Because of my farm roots, I have a special fondness for rural “stuff”—the strength, endurance, and courage that lie in the soul as expressed on our farms and in our villages.
Once I took my kids ice skating on the pond in Neahwa Park, Oneonta, a small city along the Susquehanna River just north of the Catskills. As I hadn’t been on skates with any regularity I was awkward and, the kids thought, quite hilarious. (Today, some years later, my bottom still remembers the cool sudden thump on firm ice.)
Still, I came away that day with a vision of success. An old man in a top coat and a hat with earflaps came gingerly down the wooden ramp of the old skate house, paused to remove the protectors from his skates and, holding these artistically crossed in one of his gloved hands, began a smooth path among the skaters. His composure and something more than skill, that transcendence of the physical made possible by years of excellence, caught my attention completely. He was not flamboyant. He had come not to show off but to feel the movement, to do what he could do. His unselfconscious grace caught my heart so strongly that I approached him when he had finished and was at the ramp, replacing the skate protectors.
“Please, sir,” I said, “forgive me for intruding on your private moments, but I loved watching you.”
“Thank you,” he said with a nod.
Emboldened, I continued, “Do you mind telling me how old you are?”
“I am eighty this year.”
“Well,” I finished, “may I still be skating, however awkwardly, when I am eighty.”
“May you be!” he said with a slight bow, as graceful in connection as in movement, and he was gone.
I didn’t see him after that season. My kids grew old enough to go skating without me, and I allowed myself to be too busy with adult cares to join them. I have more than a few doubts about my chances of skating at eighty, though I expect to keep up with yoga and be still standing on my head at an advanced age. The image of that elderly gentleman skater gave me an expanded idea of what a human being can do!
I know another man, also a member of the rural nobility. As his son-in-law likes to say, “Emerson is a prince of a man!”
Emerson Mitchell, straight, lean, is the picture of elderly health. His gray-blue eyes are clear under strong brows. His white hair waves thickly back from a high forehead. His mouth turns slightly up at the corners, as if each moment holds amusement for him. Waiting for me at in his blue work clothes at the top of the path, he is elegant and ready for work.
He pulls a green garden cart down the gravelly woods-road and leaves it near some standing deadwood he intends to harvest for kindling. Carefully he rests the old bow saw on the cart handles.
Then, beckoning to me, he steps lightly along the hillside and into the ravine. He wants to show me the springs. We enter a pine grove, snapping underfoot the bleached twigs and lower branches sloughed off by the growing trees. Nimble as a buck, he gains the granite ledges, skirting patches of ground juniper and gray, unleafed blueberry bushes. He bends and finds three red-orange box berries, gives me two, and eats one. After a winter of snow and cold, they still taste faintly of wintergreen.
We manage the last steep descent by catching at the trunks of small maples and alders which hold fast by strong roots in the bank above. Jumping one branch of the brook, we find ourselves standing on a sandy delta large enough for a square dance. From here he holds his hand out in a familiar pointing gesture, showing me where two springs enter at the gravel head of the ravine. There, at the source, he has dug a basin deep enough to fill a bucket. He keeps a dipper hanging on a nearby tree. Reaching for it now, he bends to fill it and offers me a drink. We share the dipper, drawing the sweet water into our smiles.
He shows me tight curls of fiddlehead ferns pushing through the loamy sand, skunk cabbages growing big, and a spot where lady slippers bloom each year. He tells how the contours of this basis change from year to year, how the postures of fallen trees can make it hard to pull them out for firewood, how he and his son once brought a tractor and borrowed winch to the delta, set the rope and winch around yonder oak, and coaxed several downed trees up, out of the gullies, nearly a year’s supply of firewood.
On our way back we stop at the garden cart. Emerson saws straight across the base of each of the drying pines, which make small cracking crashes against their neighbors and the ground. Then, kneeling on the forest floor, he uses the stumps as props and saws stove-sized segments. I stack the lengths in the cart.
Pausing, he tells of the blizzard of ’44, which came in May when he already had chickens out of the range, how he got through the drifts and brought water and grain into the shelters so the birds would survive till the snow melted. I see the past stretching back, events faced with courage and ingenuity, care taken. And amusement won from the hard life of a farm boy in the days when chickens were still raised by the mothers.
“I suppose I was about seven,” he begins. “I went to the barn to feed the horses and I noticed our three hens all outside with their broods, the little chicks looking for bugs like their mothers taught. But when I went in, I heard a small insistent peep coming from somewhere in the barn. Well, I traced the peeping to the stall of our old draft horse, and I deduced that that chick was beneath one of his feet. I went to his head and backed him up. He moved three of his feet—but not that one. So I moved him forward. Again he moved three of his feet—but not that one. I unhitched him and backed him out far enough to make him move all his feet. The little chick scampered off, cheeping, to find his mother.
“The horse knew,” he finished mildly.
“And meant to keep him,” I added.
We piled the cart high with good round kindling.
One story led to another.
“One day, I went down at dusk to do the evening chores and the three broods of chickens had all followed their mother into the barn to the nests. Only, most of them had followed the same mother, leaving the other two hens with only two or three chicks each. I don’t know what it was about that mother hen that attracted the chicks. Perhaps it was her dulcet voice. But there she was, trying to spread her wings to keep almost thirty chicks warm. Well, I didn’t think I could let this go on, so I took a few for each of the other hens until it seemed about fair and all the chicks were in, under, for the night. ‘Course, I had no way of knowing which chicks belonged to which hen, but since none of them complained, I decided it was okay and went on about my chores.”
Without apparent strain, Emerson Mitchell hauls the loaded cart to the cellar door where he’ll unload it later. After a light lunch, he settles on the couch to watch a Red Sox game, snoozing between innings, a man who works and rests, pacing himself.
What a father can do, I tell myself, a daughter can strive to do also. I resolve to be so fine at almost eighty. And I have a larger idea of the stuff I am made of.
First published in the anthology Out of the Catskills and Just Beyond, edited by Bertha Rogers, Bright Hill Press, 1997.