It was in the fall of 1958 when we moved nine miles east of Somerset on Route 31, or the Somerset Pike as it was known, about a half-of-a-mile beyond the crossroads of Brotherton. At first, our parents loved their new location. Though, I am told, things got off to a rocky start soon after they bought the farm that summer. The story goes, before they actually had moved from Linshaw, Daddy drove home in a red, two-passenger MG sports car that he envisioned he needed for driving up and down the curvy mountain lanes of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Mother must have been less than enthused, because soon thereafter Daddy returned the MG for a Ford Fairlane, a popular and modestly-priced family car that could do the job and carry the family to the Presbyterian Church in Somerset too.
The farm offered much for my parents to love. A doctor and his wife who owned the property previously had torn down the old farm house next to the barn and built a modern, one-floor, ranch house about a half-a-mile away on the top of a hill overlooking the fields and the barn. A paved drive from the highway with twenty-five poplar trees on either side of the lane provided a beautiful scenic route directly to the house. Two ponds, fields, and a small half-acre of woods on the back side of the house completed the pastoral scene. With a large wall of windows in the dining and living rooms overlooking a patio with rose gardens, an extensive lawn, our fields, the top of our barn, and the hills in the distance, the view from the house was spectacular, especially of deer crossing the fields, geese flying overhead, and thrushes and pheasants rising up startled from our dogs running wild and free.
That first year on the farm we all were caught up in “farm” life – quite the mysterious adventure after living on an urban street in Pittsburgh. My mother, in particular, was intent on being the perfect gentleman-farmer’s wife, and Daddy, too, was enthused about commuting back and forth to our new home. Moving up from Pittsburgh in the fall actually allowed them to get us kids situated in school without them having to worry about the demands of the farm until later that spring. Still that winter was eye-opening in its harshness; the amount of snow that fell on our little farm at the top of the Alleghenies was incredible. At one point we could walk across the snow drifts onto the roof of our house.
Perhaps the incident I remember the most from that winter occurred during a week of bad weather in January. Daddy and Mother knew they had to get down to the barn and feed the livestock, and rather than Daddy going alone, or both of them going and leaving us kids, with Holly being the oldest at twelve and me being the youngest at five, they decided we all should go together and get the work done as quickly as possible. As kids, we were very excited to be going to the barn. We were told to put on our long underwear, wear blue jeans, and get our winter sweaters. Mother pulled out our heaviest winter leggings, boots, jackets, scarves, and gloves and had us all put them on – she looked concerned, but we were over the top: this was going to be fun, a family outing with everyone, including Mother and Daddy, in the snow!
Once they were sure we were bundled thoroughly, off we went heading for the barn. It was mid-afternoon and the snow seemed to have let up a little to allow us to cut a path where we thought the lane was from the house. However, even with our backs to the wind and snow, it didn’t take long for Allison and I to realize hiking down to the barn was not nearly as fun as throwing snowballs and making snow angels. Daddy led the way, then Holly, Charley, Allison and me, with Mother bringing up the rear. I can remember trying to walk the same line as everyone else and how hard it was to stand up. Allison and I soon were covered in snow from stumbling along behind Holly and Charley, and when we tried to walk on top of the snow, we discovered it wouldn’t support us either, as we quickly sank up to our waists. Mother soon became frustrated and yelled “Chuck, slow down. Allison and Jon can’t keep up.” Daddy stopped and hiked back up to us while Charley and Holly turned and gave us a look of disgust. “Helen, we’ve got to push on,” he said to her, “or we won’t get everything done. The storm will only get worse.” I remember thinking worse than this? He looked at Allison and me shivering in the wind. “You two can keep up with Charley and Holly, can’t you?” he asked us, but Mother answered before we could speak. “Yes, let’s get going. We’ll manage.”
It came as a relief when we finally pushed open the barn door and experienced the welcomed respite from the storm and the bone numbing cold. It seemed to me the animals were happy to see us, and, after a day or two of starving while the storm raged outside the barn, relieved to be fed, once again, and provided with fresh bedding. Still, I could hear the storm outside and see the eyes of our cows. They were scared. I thought, looking at my wet outer clothes, we all should stay and live in the barn until Spring, or, at least, until the storm was over, but, after an hour or two, Daddy insisted we had to get back to the house before it became too dark.
This time, in preparing to go outside, we knew what was in store for us. I’ll never forget standing there just inside the door as mother zipped my coat as tight as she could and tightened my scarf and pushed down my hat, “We can do this,” she said to me. “You have to be strong and stay with me.” I’ll never forget the look of determination on her face or Daddy’s face too when he stepped in from the outside. I’ll never forget all of us following him back out of the barn and feeling the wind push me against the wall as he closed the barn door behind us.
