You’re helping your parents close down their house, as they prepare to move to a retirement home. Hundreds if not thousands small decisions have to be made. What do we do with this onyx Aztec god, a souvenir from Gatlinburg (oddly enough)? What about that marble lamp your mother loves so much? And that big iron skillet where so many pancakes and banana fritters were made?
And then you find a folder of what at first appear to be old, fading handwritten notes. The notes turn out to be poems, written most of them written by your grandfather in the last decade of his life. Sorting, packing, and decision making all stop as you sit on the floor, reading what your grandfather remembered of his own boyhood.
Something like that happened to Brian Schulenberg, a pastor in Minnesota, as he was helping his parents to move to a retirement home. He found the folder of poems by his grandfather, Arthur Elfstrom (1906-1980). The 68 poems were all written in the 1970s, and they all describe the life and experiences of a boy growing up in the 1910s on a farm in Michigan.
Elfstrom had been a tool and die maker. He’d earned a high school diploma as an adult, long after his teens. It’s not certain when he began to write poetry, but the 68 poems in A Country Life: A Collection of Poems by Arthur Elfstrom were in the folder which bore only the title “A Country Life.”
The poems look back to childhood, and paint an almost idyllic view of growing up. They cover the natural world surrounding the Elfstrom farm – cherry blossoms, a hickory tree, dogwood flowers, a stream and spring, birds. They cover the work of the farm – digging for potatoes, baking bread, a watermelon patch, a threshing machine, farm animals, making maple syrup. They’re about what children on a farm do and how they play – games, fishing, camping, meeting a hermit, falling asleep in the hay, going to school (while the family dog waits all day outside the schoolhouse). And they about the treasures of childhood, including that favorite spot in the woods that you knew the adults were completely unaware of.
I longed again to see the scene,
To hear the outdoor noise
That pasture, wood and swamp produce
Just like when we were boys.
The old time farm left little time
For boys to stay away,
But somehow boys know how to plan
And make some time for play.
No road led to this backwood spot
And decades now had passed
Since we as boys roamed o’er this ground
Times rushes by so fat.
‘Twas here we pitched out little tent
Close to the rover’s bend,
And hoped the hour would not come
When this would have to end.
I closed my eyes to hear again
The scolding of a jay,
Just like when we intruded there
Back in that distant day.
A herd of cows again grazed on
In solitude and peace,
While single file upstream there swam
A string of quacking geese.
A contemporary critic might call these poems nostalgic and sentimental. And they are both of those things. But that doesn’t prevent them from exerting a powerful pull on one’s own memories of childhood, and seeing them for what can only be understood in retrospect.
Brian Schulenberg, the editor of the poems and who assembled them into this book, is the senior pastor at Woodbury Community Church in Woodbury, Minnesota. He’s also the author of three books in the Youth Specialties Quick Questions series and I’m Speechless – Zechariah’s Story, a Christmas one-act play for one actor.
A Country Life is about an American childhood, the kind of experiences that have now vanished for the vast majority of children but which were once fairly common. The poems reflect an understanding that they speak to a vanished time. But they continue to live in memory, and that makes them even more powerful.
Top photograph by Bryan Minear via Unsplash. Used with permission.