The Last We'll See
It's been 30 years since I saw a team of mules driving a corn binder in the field next to the Methodist Church on the banks of the Green River. It’s been even longer since I saw Freddie Woodcock test the syrup at Junior Bentley’s saphouse. The shack has now sunk into the ground, disappearing quietly while nobody was looking. And the bachelor farm suppers on Friday night at the corner house are over. The last time I went, back in the 1980s, our unofficial town mayor, Susie Depeyster, rented a film on growing rutabaga, which was the main source of entertainment if you don’t count the stories told by the farmers in green work pants strung out like blue jays on the spare bed turned couch. They remembered every detail of who kissed whom 50 years ago at the dance hall that burned down during FDR’s administration.
I have also seen the last of Marie Briggs, the town baker and the doyen of the Yellow Farmhouse, the first farmhouse on the left as you drive into town. I have had the final bite of her nutmeg doughnuts, molasses cookies, baking powder biscuits, and anadama bread. I have shot my last rat in Floyd’s barn, the one behind the farmhouse, where he milked his one Holstein, the creamy white liquid frothy and fly-specked in the pail. And I have said goodbye to John, our headstrong neighbor, who would give you the shirt off his back while maintaining a gruff demeanor. I have served him his final cup of coffee “with a snort” and listened to his last story about Normandy, June 1944. I’ve seen the last of Marie, Floyd, and John, but it doesn’t mean they don’t haunt the barns and kitchens and woods of my childhood—they pop up when least expected and then old conversations continue.
If one tends toward curiosity, one wonders what will disappear next. A neighbor sitting in his garage in a rose chintz recliner watching his potatoes grow across the street. Tom, Nate, Joe, and Dave grilling venison steaks over a wood fire below a ridgeline in February, taking a break from tapping trees. The sound of coyotes going in for the kill on a moonless night in late summer. A yearling with outstretched ears, stepping out of the treeline to take a closer look at me, the intruder. Teenagers sleeping in hammocks in 4-H barns at the Washington County fair trying to win a blue ribbon with their Ayrshire or Jersey named Winnie, Brittany, or Bramble. Or the stories. The hermit up in Beartown who got rid of his troublesome neighbors by haunting their cabin at night using a violin to mimic ghostly sounds. Or the time Axel Blomberg finally hooked that big fish he had been after all summer and when it flopped off the hook, he dove headlong after it into the cold Green River pool. He limped for a month.
We are seeing the last of places where people are born, live, and are buried. Where every hollow and brook has a name: Blind Buck Stream, Beattie Hollow, Swearing Hill (which faces Minister Hill), Juniper Swamp Road, and Trout Run. Where every person in town has a purpose. They volunteer for the fire department, run the country store, fix trucks, or grow corn for the dairy farmer down the street. Intimacy breeds storytelling and from the stories, legends are born. My favorite is the Haunted Chimney: A murdered wife rides through the woods on a white horse haunting her burnt-out homestead.
Most of all, I hope I haven’t seen the last of a race of men and women who don’t care a lick about what others think of them. The bachelor farmer who, after a stroke, was strapped every Sunday afternoon onto his riding mower with crisscross seat belts so he could be useful. The woman who attended her own memorial service just before she died—she didn’t want to miss her own party. Harley and Dorothy who showed up at Tom and Nancy’s farmhouse every Friday night for 20 years just for dessert. (Harley always took two ice cubes in his hot cup of tea.) The widow who kept having her husband dug up out of the cemetery to fit him with a new suit of clothes.
The world we leave behind is small and peculiar. Its map is local not global. We aren’t bilingual; we speak only the local patois. History is made in the churches, fire departments, hollows, and town halls, not in books. One can garden stark naked (one of my neighbors still has a taste for this) or ride an electric golf cart up and down the back roads just for the heck of it. It is a small universe—the granite obelisks on the town line mark the edges of our Milky Way. But we always know where we are from the stars above, the rush of a brook, a haze of wood smoke, or the sharp odor of liquid manure. The faces at Sherman’s store tell you everything about the seasons—in late March, eyes are hollow and the stubble on the chin faded. Even the farmer’s caps seem loose as if the heads have shrunk a bit in the cold.
I have a black and white photograph from the 1920s of a school outing at the Haunted Chimney. The girls are well-turned out in white frocks, the boys in pressed pants and collared shirts. The chimney is still there, at the end of Chambers Road past two dairy farms. It’s just into the tree line on the left—the foundation intact and the chimney standing tall. Someday, I may be the last person to look for a woman on a white horse. That’s the day that the old foundation turns to ruin and we are all lost, lost to history and imagination.