Until I was 35, the only real home I ever knew was a place I never lived.
When I was a kid, my peripatetic Dad moved our family, it seemed, every six months. We lived in so many rented houses, apartments, parsonages and trailer parks that I lost count.
I was then, as now, an introvert. I always hated moving, hated making new friends.
What I craved was stability. For me, stability meant a place to call home, a place that would always be there, that I never had to leave unless I wanted to.
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The nearest thing I had was my Papa and Grandma Chestnut’s farm in Pulaski County.
When I was a boy, we visited Papa and Grandma about once a month, sometimes for a Saturday afternoon, sometimes for a whole weekend.
Every time we went, I felt as if I’d been off somewhere strange and had found my way back to where I truly belonged.
As farms go, it wasn’t much. It covered less than 40 hilly acres, but back then you could eke out a living on a plot that size, raising tobacco and a big garden, milking a few cows, annually killing a hog or two. My mom’s family had earned their keep there since the late 1800s.
That’s when Papa’s dad bought the land, after returning to Kentucky from an adventure as a Montana cowboy. According to the family story, when he bought it, it was covered in timber and considered worthless. His friends laughed at his folly.
He worked as a night watchman. When he got off work in the mornings, he’d spend the rest of the day cutting down trees, blasting up stumps and burning the remains. When he slept, I don’t know.
“I’d like to have all that lumber he burned,” I remember Papa saying. “Today, that would be worth a lot of money.”
By the time I came along, the farm had been in the family more than 60 years. My grandfather was born there. My mom was born there.
I loved every foot of the place, as if the grass, rocks, barn and pond were alive, were part of my bloodstream.
If the weather was pretty, I’d spend the morning roaming the fields alone, which suited me fine. I was a responsible kid, and the adults would allow me to tromp around with a loaded gun — sometimes a shotgun, sometimes a .22 rifle, sometimes even a pearl-handled pistol.
“Don’t shoot at the cows or the dogs,” Papa would caution. “Don’t shoot at anything if you don’t know for sure what’s on the other side of it.”
I’d pretend I was a cowboy like my great-grandfather. I’d use up a box of ammunition on tin cans and fence posts.
I’d nose around in the sagging cabin where my great-grandfather had brought his bride before they finally built a suitable clapboard house in 1914.
In the afternoons, I’d follow Papa to the barn. As he milked, he’d tell me funny stories about each cow and the crazy things she liked to do.
On warm evenings, Papa and I would lie on the grass beneath a maple tree in the front yard. We’d talk and talk.
In those days I might be living anywhere — our latest Kentucky town, or Ohio, or, for one summer, Massachusetts.
But that farm was always home.
Then one Sunday, Papa collapsed in the driveway that led from the barn. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Grandma realized she couldn’t keep the farm going without him, and she sold it to a developer, although she retained the house.
Later, the developer tore down the barn and other outbuildings to put up a subdivision. The farm disappeared.
Except in my mind. Long after it ceased to exist in any tangible world, it remained my only home, well into my adulthood.
Finally, when I was in my 30s, my first wife, Renee, and I were able to afford our own house. That became my new home. Even though Renee passed away in 2005, and even though I’m remarried, to Liz, I remain in the same house. Been here 25 years, all told.
I imagine the only way I’ll move again is when they cart me out to the hearse, which will deliver me to my final earthly home.
But it’s funny. Sometimes, when I’m lying in the dark, alone with my memories, I can still smell the malty aroma from Papa’s hayloft and hear hot milk squirting against a tin pail.
I can feel the calluses of Papa’s hand patting my crewcut.
I discover I’m an old man, yet still somehow 11 years old, still present at my first home, still innocent and at peace with that vanished place I knew and loved and understood.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.