Common Wisdom: On Turning 50

I celebrated my fiftieth birthday a few months ago. I have never minded telling my age. Since observant people can figure it out anyhow, coyness serves no purpose. And so I tell.

Besides, I am strangely attached to my years and even to some of the marks of those years—the lines around the eyes, for example, and the tweed hair that got a foothold in my late twenties. These signs indicate to me that life is proceeding apace under the comforting watchfulness of God’s providence. Much before 50, I had not experienced enough life to be sure; now the weight of evidence for providence is overwhelming. The signs of age are a small price for surety; I might even say that as an exchange for certainty they are welcome.­

When I turned 50 someone handed me a sheet of paper listing some celebrities who also claim 1941 as their year of birth—Ann-Margret, Paul Anka, Neil Diamond, Faye Dunaway—a group with whom I am probably unlikely to find common cause other than having been born a few months before Pearl Harbor. I hope, though, that these four celebrants had as great a birthday as I did, for I had two birthday celebrations—the first planned and long anticipated, the second a complete, utter surprise. Both celebrations were in their way a recollection of some of the best parts of my life. Both, I am convinced, were providential.

The much anticipated celebration was a gathering of eight college sorority sisters, all turning 50, who came to Cincinnati for an October weekend. After the first hour, spent catching up and reorienting ourselves, we gabbed without let-up. It seemed amazingly effortless to speed across decades to connect a bifocaled friend tilting her glasses to read her menu with the roommate in Lanz flannel nightgown, her chemistry text propped on her knees, and her furry-slippered feet anchored on the rung of an adjoining chair.

There is a satisfying durability in friendships that have sprung up in our youthful formation. Although friendships forged in our maturity may prove richer and more truly a bond of common purpose and interest, they never quite capture that affectionate, forgiving good humor that is the gift of those who knew us when our characters, tastes, and beliefs were just emerging. We are grateful to those who have overseen the span of our lives and yet remain steady in their tolerance of us. There is nothing that quite matches the protective tenderness of friends who have set out with us in our teens and twenties, who have bothered to keep track of us through all our stages of unfolding, and with whom we are about to open another chapter, the launching of the next generation.

I admired and liked these girls when I was 18 and 20, and we were all jumping off together into an exciting, frightening unknown, talking late into the night of our hopes for men and children to love us, homes to enfold us, ideas to enthrall us. I like and admire these women even more now, when we are all on the brink of turning over another generation, positioned as we are between, on the one hand, caring for those who cared for us, and, on the other, sending our children into lives and homes of their own. These women were remarkable girls; they are even more noteworthy as they move into the chapter when they will become grandmothers.

The second birthday celebration was not a party but a discovery, yet another corroboration of God’s vigilance. Through the alertness of a friend, we learned of some property for sale. We looked on Sunday and bought on Tuesday, in the very week when both my husband and I had our birthdays. We had no intention of buying land. We had not dreamed of such a thing. But how could we resist a grand view stretched along a half-mile ridge 300 feet above the Ohio River at a place called Rabbit Hash,

44 Kentucky, directly across from Rising Sun, Indiana? In just one hour on that warm September afternoon—taking in the view of our Ohio sweeping away into a curl between the hills; hiking along a fringe of the heavy woods on these steeply rolling 83 acres; picking our way through the tobacco patch and finding, where the brush meets the woods, the circular scrape of a white-tailed buck who had marked his territory—in just one hour we fell in love with this land. Friends who know us well said they were not surprised. They said we had been preparing for years for the Rabbit Hash farm. They were only half right, I think. It was the Lord who mostly was preparing this serendipity.

Twenty-seven years ago my husband and I, newly married, went to housekeeping in an apartment overlooking the Ohio River in the little town of Newburgh, Indiana. There we learned to love the river in all its seasons, cherishing its gray winter sobriety or its hot summer dazzle, memorizing the hum of its barges, waiting for its best treasure, the sternwheeler Delta Queen, to whistle her steaming calliope in farewell as she paddled downstream. Our roots from the beginning were in the Ohio Valley. Fortunately, we were allowed the luxury of keeping them because, even when we moved, we only went four hours upstream to Cincinnati.

All these years we have retained our tie to the river; even in suburbia we have lived where we could travel alongside the river nearly every day. But we never remotely imagined that we would own the very sort of place that as newlyweds we dreamed about. Providence has been generous indeed. And at such a place as Rabbit Hash!

Downriver from Cincinnati, past North Bend, the Ohio snakes sharply south toward the Markland Dam, flowing past Lawrenceburg, Aurora, and Rising Sun on the Indiana side; and Petersburg, Belleview, Rabbit Hash, and Warsaw on the Kentucky side. By river Rabbit Hash is a long way from our house. By land it is only 35 miles, a 50-minute run at most. No one knows how the most picturesque of these river towns, Rising Sun and Rabbit Hash, got their names. It has been suggested by Sally Scott, who formerly ran the Rabbit Hash General Store, the only store among the dozen homes in Rabbit Hash, that during a flood in pioneer days all the rabbits ran out of the bottoms into the hills, and people had little to eat but rabbit hash. The tiny town became known as the rabbit hash place. I take Mrs. Scott’s word for it. I am now devoted to her column of Rabbit Hash news that runs in the local weekly, the Boone County Recorder.

