kept on, even when my father took sick. In the hospital he couldn't say much because his breathing was rapid and shallow. I sat by his bed—it was far into December by then—and his room, with its beeping monitors and hissing oxygen, was louder than anything outdoors. There were no real words, it felt late, but I was hoping he'd still want to know about the small things, so I told him I'd seen the deer that morning, that they were coming farther up into the orchard all the time. All he could do was blink his eyes, and I couldn't figure out if he knew what I was saying or if he had a question, but a little later, when I asked him if he wanted anything, he smiled as much as he could—I saw his cheek wrinkle—and whispered, "venison." One word that let through his dry wit, since he knew I wasn't much for hunting. One word that comforted me more than all the times he'd answered the usual questions we asked to make sure he still dwelled in time: Did he know where he was? Did he know the day? Or the questions he'd ask us when he could: What's the matter with me? Where's the blood coming from? Have you gone home?

    A few mornings later, I was the first in the family to arrive at the hospital and I had to wait outside the room while the nurse finished her care. I knew something was wrong because she wasn't talking to him—always before I could hear the nurse asking my father how he felt, was he comfortable, telling him she was going to draw some blood. She beckoned me in this time and told me he had come down with pneumonia in the night. His hands were cold. It was louder in the room. They'd turned up the oxygen and had given him a larger mask through which to breathe. I could tell right away he was having trouble keeping up. When I said, "Hello," all he could do was raise his eyebrows. That was his last gesture to me in this life, and it's what I keep remembering, wishing for more, thinking of all his years of reserve and, in that last week, all his efforts to say the merest thing.

    My mother, my brothers, my sister—all faces fell as they entered the room that morning. And no one dared step out for coffee or to make a phone call. We'd come a diligent way on a narrow trail since the gray early light of Christmas Eve day when I stood in the doorframe of my parents' house, and faced the road, listening in the still of the year for the ambulance to come. Now we gathered bewildered around his bed as his breathing grew quieter and quieter. He took his last breath, then his mouth closed. My mother whispered, "no," as the heart monitor slowed to a scribed outline like the low eroded hills, and each reading ended in a question mark.

    When the doctor came he listened for my father's heart and his lungs, and then put a thumb to the lid of my father's blind eye and opened it, not knowing it had stopped gathering light years before, though my father always said he could still see the shadow of his own hand. Now, the coin for the journey.


    Afterwards—in the days following—I sat at his desk and tried to carry on the workings of his home and farm: changing everything over to my mother's name alone, working out the payroll taxes, the quarterly taxes, all the January paperwork. I was half grateful for the dry figuring of accounts, of the farm year drawn to an abstraction of costs and balances. But such soldierly work couldn't keep grief at bay for long. As I backtracked over the check stubs, I saw how his handwriting had grown shakier down through the year. Like his voice, I'd start to think, becoming gravelly as his lungs weakened. Then I'd notice how quiet the house felt—and he was a quiet man. How did my mother stand it? How would she get through the days, the meals, the evenings? No answering words. Only months later beginning to understand: never again.

    As I worked I'd uncover keepsakes of his in the drawers of the desk or tucked away among his ledgers and files. His original birth certificate, the death notices of his close friends who had gone before him, his own father's timepiece with its etched copper backing worn fine and the crystal clouded over—mute things that had lost the one who could best speak for them. From now on they'll only be partially understood, same as the stories I can no longer verify that were mostly his alone. "No one believes me," I remember him saying, "but I stood by the Bay of Fundy on the eve of the war and saw apples coming in on the tide. The bay was full of apples. The ships had dumped their cargoes to take on supplies for the war." That's all I know. And no matter how much, I want to know more.


    Prayer cards and letters of sympathy came through the mail as news of his death traveled out of the valley. My aunts had been tearing obituaries out of the local papers and sending them to the relatives in Syracuse and Delaware. Friends of far friends wrote and called. I phoned my parents' closest friends in Florida—people I'd never called before—who knew something was wrong the moment they heard my voice. After their weak greeting, a questioning silence into which I poured, "I wanted to tell you my father passed away."

    I know their true grief is beyond the formal, scripted sorrow that lands on his desk with every mail. I know my father would have understood their efforts to find words that come near. Near enough. OK, what we settle for while we tilt an ear to the winter air. I feel as if I've been listening—for what?—ever since the wake. It had started spitting snow, and those arriving to pay their respects, though they'd only walked from the parking lot to the door of the funeral home, seemed as if they'd made a real journey the way they stamped their boots and shook the snow from their scarves. They blew on their hands as they cleared their throats on comfortable sayings about the weather: "Sure is cold ..." and "The roads are icing up." Then, the plush hallways and the floral sprays brought their voices down: "I can't believe it. I thought he'd live forever." Voices that had surrounded us all our lives sounded graver than I'd ever known, murmuring, "Things just won't be the same," "I'm sorry," "Sorry for your troubles," "I had no idea. I saw him just a few days before Christmas and he seemed fine," "It'll be tough."


