Who are “your people”? It’s a puzzle piece everyone should be able to fit in the process of a lifetime. If you are really lucky, the process of finding out will be tie you to a palpable time and place.
I just finished Donald Hall’s “String Too Short to be Saved”, his recollections of summers spent on his grandparents’ farm. The book is an elegy of bygone days, housed in the anecdotes of his grandfather. The title comes from the idea that people used to save string and old paper bags. They thought it a pity to throw such things away. What do you do with those impractical leftover pieces in life? They end up hidden in a back drawer by someone who hopes they will find a use, someday.
Part of the Donald Hall’s lament, is that his grandfather’s way of life was passing away in plain sight. He knew more “old people doddering on their porches” than young. He told of a seasoned farm horse he loved, which mercifully took a bullet to the head when it became lame. It was a dying age. Why write about it? For Donald Hall, the memories from his childhood carried a sense of wholeness, rhythm and order that he thought lost.
“The farm had an order to it, for the animals had to be fed, the vegetables had to be weeded, and the hay had to be cut for winter. Everything done was part of a motion we did not control but chose to implement - a process of eating, mating and dying. I liked the sense of necessary motion; the farm was a form, not like a set of rules on a wall, but like the symmetry of summer and winter, or like the balance of day and night, or June against December. My Grandfather lived by the form all his life, and my summers on the farm were a glimpse of it.”
I also learned my own family’s stories over time. I was privileged to spend some summers with my parents’ “people” in northern Saskatchewan. My grandmother had a white clapboard house spread out on two lots, in a tiny village where the houses were set back from a dirt path instead of a main street. A wander to the end of that dirt path, took you to the local store and post office run by the mayor and his family. It was a one stop shop for news where people might also meet up and gossip. Word had it that the mayor’s wife had the drop on everyone in town because she steamed open every incoming letter. Everyone knew everyone else, also perhaps because of the shared party lines. There were up to twenty people per party line, and the phone would ring in every house on your network any time someone got a call. It was the honour system. You were only supposed to pick up if it was your ring code. But humans being what they are, it was expected that for entertainment, others picked up the phone as well to listen in. If they held their finger on the button, they could catch your news and you would not hear them breathing on the other end of the line. There was no TV. At night, you would sit and read by the light of oil lanterns. The days could be long in the summer time, but bed time coincided with darkness no matter what, to preserve oil.
Life at my grandmother’s home was rhythm and simplicity that began in the morning as an established routine. On waking, you would open the back door to empty the pee pot from under the bed, used during the night to avoid a trip to the outhouse in the dark. The first tasks of the day included getting a bucket of water from the neighbour’s well, chopping some kindling and starting up the fire in the stove to heat the house. The stove was the one source of warmth, and its system of pipes went through every room like a radiator spreading the heat. The items in my grandmother’s house were humble relics from her long dead husband. He had turned rolling pins downstairs on his lathe, and fashioned ladles and other tinware, carefully soldered together and lasting over time. Other hints to my grandfather included a dusty guitar in a case, a round world atlas with long gone names like Constantinople, Ceylon and Peking pointed out on the dots. His study featured an oak roll-top desk he made himself. The house which he built, was also full of his furniture.
They say my grandfather was an innovative and clever man. In the days when others had horses, he had the first car in the community along with a garage which featured a mechanical lift he fashioned himself. Water could be in short supply over the summer. My grandfather collected the water in rain barrels and poured it down chutes leading to a cement cistern in the basement. The water was soft. Thought not potable it as good for laundry and for washing on a Saturday night, when you would take out the large tin wash tub with the seat on the side, and heat bucket after bucket of water on the wood stove until you could fill the tub. You washed in the privacy of the kitchen by the stove, starting with the eldest. The bath water was inherited down the line to the youngest as it cooled and become progressively more dirty.
In the evenings and midst the chores, we heard snippets of the past from my grandmother. She revealed that she used to clip her husband’s toenails. There were moments of tenderness. We were surprised to discover that my grandfather referred to my grandmother’s breasts as her “boiled puddin’s”. We found that my grandfather could also be recalcitrant. When my grandmother finally cut her long hair, he refused to speak to her for two months running. We had the stories, and we knew that they were somehow our own.
The house is long gone. A dispute over maintenance bills squared my father off agains his own brother, and the town eventually took the house for taxes. The house was condemned, and the lot sold. My last visit was in 1990. I had one last picture beside the house while it stood. The mayor, still of he same family, let us in to take a last look before the house was demolished. It seemed strange, and empty.
I have since come to know my “people”, absorbing the stories and digesting what they mean over time, with adulthood and experience. After a while, labels like “good” and “bad” cease to be useful. You discover that those featured in the black and white photos were very human. Over time, they cease to be larger than life and you will take your own place in that long line of “your people”.
The great surprise to Donald Hall, was that his lament was premature. He found his own place among the stories and lived on. Late in life he purchased his grandmother’s farm, and stayed there until his death, to be buried beside his ancestors.
“What I did not know, the people remain, we belong among them, and they are not dead but enduring... The dead are dead enough, and their descendants occupy new bodies, but everything is the same. When I was young, I could not credit the power of place and tradition to re-embody itself.”
“The people who live here still... take from the dead, and from the enduring land, qualities of wit, honesty, frankness and goodness.”
“I held intact inside of me the image of one day: the sun is high, the wind blows over the hay, my soul floats out into the blue air... my grandfather mows a home field, and in the house my grandmother still tends the fire.”
There is a place of wholeness and comfort. It resides intact in memory, images of a time and a place with all the characters forever alive and in communion, everyone laughing and working and in their place, where neither moth nor rust can destroy. My grandfather’s house though long gone, is one of those.