• Old Bones

    Jack just celebrated his 90th birthday. He lives across the valley in a white clapboard farmhouse owned by his girlfriend, Jean, who is younger, a late-October/December relationship, if you will. He has good bones; his fat and muscle hang on a stout frame, barrel-chested, the cooper having selected aged oak for the staves. Jack is a solid construct of fine mortise and tenon, the joinery expertly chiseled and built to last. He walks as if on timbers: a bit stiff, perhaps, but hip is connected to ground like a tall, straight ash, firmly rooted. If you were to meet him, you would come to notice that his peripheral vision is a better bet than looking straight ahead, but he gets around well enough. I think he can tell a pretty girl when he sees one, since he always goes to bear hug them first the moment he half-steps into a room. Yet Jack is clearly in love, telling Jean that he is looking forward to spending eternity with her, both of their headstones already carved and placed on a side hill in a cemetery up in Wallingford. Jean picked the spot for the view to the west. It will be hard not to remember Jack each day at sunset.

    He is the exact opposite of my great-uncle Jack, who, after being bedridden for half a year, decided that he did not wish to regain the use of his legs. He spent the rest of his life in a cane-seated wheelchair, legs covered in a tartan blanket, playing solitaire at a card table in the corner of the great room of his house outside of Baltimore, attended to by his daughter, Snoozie, and his wife, Dorothy. The latter spent much of her time constructing sculptures of chicken bones and colored glass, wrapped in delicate white paper, like small origami jewels. I discovered an entire chest of her works when I was 8 years old, opening a door onto this private world of adults, where old bones were boiled and hidden instead of used for walking.

    Our family recently purchased a house (now the home of Cook’s Country magazine) that was once owned by the Sheldons, who pretty much ran the north end of town, whereas the Shermans were located a few miles south (where Sherman’s store still operates today). It is a classic colonial structure, upstanding and squared-off, the horse barn in good repair, the dairy barn settling into the weeds, plus a milk house and a smokehouse. It had fallen into bad disrepair, almost entirely hidden in a stand of pine, poplar, and maple, the joists punky and rotten, the putty-

    colored paint scaled and rippled, the floor so warped that a second floor was nailed on top to provide a sense of level well-being just inches above the damp.

    But the house has good bones. I know this because the building was stripped down to its load-bearing beams, evenly spaced ax cuts still visible along their length two centuries later. With nothing more than a roof and strapping along the exterior walls, the house stood jacked up on heavy timber pylons while the foundation was removed and poured anew, a skeleton standing in the north end of town, bare but still strong, stiff, and alive, having settled into its shape long before the Civil War.

    Last summer, my 17-year-old daughter, Caroline, and I headed out to post our property in order to reduce the constant flow of out-of-state hunters and four-wheelers. We carried knapsacks filled with orange and black No Hunting signs, roofing nails, hammers, water, sandwiches, and apples. We headed up onto the ridges that flow, serpentine, through the hills and hollows and walked on the very spines of the hills, through bright spots of birches and small patches of wavy lime-colored grass, and we scrabbled over rocky outcroppings where the schist and limestone showed through. We turned this way and that, descended through a wild stand of fresh-scented balsam pine, crossed deer trails so clear they needed no highway sign, and then scrambled back down an embankment and onto a logging road. Soon, we headed back up into the mountains, back behind the LeShane property and then up toward Orval and Delores Thompson’s. It was steep and recently logged, which made walking treacherous, but we found a good spot for lunch about 50 yards below the ridge, with a clear view down the valley.

    Parents often say that teenagers are awkward, the distance in age and experience too great for normal conversation. Maybe it is the toll of mileage, the old joints and sinews that still take us through the woods but with a bit less certainty and speed as the younger frame makes better time and the gap between us widens. But sitting back propped up against a red maple on that late-August day, the two of us were both young enough compared to the old oaks, elm, and hickory, some of them so ancient that the wood had swallowed lengths of barbed wire and sheep fence that was once nailed to the outer bark. When you sit on the very back of the beast, the mountains that run up through Camel’s Hump and Mount Mansfield and then up toward Canada and the frozen north, you become fellow travelers, hitching a ride on weather and geology and history. Far from the city, the differences diminish to a finite point; who can hit a distant tree stump with an apple core or find the next marked tree along the property line. Ponce de León was wrong. The fountain of youth is not in Florida; it is up in the Verts Monts, where one can walk on the very rim of time and become timeless oneself, keeping pace with the cheerful stride of youth.

    At the table, over Thanksgiving or a summer spread of pies and cobblers, Jack and Caroline often sit side by side, old and new, it makes no difference. And when the bones go back into the ground, they are not buried for memory’s sake but held in living memory, as what is bred in the bone still enjoys a sheltered view, one that marks the ancient descent of the sun, far past the valleys and mountains on to the birthplace of our hope, somewhere beyond time, to the west.

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