    Eyes, then eye, that saw. Ears, then muffled ears, that heard. When I try to imagine afterwards, I keep coming back to how much my father belonged to this one place on earth. I can't imagine more than all he had in his keeping: three houses, forty cleared acres, a hundred of woodland, and a dozen in fruit trees. Thou canst not follow me now, but thou shall follow me afterwards. If after is a word that doesn't come near, if what's to come can't be imagined from this life, then why does his farm seem to mean all the more to me now, as I stand in the orchard when the moon is down and watch the comet passing?

    His is a New England farm, and for all the stony soil, there's an intimate feel to the lay of the land with its small fields set off by chinked walls and the mixed woods beyond. My father's understanding of this place had accreted over eighty-five years, and at times I know he drove the wedge into wood with the resentment of the responsible son, at times with an effort born only of love. Over eighty-five years the original sound had swallowed its own echoes, and the most he could do was to tell me, "This is where I keep the receipts, this is where I keep the outstanding bills," as he opened the drawers in his office. Not much different from when he tried to teach me to prune the peaches: "This branch ... here ... see how the light will get through now?" as I stood puzzling it out alongside him.

    So, with the snow falling outside, and the deer lunging through the deepening drifts, I am left to figure the farm from the notes on his desk, from the business cards he had scribbled across. I find a name—Very Fine, Cal Jennings, Orchard Supply—and work back from there. The world I'm responsible for is more complex and less patient than the one he was born into. Hospital bills from his last illness are waiting, the pension fund needs proof of his death. Over the phone I have to recite his Social Security number to prove I know him. I have to mail out his death certificate again and again—the form itself, with its raised stamp, is what they want, not the facts that his parents were born in Lebanon and that it was his heart and kidneys that gave out. Even when such work goes smoothly, I sometimes throw down the pen and ask the desk, the walls, and the ledgers why I couldn't have learned all this before.

    And then a day comes when I have to erase his name from another account. First it was the checking account, then the Agway charge, and the Harris Seed charge. Sometimes it feels as if I'm erasing him everywhere until his name will remain only in his last place, on the hill, behind the white birch. I hate it, both the erasure and my realization that if we are going to go on I can't make the same decisions he would have made. I'm planning to spend more on repairs to the machinery than he ever would have agreed to. I'm thinking of selling a piece of far land as soon as the market's better.

    "Who's going to be farming in this valley ten years from now? Who?" my father once asked. I could say nothing in the face of the long years he had put in. I realize I know little of the work it will be, even though it's not a great deal of land. These acres he has left are almost nothing in comparison to the farms to the west, to farms in general. But it is ours, and one of the last here, and it feels huge to me.


    In his safe, among the canceled bank books and the stock certificates, I found the original deed to the farm. In 1902 it had been a thirty-five-acre holding with worn implements and gradey cattle. All the scattered outbuildings are described in detail, and every boundary is fixed: Thence northerly by said Herrick land as the fence now stands, to land now or formerly of Herbert Coburn, thence easterly by said Almon Richardson land as the fence now stands to the corner of a wall by said Almon Richardson land ... thence southerly ... thence westerly by the Black North Road to the point of beginning.

    The contents of the barns are listed, too: the hoes and shovels, the scythes and hammers, the Concord coach, the jumpseat wagon, two bay mares and their harnesses, five dairy cows and one milk pung, about thirty-five hens and all the chickens, one tip cart, and a blind horse. Plus feed for the blind horse. I swear, the worth of every nail is accounted for. For this my grandparents were so far mortgaged they had to cut down the pine grove to meet the payments. And now out of all that has been listed there, what has not been discarded or crumbled to a sifted heap hangs gathering an oily dust in the back of the carriage house or in the bins of the toolshed. The scythes have rusted to the nails they hang from, the leather collars for the horses have dried and cracked.

    When all is said and done and we tally the contents of my father's estate, such things will no longer be counted among his worth. What brought us here and forward, the things he started with back in his boyhood where his allegiances began, will be smiled at indulgently and hung back up and considered as nothing alongside the larger things that have replaced them—the Case tractor, the gleaming red harrow, the corn planter. Stand at the door of the barn and breathe in the must of those early things. Listen for a voice—hey bos, bos, bos—calling the cows home. Feel an ache in the worked-out shoulders and cold creeping into the firelit rooms. How else could we have come this way since the April day when, according to the deed, my grandfather, who could hardly write his name in English, made his mark?

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