March 18, 2009

Treaures From the Farm

2009 1508 page14 cap recently returned to the family farm to bury my great-aunt. She died just 10 days shy of her ninety-ninth birthday, having lived on the farm almost her entire life. The trip involved not only attending the funeral and burial services, but also making decisions that, in essence, would bring to a close a long chapter of family history. For me the trip would last three days, but the lessons will stay for a lifetime.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).

My husband and I flew to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After picking up our rental car, we proceeded across the wintery landscape toward the center of Wisconsin. I had visited the farm often in my childhood, but less frequently as an adult. As the miles unfolded outside the car window, my mind wandered back to childhood memories—some of the happiest times spent in this place with these people.

The house was built in 1854 by my great-great-great-grandfather Kneeland Abbott. Called a “century house,” it had survived yet another winter serving the same family for more than 150 years. I first visited the home at age 6. I knew it as the home of my great-grandmother Isel. She had grown up here as a child, later married, and then returned, moving in with her husband and eight children—my grandfather being one of them.

2009 1508 page14The family was tight-knit. My great-grandfather, Isel’s husband, was an itinerant Seventh-day Adventist minister and farmer. He rode circuit among the small Adventist companies and churches of Wisconsin, holding tent meetings, baptizing, and supporting the flock. The farm was run by his wife and the eight children, whose ages from oldest to youngest spanned 21 years. The two oldest children, my grandfather and his oldest sister, left the farm as young adults to pursue their lives and careers in other places. His sister traveled as far as Mississippi, establishing her family home there. My grandfather worked for the church, moving from New York to Illinois to Indiana to Pennsylvania. Trips home to the farm were frequent for him and his family, which included my mother.

The other six children remained relatively close to the family farm. Two stayed on to manage the farm; the other four became teachers. Their teaching careers took them to various points within the state of Wisconsin. One eventually became a minister’s wife and ventured farther into other nearby states. But the visits to the farm were frequent, and in their retirements they all moved back to either the farm or within a short driving distance.

Now the last remaining sibling, Lillian, has died, and I stand in the kitchen as a witness to the home’s silent testimony, my aunt’s things just as she left them when she went to the hospital.

We walk through the house, absorbing the legacy, the history, and the “stuff” we associate with living. Part of the purpose of this trip was to sort, review, evaluate, and secure my aunt’s belongings, but it didn’t take long to realize that a century house can also hold a century of things.

Within about an hour after we begin our exploration, I recognize that someone (probably my aunt) has meticulously sorted and stored things according to siblings. What I thought would be the simple gathering, organizing, and dispersing of one individual’s belongings actually involves six people’s belongings. Carefully packed and stored in each sibling’s bedroom are many of the things they accumulated in their lifetimes. Things of special importance to them—books, photographs, clothes, souvenirs, scrapbooks, handiwork, knick-knacks, letters, and papers—were carefully preserved as mute testimonies to their living.

At first, sorting is slow as I go through each box, drawer, and suitcase. Holding things once used by a generation of people I never met and reviewing the cherished items of someone’s youth somehow makes the past become almost tangible. One can almost hear the words speaking of the legacy of lives well lived. But the hours on the old clock continue to tick, and time becomes precious as we realize there are fewer than 48 hours left before the plane must take us home again.

As we continue to sort, things that at first we felt we could not possibly let go become less desirable. I begin to develop hierarchies in my mind as to what determines whether something “stays” or “goes.” After the second day it begins to dawn on me that while all these things were once important to the owners, they are not consequential to me. All of it is just “stuff.”

How much stuff do we accumulate throughout a lifetime? How much importance do we place on things? Certainly, we need items for daily life, and I’m not advocating that we sell all and become vagabonds. But it’s important to remember the real purpose of our lives and to where we should be headed. It’s important to remember that no matter how much we accumulate, how many things we can list that we own, how important our collections are, how much value we place on items we hold dear, as the saying goes, “We take none of it with us.” Instead, it’s left behind for the next generation to sort, review, evaluate, save, or discard.

2009 1508 page14I’m glad my family put so much importance on family heritage. I’m thrilled with the family heirlooms that are now in my possession. I’m also grateful for someone’s thoughtfulness to have preliminarily sorted through belongings and organized them so well for me. But I also know that what is most important is that “where my treasure is, there my heart is also.” What is important is not the stuff we fill our houses with, but what we fill our hearts with.

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls’” (Jer. 6:16).

The farmhouse was built in 1854 by Kneeland Abbott and his wife, Delilah. The spiritualism movement was beginning to spread across the country in the 1860s. Several spiritualists moved into this region, and soon Delilah joined the effort, becoming a spiritualist medium. She held séances in the house, believing that those who had “passed on” could speak to her. A daughter of Delilah and Kneeland had died at a young age, and Delilah would write messages to her on a slate, leaving it in her daughter’s bedroom and shutting the door behind her as she left. In the morning she would find a message in response, written in her daughter’s handwriting.

