A Pilgrimage To Goshen Road

The fields are full of dry ragweed and purple asters as autumn sweeps in. Leaves on some trees have already turned to gold or shades of red and orange. The beech trees are the movie stars of the forests and roadways with their shiny burgundy-brown leaves, the color of nothing else in life. I heard last night we might see the Northern Lights this week due to a magnetic storm on the sun. Once, I saw them from atop a hill in Ellery, looking northwest over Chautauqua Lake at 2 a.m. – green, purple, wavering lights, spooky, astonishing really. It’s a reminiscent time of year.

Every year or so my sister and I make a pilgrimage of sorts out North Harmony way, deep into farm country, way down the country roads.

Our shrine is the spot where the Johnson Farm once stood, long ago, a century back. It’s our own kind of pilgrimage to family and past.

As we passed through Panama town center, crossing the Little Brokenstraw Creek bridge, Vicky turned left up the hill and left again on the old Goshen Road where our grandparents once owned a big dairy farm and where our father was born. Vicky noted it has been 100 years since the Johnsons took up residence there, seven miles from Panama and one mile from the Pennsylvania line. Great-grandfather J. Alfred Johnson built a lovely bungalow with a towering barn on the rising hills on the east side of the road just past the old schoolhouse, which has gone down to time.

The house is gone now too, alas, though for years we would stop there to find it empty and compelling as a good book, its broad front porch once the place where our aunts Marian, Helen and Jane played as little girls dressed in their muslin frocks handmade by our grandmother Martha Rosenquist Johnson. Next to that house once stood an apple orchard though it too is gone to time. Our great grandfather used to joke that our father was born “there,” he’d say, making a dramatic sweep of his arm, in “an apple tree one day in the middle of winter.” To this day, no one knows what he meant or why he said such a thing. But it makes us smile to think of it.

The word Goshen has a Biblical meaning–a place settled by the Israelites in Egypt where the light shone brightly in a time of darkness. The Goshen Road is a trip backwards in time for us, and the land there looks a lot like paradise to me.

Way out there–and believe me – it is way out there on rural country roads, on the edge of a state line, on the edge of a state forest and a great swamp–the weird Niobe–we imagined our little yet formidable Granny Johnson rising before dawn to feed the tall Johnson brothers and her husband Ben, all large men, hardworking, no nonsense Swedes, every one an immigrant. I could smell her strawberry-rhubarb pies baking, see a big white pan of boiling lutefisk, taste the sweet fruit in her carefully put up preserves. She hand-sewed all the clothes worn by her family. No doubt she sewed the curtains too and upholstered furniture as she was still doing when I was a teenager and she was, by then, quite an old woman. In 1919, our father -the baby of the family–had not yet been born. He would arrive in 1921, indeed on a snowy night in February. We imagined our little granny way out there with the aid of no one, really, to help her, just her own mettle. But then, mettle, well, she had it in spades.

“A hundred years ago,” I repeated, as Vicky stopped the car for a minute or two in front of the empty spot where the Johnson farmhouse once stood, a hundred years ago. The long fields stretched out behind as far as the eye could see. Some new farmer owns the place now. He stopped to talk with us once, friendly enough, nodding at our story of family.

As we are wont to do every year or so as we park and reminisce there, we imagined our dad and his sisters living way out here on a dirt road then, 15 or more miles from Jamestown, the wind howling in winter, the snow piling up, their little world all closed down. But there were the glorious summers too, summers in which my heart-faced aunts played dolls and hide and seek in the tall grass, where granny planted her gardens and Ben his first big yellow Dahlias, where the wind blew through the kitchen windows sweet and fresh, where life for a while though daunting must have been in some ways ideal. They left that farm, having had enough, around 1925 and moved to Brooklyn for a while. Then, they returned to family in Jamestown.

We passed on by and down across the Pennsylvania line. The land is wild and wet for miles. I turned to my sister and said, “this is why our father was fey. He was born here, in this unusual place, out here in the middle of nowhere, beautiful but wild, mysterious somehow, oddly spooky even on a sunshine filled afternoon in September 2019.”

And so time moves us gradually down the roads of our lives, generation by generation. We can hold it in reverence and revel in its moments. We can celebrate those who went before us and imagine their lives, the big things and the small precious ones. Everything I see is painted with past. I hold it all dear.


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