Five Thousand Days Like This One
The day before Christmas, 1994, John Brox took ill enough for someone to call 911. He'd been failing for a while, his handwriting growing weak along with his eyes, his hearing, his knees and his kidneys. He'd begun to talk urgently to his daughter Jane about such things as where the important papers were kept. When the ambulance came and packed him inside for the trip to the hospital, Jane followed in her car. She was thinking about how, lying flat and able to see who knew what out the ambulance window, he might be glimpsing for the last time the Merrimack Valley farm where he lived all his life.
Five Thousand Days Like This One is Jane Brox's meditation on her father's death and her heritage. Broader by far than is suggested by its subtitle--An American Family History--the book is a heart-gripping evocation of the past, as well as a glimpse, as we approach the end of a century, into one probable future.
John Brox was the son of Lebanese immigrants. His parents, born subjects of the Ottoman Empire in what was then Syria, immigrated to Massachusetts and then, miraculously, saved enough money to buy 35 acres of good farmland halfway between Lawrence and Lowell. They raised dairy cows; their son favored corn and tomatoes, apples and squash--a good thing, since the Midwest overtook local farms as a source of fresh, clean milk for New England cities.
He kept the farm going as the cities and suburbs pressed in, an accomplishment few matched. And amid the dung and baling wire, the worn-out tractor parts and handsome plows, he also reared a writer who remembers him in tender and revealing ways. In an essay about disappearing apple varieties Jane Brox writes: "Here, the remaining Baldwin tree is framed in my bay window. The late light backs it in all seasons, and I watch its changes as I work, and read, and eat my breakfast and lunch. The man who planted this tree also built my small, white farmhouse--he repaired with scrap, insulated with newspaper, saved string, lived a more frugal life than I could ever imagine. Who knows why, but it's this tree that reminds me of his effort and economy and the rough stone over his grave."
Brox covers more ground--historical and emotional--in this small book than seems possible. A reader won't forget Thoreau on the wild Merrimack, paddling with his brother and cadging well water and bread at riverbank farms. Brox makes the cloth dust swirl in the air and down hapless workers' lungs as they take their places in the factories, segregated by language and privilege, in Lowell and Lawrence mills. She describes the smell of bread flowing across dirty streets and through tenements. (Bread is a cultural touchstone for the immigrants, worth an agonizing strike when the factory owners try to cut pay the equivalent of two loaves a week.) And she brings back the 1918 influenza epidemic, which raged through the mill towns and killed more people than the late war.
With Brox it's all personal. That, backed up by the careful language of a poet, is her gift in this book. When she writes about the farmland disappearing it isn't just nostalgia. Watching the farm become untenable, she wrestles with the meaning of her ancestors' lives and wonders whether she'll betray their dreams and hard work if she can't hold on. But at the same time she reveals a stubborn practicality that recognizes how everything changes.
She quotes Thoreau on the wild apple trees farmers once planted, not in neat orchard rows but beside stone walls in inches of unused land: "I fear that he who walks over these hills a century hence will not know the pleasure of knocking off wild apples. Ah, poor man! there are many pleasures he will be debarred from."
And Brox writes: "So we also are aftercomers of a kind and cannot guess the beauty been."
In the days after her father died--he lay in intensive care for less than a week--Brox went through his desk, making sense of the papers and coming upon keepsakes, "mute things that had lost the one who could best speak for them."
Sitting there she remembered a story he told. He was so quiet, Brox says, that you paid attention to the stories. Appropriately, it was about apples.
"'No one believes me,' I remember him saying, `but I stood by the Bay of Fundy on the eve of the war and saw apples coming in on the tide. The bay was full of apples. The ships had dumped their cargoes to take on supplies for the war.'"
"That's all I know," Brox writes. "And no matter how much, I want to know more."
And yet this book knows everything.