The very day after we bought the farm the world seemed different—all new somehow. My father maintains that owning property does make the world different. He holds that owning a house and lot is one thing, but owning land—acreage—is real ownership. It implies responsibility for a piece of the earth, linking us to those who have come before and those who will come after. My dad has already given his instructions: “Never sell!” He is now waiting for us to build a wrap-around front porch on which he can move from rocking chair to rocking chair, depending on the shifting breeze. The future house, he declares, is unimportant—the porch is the main thing.

We learned a lesson on our first trip as property-owners to the farm. If we want to find out what is going on in the world, we will go there. Not to New York or Washington or Chicago—but to the farm. Each time we go, we know we will see something new. No sooner are we in the van and wending our way through the cozy Kentucky hills than we begin to shed our everyday cobwebs and to think more clearly. By the time we reach Union we are in our new world. Ten more miles winding through steep creek valleys and woodland punctuated with the dappled brown and white spines of sycamores, passing such quaint signs as Old Horsely Ferry Road, and we are at the little Rabbit Hash intersection which points one way to the Lower River Road and the other to East Bend Road on the upper ridge. We swing into East Bend, our road, past the tiny cemetery that sits atop an Indian mound, past Russ and Debbie Cloyd’s mobile home (Russ does our bush-hogging), and then we come to our gravel road. Once inside the gate, we slowly crunch down the hill and then up again, hoping to spot a doe and her fawn bounding across the brush into the woods. At the top of the rise, where Harry Schwabe, the former owner, has cleared a fine meadow, we pull up beside the barn and look to our right. The meadow rolls away toward the trees along the ridge, and through the open space on the northern slope we see the river cut its majestic curve around fields of rich Indiana bottom land, and then straighten as it passes Rising Sun and nears Rabbit Hash below us. We walk down the rise to the edge of the clearing, sprinkling cracked corn for the wild turkeys who in stately formation will parade from the woods at dusk. We have seen as many as 15 turkeys on stage at one time.

We circle back along the ridge through the woods, pausing to note the glimpses of river that glisten far below through the trees. A tow with its barges is laboring downstream, delivering coal to the East Bend power plant. Its droning motor is a lullaby to our ears, shooting us back in time to our Newburgh years, when we knew most of the barge lines listed in the Waterways Journal and lived as neighbors with their towboats. Hearing the sound that years ago was as familiar to us as breathing, that more than anything captures for us the romance of the river and which we never again expected to hear as the background of life, is one of the most joyful aspects of the Rabbit Hash farm. I am convinced that only providence could have thrust this insistent burr back into our life.

We work our way down the wooded ridgebone along an ancient wagon path, scattered with stones imprinted with Ordovician fossils. Hedge apples roll underfoot. We catch a brief flash of two white tails. This is a favorite spot in the woods for our deer. In a while we begin clambering uphill through the brambles, crossing little creek beds that will run in the spring. We emerge from the woods at the barbed wire fence bordering the tobacco patch. I have not yet mastered the art of scaling a barbed wire fence, and I think my husband’s old army method of scooting underneath is even worse.

We pick our way through stubble and brush down to the oak-encircled pond, where fat noisy frogs leap as if greeting the Visitation. We find raccoon and deer tracks in the mud. The pond is full of algae. Our friend Randy has told us a couple of grass-eating carp will clear up our problem.

When we hike back up the hill to the barn, Gypsy and Bob, the horses that Russ and Harry still keep on the place, are waiting for us to feed them apples. Old Pony slowly comes up for her share. She is a walk-on, Harry tells us, who simply showed up one day and stayed.

We have seen the farm through two seasons, autumn and winter. Autumn was a spectacular show. But I may love winter even better. In winter, when the leaves are gone, we can see everything. The full panorama of the river unfolds along the entire ridgeline. Dusted with snow, the hills rest in holy quiet, affirming my conviction that this homey, unglaciated landscape of the Ohio Valley is the haven of all the world.

On a cold, rainy morning at Christmas, after we had just put our son on a plane to deliver an engagement ring to his bride-to-be, I stood with my husband under the pine trees along the fence overlooking the barnyard and the pond and the tobacco patch. We had seen two deer and a pileated woodpecker that morning. We had walked through the woods in tune with the soft dripping of rain on maple leaves. Now, in the hush of rain trickling from the barn roof and from the pine needles above us, we watched a fox stroll through the tobacco patch and down the slope to disappear among some old logs by the pond.

We began to talk of our favorite thing—the prospect of children and grandchildren enjoying the farm. From the beginning, we now venture to think, providence must have intended us to be trustees to care for this patch of land and for the people who inhabit it. I am reminded of my Christmas present for the farm—a hand-colored print by the painter John Ruthven of the Eastern Wild Turkey in full display of plumage. Even better, however, is the gift that came with the painting—a small brass plate inscribed “Anne’s Place, 1991.”

By

Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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