If you described the house today you could make it seem more interesting by using terms like tiny home, sustainable, a suburban homestead. I just called it Uncle Leon’s and I would travel down the street to the simple little house 4 doors away. Like a modern day retelling of the Three Little Pigs, Uncle Leon built this house out of cinderblocks by himself and other family members. It was small, and not pretty, but it served its purpose. It withstood a house fire and then it finally was fancied up just enough by adding siding and some new windows. I didn’t travel to visit the house usually though, I visited the rustic looking sheds on the middle of the yard that led to the vast garden spanning the property corner to corner.
You could hear it before you reached the door. The rustling sounds of the skittish critters, the sounds of animals literally bouncing off the walls with anticipation, the dull clucking and the random cock-a-doodle-do greeted you as you approached. There were smells too as any farm(ette) has. Feathers, compost, ammonia, dirt….poop. None of these things fazed me though. I grew up making this trek almost daily in the summertime and randomly during the school year.
When I was younger, I would always make sure Uncle Leon knew I was there to ensure I was allowed to visit the ducks and the peacocks and the pheasants and of course the baby chicks or bunnies (they were my favorite). Most often I would find him working in the garden or the chicken coops and he always greeted me with a smile and took time out of whatever he was doing to walk me over to some critter and let me pet it or hold it. He was always kind and helpful and if I did ever come at a bad time he never let on that I was a burden. He always made time for me and my love of little animals.
I didn’t go in the house very often but that is where he would set up the incubator to hatch the chicks. It seemed like an odd placement but who was I to judge. There wasn’t really any other space that would do, so there it sat, right in the middle of the kitchen next to the refrigerator. He could watch tv in the living room and then look across the room to see a baby chick hatch,which seems like something much more interesting to me than tv. It was my own private farm show. I didn’t have to stand on my tippy toes to peer over a line of other spectators to see the eggs crack open. I was their only audience and it was delightful. I didn’t fully appreciate it until I went to the farm show years later and I saw that everything I grew up with is what so many others want and they will deal with crowds just to get a taste of it once a year.
Uncle Leon is actually my great uncle, my dad’s uncle, my Grandpa Keeler’s brother. Grandpa and Grandma Keeler lived 2 houses in the other direction and Uncle Leon’s was on the corner between our house and theirs. It was a little Keeler corner. I would float between the 2 houses visiting, chatting, eating their food, playing with animals. I count all 3 of them as my home in many ways and Uncle Leon was like a third Grandpa.
As I got older I visited less as other things took up my time but no matter my age, I still looked forward to going to Uncle Leon’s and seeing what different critters would greet me this time around. As a child I truly didn’t appreciate the garden and it seems fitting that as each year passes my yard transforms a bit more into a replica of his. Grass disappears and the garden expands. Flower beds become tiny orchards. The balcony becomes a trellis for hops. My dream of chickens won’t die but I need to get creative thanks to codes in our town. I never had heard of an urban homestead when I was younger but it’s what I have been creating and all paths lead back to my Uncle Leon for my inspiration.
Each time we visit my parents I always want to stop by but don’t necessarily find the time. I have made sure both kiddos have visited enough to appreciate it and the man behind the coop. Christmas Eve this year was the warmest on record and the kids and cousins were getting antsy hanging out in the house. After an impromptu round of soccer fun in the back yard my mind led back to what I did when I was bored growing up. Let’s go to Uncle Leon’s and visit the chickens. Rosie and Isaac trekked along down the familiar path and we stopped by the house to see if he was around. He didn’t get around well lately and instead of knocking I just peered in through the door window to see if I saw anyone, as I didn’t want to bother him if he was sleeping. No one seemed to be around so we let ourselves into the small coop. There used to be at least 50 animals there when I grew up but now there were just 5 pheasants and 1 lone chicken that Uncle Leon’s son, John, now takes care of. We stayed for 15 minutes or so and then walked home after picking a few confused dandelions from his yard.
About 2 hours after we got back to my parent’s house my dad got the call from John that Uncle Leon had passed away at the hospital the night before.
I kept an eye out for the obituary knowing that it wouldn’t post until after Christmas. Reading it I was saddened to see all that it lacked. It was just a list of facts for his 93 years. Some I knew about and some I didn’t. Outside of the family information there were only 6 lines that told you anything about him. 70 words long. 397 characters.
“Leon was a graduate of Mifflinburg High School class of 1940.
He was a U.S. Army veteran serving during World War II.
Leon worked as a carpenter for Lee Snyder Construction Co.
He was a member of Central Pennsylvania Avian Club. Leon was a well known for the show birds he raised and would travel and attend many shows in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Leon enjoyed gardening, fishing, and hunting.”
What I have written isn’t another obituary. I didn’t know he worked at a construction company, he always just worked on his property from my memory. I knew he must have made money somehow from his homestead but I didn’t realize he showed his birds. I remembered he had a lot of siblings but I had forgotten he was one of 9 kids. I wrote this from the memory of my 9 year old self. It’s easy to drive by that property and question why it looks the way it does (or the way it did) but I would much rather take that under-appreciated place over perfectly manicured lawns and fancy houses. I had wanted to interview him about his homestead so I could learn from his experiences and get his story in his own voice but I missed that chance because life gets in the way of what you should be doing sometimes. This is the best I can do for now. It’s my thank you card to him and hopefully a way for others to peer into the recesses of my memory and get a better idea of who he was and what a great spirit he had.