Belief in spiritualism was so strong that land was purchased for a cemetery just down the road from the farm. Standing at a crossroads, it is called “SpiritLand” or “Spirit-Land Corner,” names given to reflect its inhabitants.

Around 1871, Adventist minister O. A. Olsen, who three years later was elected president of the Wisconsin Conference and then president of the General Conference in 1888, began tent efforts just a short distance from the farm. Soon a small company of believers was established, but it would be 10 years before Delilah was interested. In the summer of 1882 pastors A. J. Breed and J. J. Smith again set up an evangelistic tent. High interest developed among town residents, including Delilah and her family. They attended and were baptized. From that moment on the course of history for that house and our family changed. Instead of calling demons, voices were praising God. Instead of living according to the father of lies, lives were educated in spiritual truth. The house was a place where Sabbath services were held instead of séances. Instead of generations of family members who would follow the world, seven generations have now entered into and have lived the Adventist faith.

Those things I found as I went from room to room spoke volumes of this choice. The number of Bibles, Spirit of Prophecy books, Chapel records, Voice of Prophecy recordings, Quiet Hour tapes, Sabbath school quarterlies, and other Adventist memorabilia were too numerous to count. Delilah, Isel, and their husbands had done their jobs well. Their children were staunch believers and studiers of the Word.

From the time I was a small child I remember being told that the farm would be the place to go to in the “time of trouble.” For a family who lived in light of the Second Coming, the farm was always held up as a spiritual stronghold in the event of persecution. “Come home and you will be safe.” The same invitation was given to my husband after we were married. The home that was a place for demons instead stood as a home of spiritual refuge because of a choice made 125 years ago.

The cemetery that was named to elicit the otherworldly appearance of its inhabitants is the resting place for almost all my family. But now the name does not call to mind their earthly bodies, but rather the spiritual rest in Jesus as they await the call of the trumpet of God.

Faith decisions matter. They have a longtime impact on generations that follow. Never underestimate the power of conversion, choice, or faith instruction within your family. If you have not begun to invest in the faith choices of your children and grandchildren, do so now. It will have a long-standing influence until the Lord comes.

“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (1 Thess. 4:11, 12).

It was the death of my aunt Lillian that brought me back to the farm. She spent a lifetime there, never marrying, never holding a job other than managing the farm, never holding a title or position, never attaining great wealth. Lillian was not well-traveled, but stayed essentially within 25 miles of the family homestead. She dedicated herself to caring for her elderly mother, tending to the various livestock and gardening needs of the farm, and eventually caring for siblings who became ill later in life. Her own health was poor and she was known as the “weakest” of the eight siblings, yet she outlived them all.

A stranger in this small farming community, I stood at the head of her casket wondering whom I would meet and whether I would know what to say as they came. A steady stream of people began arriving even before the calling hours actually had begun. I found that I didn’t have to worry about what to say to them, because they informed me. I stood for almost two hours and heard story after story of a woman who had delivered food to those who were sick, picked up children for Vacation Bible School, always had time for a visit, always smiled, always was friendly. Probably the story that best illustrated this was one given by a woman who came to stand at the side of the casket. I made my introduction, and she began to tell me her story.

She was 8 years old when Lillian met her at a VacationBibleSchool. The woman admitted to having a difficult home life, and Lillian was the first person she remembered making her feel like she was special. That whole week she blossomed under Lillian’s attentiveness. Other Bible school experiences that followed were the same. “It was the influence of your aunt that made me decide to become a nurse,” she told me.

After nursing school, she went to work at the hospital nearest to the farm. My aunt, in her later years, was hospitalized, and she and the woman met again after 30 years of being apart. “It was a wonderful reunion,” the woman said.

2009 1508 page14“So you were able to take care of her this last time, when she died?” I asked.

The woman smiled and said, “Well, no; I’m the administrator now. But it was because of this that I was able to understand the health-care system enough to allow her to die where she wanted to be—there at the hospital and not in a nursing home or other institution.”

Then it became clear to me. We, at a distance, wondered how my aunt was able to stay in the hospital as long as she did. We knew the stringent rules of health care and the limited amount of time one is given for a hospital stay. We also knew that she had made it clear that she wanted to be home or in the hospital—nowhere else. But we couldn’t figure out how anyone managed to lengthen her stay. Now I knew. A kindness extended 40 years ago to an 8-year-old had returned.

People who have heard of my journey back to a century farmhouse have asked about antiques, old treasures, and rare things of value. But I believe I gained something worth far more than earthly treasure. The treasure from the farm is seen in three things: leading a simple life, making lasting choices of faith, and finding ways to express daily kindness to others. These are the things that make a difference. 

Merle Poirier is technology projects coordinator for Adventist Review and operations manager for Adventist World, the monthly international journal of the church.