Grandaddy named it El Rancho Grande, and had a politically incorrect sign featuring a snoozing Mexican in a sombrero made to go over the gate. In the family, it was always just called The Farm. One hundred acres in southeast Travis County, blackland prairie, not good for much but grazing cattle, though Grandmother had an acre garden where she grew green beans, tomatoes, watermelon, and some scraggly corn. Many's the summer we'd sit under the shade of the shed, next to the fig trees, and snap beans or spit watermelon seeds or crank ice cream.
One of my earliest memories of The Farm --- one of my earliest memories at all --- is of being made to pee outside and use one of those big rough fig leaves for toilet paper. Boy, did I hate that. When Grandmother and Grandaddy first bought the land, they hired a Mexican family to live in the white clapboard turn-of-the-century farmhouse and manage the cattle and horses. We weren't allowed to go inside the house. If we were visiting and needed to use the bathroom, Mom made us go behind the fig trees.
I don't know how long the family lived there, but one day the hired hand's brother got drunk and chased one of the colts around the corral until it fell into a bale of barbed wire. The colt had to be put down, and that was the end of the Mexican farm hands. Grandaddy fired them, and then he and Grandmother fixed up the house and moved in themselves. That was the beginning of my family's forty-odd year residency. I thought we would have it forever.
All of us kids grew up with The Farm as a second home. When I was three or four, Grandaddy brought home an ill-tempered Shetland pony named Lightning, and I was immediately smitten. My boy cousins and big brother were all afraid of him, but I was either too young or too in love with the pony to be scared. Grandaddy was very proud of his tiny cowgirl --- I got the first ride because I was the only one who would do it. Another very early memory is of a birthday party, mine. I remember sitting on the back porch steps, crying, because everybody was getting to ride except (I thought) me. That is all I remember of that particular party, except that some older relative kindly explained to me that I would get a turn and that hospitality required that guests go first.
Lightning was so bad-mannered with children that his tenure at The Farm was fairly brief. Next, Grandaddy brought home Noodles, a fat rusty-orange-and-blonde Shetland-Welsh mix and her unbroken colt, Champ. He brought them in the back of his station wagon! On my first ride around the huge fenced back yard, Champ chased us and playfully jumped up and put his hooves on my leg. He was not sure about me being on his mama's back.
There were plenty of other animals out at The Farm. Grandaddy had two other horses, a pinto named Trixie and a brown named Sunshine. Sometimes he would take me up on the saddle behind him, which always scared my mother. He would ride in the Sheriff's Posse Rodeo Parade, and one year I was supposed to get to ride with him. But I got sick and Mom wouldn't let me. One of the great disappointments of my childhood.
There were also a couple of German Shepherds, Pete and Repeat. Pete was a crafty fella. Repeat was sweet, but dumb as a box of rocks. I loved them both anyway. Grandmother kept guinea hens that laid colored eggs, as well as ducks, geese, chickens, and peacocks. We often had a box of tiny yellow chicks or yellow-and-brown ducklings living in a playpen our kitchen --- Mom would take them and sell them at the laundromat. In those days, in South Austin, there were no homeowners' associations to tell you you couldn't keep a backyard chicken coop, and plenty of people did. My brothers and I loved to hold those tiny peeping creatures, ever so gently, brushing them against our cheeks and laughing at their baby chirps and quacks. They were so soft and tender! We had a sunken back porch that flooded whenever it rained, and I always wished to let the little ducklings go swimming there. Back at The Farm, they had to be kept out of the tank (that's Texan for pond, y'all), else they'd be snatched from below by rapacious snapping turtles.
There were crawdaddies down by the tank, digging their holes and leaving little piles of tiny round pellets of clay in their wake like little sentinel towers. There were big, deep-voiced bullfrogs, and box turtles, and cottonmouth water moccasins and rattlesnakes. We didn't swim in the tank because of the water moccasins. You always had to be on the lookout, but when I was a kid, even with an overprotective mother, people didn't watch their children's every move. They warned them of the dangers and let them get out in the world.
Another thing we did for fun at The Farm was drive the Blue Bomber out in the fields. The Blue Bomber was an ancient 1940s Ford pick-up truck. It had running boards on the side. I was too little to stand on the running boards or to drive, but my older cousins could and did, and us little'uns rode in the back. The thing probably didn't go any faster than 20 miles an hour. Can you imagine parents in this day and age letting their kids do this? And yet, none of us ever got hurt. We were redneck children.
These childhood memories of The Farm don't surface in my everyday life. In fact, I rarely think of The Farm at all. We sold it a few years ago; a painful necessity; we'd all believed we would have it forever, that the next generation would grow up visiting Mimi there as we had visited Grandmother, and I confess that there was a part of me that always believed I myself would one day occupy the position of Farm Matriarch, in which case The Farm would be in for its first hippie incarnation.
Even after we sold it, the expected dreams did not come. I thought I would mourn it; I thought I would pine for it. But I did not. The moving process was so overwhelming that we were all glad to be done with it, and then busy life asserted itself again and I rarely think about it. But night before last, I had a vivid and upsetting dream about The Farm. We were still living there, all of us, the entire extended family, and the next door neighbors to whom we had rented land were taking awful liberties. They were cutting down trees, plowing up the tank, bringing buses of tourists into our driveway. They had a rude and careless handyman who I would catch doing these things; and the entire dream consisted of me having confrontations with this guy, making him stop doing one thing only to catch him at something else.
I know why I dreamed what I did --- it's related to a real-life situation in which I feel attacked and somewhat off balance --- but it's interesting to me that my subconscious set the dream at The Farm, and that it came back to me in such vivid detail (the antique doorknobs! the cracked cement of the porch step!). I am assaulted in one of the places I feel most secure and to which I feel most entitled, the place that can be attacked but never really taken away from me. Even now that The Farm does not exist for me as a physical location, it lives forever as a very deep, real part of me. I carry it with me. I fight for it, even in my dreams.