The storm had grown in intensity and was raging around us; I remember standing against the barn trying to see into the driving snow and realizing snow drifts had covered completely our earlier tracks. I remember all of us holding tightly onto each other’s gloved hands and we hadn’t even started walking. Daddy taking the lead, saying, “Okay, here we go,” forced us forward into the stiff wind and driving snow. Mother at the rear, saying “Come on Jon, Come on Allison,” urged us forward away from the security of the barn. “The house is just up the hill and dead ahead,” she said, but I couldn’t lift my eyes to see anything without the snow blinding me. I started crying and Allison did too, and we were still within yards of the barn. Mother was adamant, “Just keep stepping into footprint in front of you.” When I fell, she picked me up. “Jon, please, you must be more careful. Don’t get covered in snow or you’ll freeze, and we’re nowhere near the house.”
Allison and I were crying harder now and struggling to go forward into the storm. Daddy and Mother refused to give in though and forced us to keep walking up the hill, pushing through the knee-deep snow and waist-high drifts. After a bitter wind knocked me back, I couldn’t walk any further. I stood there crying in the snow feeling the cold tearing me apart. “Chuck, stop! Stop! Stop!” Mother kept shouting until Daddy heard her. Again, he trudged back to us. “They can’t go on. Where’s the house. Where’s the house.” She demanded over and over. “I don’t know,” I remember him saying. “You don’t know?” she shouted back at him. “It’s got to be just ahead,” he responded, leaning down to Allison and me and avoiding further discussion. “We’ve got to keep going. You can’t give up.” He squeezed my shoulders with his gloves, trying to give me strength, and picked up Allison and gave her a hug. “It’s only a little bit further,” he said, reassuring Mother, then me, then Allison. Mother held me against her as another gust of wind threatened to curtail her confidence. “Okay,” she said, not all that assured by his statement. “Come on, kids,” she said. “Follow your daddy; it’s our only way home.”
I tried to stop crying and focus instead on the steps in front of me; I lost all sense of time but remember the feeling at one point of no longer walking up hill, of crunching against what felt like stalks in the vegetable garden to the right of the house. Mother felt it too, and she yelled, “Chuck, where are we going?” Daddy turned back to her and, in doing so, spotted the house off in the distance. We were way off track from where he thought it was, and we had nearly walked past it in the field between the house and Somerset Pike. Shouting his surprise, he pointed to it, and Holly and Charley agreed, running, struggling through the drifts in that direction. “Thank god,” Mother said. With an incredible final push, coupled with immense sense of relief, Mother and Daddy, together, hurried Allison and me across the final distance and into the warm house.
We had been on the edge of disaster and, even as a five-year-old, I knew it. We all did. That day it became abundantly clear, living on the farm, anything could happen; our parents’ knowledge of what they were doing was the only protection we had to keep us safe. Though they were bound and determined to do just that, what we didn’t know was they had extremely limited information available to them or experiences to draw upon, as it turns out – only my Mother’s own memories of visiting her grandparents’ farm near Pittsburgh, and, of course, the work ethic they both brought with them from being raised by no-nonsense, single parents: my father with his strict, religious mother and my mother with her cold, alcoholic father.
Holliday Giles Sontheimer
I am sitting in the Raleigh/Durham airport waiting for my plane to Baltimore, which will meet up with my flight to Portland, Oregon. I am thinking about what to say to my younger brother, Jerry, later this afternoon when I arrive at his house – when my cell phone rings. It’s my sister Holly. Oh no. “Hey…” Holly is in her mid-60s, and I am two years away from that milestone. As the years have gone by, I find that it works best when we don’t talk too often. Of course, I’m like that with all of my family, and, in fact, Holly would say I talk to her more than anyone else, which is true. But the fact that we only talk to each other two or three times a year and given it isn’t Christmas or my daughter’s birthday, it comes as quite a surprise to hear her voice. “I heard you are going to visit Jerry,” she says. Jerry’s wife must have called her… My god, what does Susan want me to do? Holly asks, “Don’t you think we should talk about it?” Jeez, Holly, “I’m just going to visit,” I say, “I’ll talk to Jerry and see where things stand – that’s all.” There’s no response. “Holly, I’ll call,” I say, “as soon as I get back to North Carolina.” But, I’m thinking, what the hell can we do? She says, “I think you should tell Jerry to come home, come back to Gettysburg… until he gets his head straight.” Oh, that makes sense. Holly and Allison own a restaurant and bar in Gettysburg, both have been long-divorced, and, at this point, live together. Okay. Jerry loose in Gettysburg with my two crazy sisters and their fully stocked bar! Hmmmm. “You want me to tell Jerry to leave his family, escape his problems, and get his head straight with you and Allison?” I ask. “Don’t you think we need a better plan than that?” Why won’t they start loading the plane? “Jonathan,” she says, “what would you suggest?” I know what I want to suggest, but how to raise this issue? It’s been too many years, too much over the bridge. “Holly…,” I say, “I was thinking about mother and daddy last night.” There’s a long pause on the other end of the line.
Categories: My Family Story