• What I Didn’t Know

    When I was 10 years old, working for Charlie Bentley, I didn’t know that if I shook his hand while he held fast to a strand of electric fence, I would be the one to get a shock. I didn’t know that pulling a horse toward me was the best way to get it to move away. (This trick also works with people.) I was never told that trying to shoot crows with a 22 was pretty much a waste of time; I kept at it for years without even one confirmed kill. (Years later, a neighbor told me the secret: Build crow decoys out of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans.) And I never realized that eating bread baked in a Kalamazoo woodstove in a kitchen with no running water was a throwback. The world had moved on without me.

    I also didn’t realize, until years later, that parents aren’t perfect and why my sister Kate cried during thunderstorms. I thought that everyone, on a hot July evening, got into the back of a jeep while their mother drove hell-for-leather up the mountain fueled by Jim Beam and the thrill of letting off steam. That’s just what we did.

    I didn’t realize that death was a constant companion for adults, that it shadowed us out of the Methodist church after the open-coffin service. I never saw an adult cry or display a lack of conviction; they were steamships, plowing their course straight through heavy weather. And I didn’t realize that my Vermont neighbors were poor; they appeared rich to me, lordly in companionship and sense of place, masters of their own mountain duchies. That is a view I still hold today, a half century later. I didn’t realize that one could read the woods like a good mystery, looking for scrapes and hookings to mark the midnight passage of bucks or to find a spot where a bear lay down in an overgrown pasture under a stand of overgrown apple trees. Scat can be read, too; it is a good storyteller of time, place, species, and location. So are silver leaf backs and the circling of red-tailed hawks.

    I also didn’t realize that most sayings are true but that truth is learned only through experience. I no longer look gift horses in the mouth or throw away small change; I keep my pennies in a large bowl by the back door for a rainy day. I also save string (except for the short pieces), mow hay while the sun shines, check my corn to see if it is “knee-high by the Fourth of July,” and realize that most troubles will end up in a ditch before they ever get to me. But I know the difference between good advice and fiction. I still swim after eating, make silly faces (without worrying about permanent disfigurement), and go outside in winter with wet hair. I have stopped eating carrots for better eyesight and fretting about swallowed gum. And I still ignore much good advice for no good reason. I never stretch before or after running (that is why I can barely touch my knees) and I eat too quickly, eschewing the advice of the late 19th-century health nut Horace Fletcher, whose followers chewed each bite 100 times. Dinners must have been long affairs.

    Of course, there are also big things that I didn’t know. I didn’t know that the Golden Rule is true. I didn’t understand about smelling the roses; it just seemed like something that made it difficult for me to get from A to B. (For the record, I am still annoyed by anyone who does not decide what to order for takeout until they are first in line.) I also had to learn that kids do what you do, not what you say, and that even though we are just like our parents, we are not destined to live their lives; we really do have free will.

    The big thing that I didn’t know, however, was the importance of small kindnesses. When a neighbor is sick, bring soup. When a friend’s son or daughter needs a summer job, give them one. Go to all the weddings, graduations, birthday parties, and funerals you can—don’t make excuses. It matters. Write the thank-you note, pick up the phone, send an email, deliver flowers, and, for God’s sake, remember the kids’ names, even those belonging to the new employee in accounting. (My grandfather often called my mother by the dog’s name—a source of much angst even in her later years.)

    On one memorable occasion, I followed my own advice. A neighbor was taken ill with Lou Gehrig’s disease. She held her memorial service on a bleak winter’s afternoon while still alive because she did not want to miss her own party. Afterward, she gave away her jewelry like party favors. In early spring, I stopped by to chat and to say goodbye one last time. We sat on the deck overlooking a small apple orchard and the spot where her husband had been buried three decades before. She was happy and oddly radiant and talked about how they had found their farmhouse, surviving the first winters burning green wood and butchering whole deer on the dining room table.

    She died two weeks later. Maybe that’s what I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to pay my respects to others by showing up. It’s a simple rule, an easy thing to remember, but one that is easy to forget.

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