Before he died, our neighbor Kjarem, who was born and raised just up river from this property, told us stories about the sordid folk who used to call our little strip of ground home. Among my favorites, are the tales of the bootlegger and his wife who lived here during prohibition. Their tarpaper shack house sat where our chicken coop now sits, overlooking a wide elbow in the Flute Reed River’s slim frame. He made moonshine, some of the most coveted around. Resort owners drove long miles, 60 or more one way, to stock up on the stuff they knew would make their customers swoon. He was legendary. His wife, (I imagine her as dumpy woman with a disposition like a rusty nail) was laundress for the Naniboujou Lodge. Every day, she’d haul the sacks of soiled linens down to the river where she’d stand, knee deep in the icy water, scrubbing the bed sheets of rich vacationers till her arms ached and her fingers cramped. Jarvis said she’d get to cursing at him and his siblings if they swam when she was working because they’d churn up the water so bad it’d flow, all brown and silty, downstream to her. He said she’d yell so loud, they could hear her expletives over the sound of the rushing water. They were terrified of her and, at least the way I imagine her, rightly so.
That was nearly a century ago. And now, here I am, pushing a baby swing where moonshine dripped like maple sap from copper tubes, ice skating where a woman worked her fingers to the bone, building a house on the soil of his eroded aspirations and her broken dreams.
I found this shoe the other day, half buried near the root of an unassuming spruce tree. I’m not sure it’s a century old, but it might be. Did this shoe bear the stubborn weight of the bootlegger as he stood, tin cup of bitter coffee in his hand, watching the sun come up over the ridge? How many times did this shoe walk the length of ground between his distillery and where his wife stood, watching her hopes disappear downstream with the dirty suds? Did he stoop to help her? Did he I’ve found many things wedged in the clay soil of this property: paving bricks from 1918, canning jar lids made of porcelain, medicinal bottles from the turn of the century, porcelain milk pitchers. It never ends. The objects of someone else’s existence, the artifacts of another human’s day-to-day rituals, turned to junk.
There is this singer/songwriter named J.E. Sunde and he sings songs that the world needs to hear. One of them says “When all my striving is at an end, will the works of my hands share the same fate?” This is beautiful and humbling. Because yes, they will. Mine will, his will, yours will. Someday, someone is going to find my cast iron frying pan, the button from my favorite jeans, my ice skates. And they will build a house, a life, on the ruins of mine. I don’t want to sound dramatic here, but seriously, it’s all going to burn. Or rot. Or sink to the bottom of the lake. Or end up in a landfill that eventually gets buried. Including these bones of mine.
So, what now? What is left? And here is where I don’t want to sound Hallmark-ish, but seriously the only legacy I can really, truly leave is the one that is comprised of things that aren’t going to pass away, those eternal, intangible things.
There is a chance that the bootleggers wife was kind, that she loved to laugh and sing. Maybe she cared for her widowed neighbor, and brought her bone broth during the long winter months. But if she did, Jarvis doesn’t remember. All he remembers is that she yelled, a lot, and seemed angry all the time. He doesn’t even remember her name. And while I don’t pretend to know her life, her hardships, her heartbreaks or the hundreds of times her husband didn’t say a kind word to her, I do know that her precious time on this earth is gone and the few stories remaining (that I’ve heard) peg her as a woman with a disposition like a rusty nail. And from what I’ve gleaned, that old bootlegger husband of hers was no better.
Oh friends! Let these things not be said of me. Let it not be said of us! Instead, let us love boldly and sing while we go about our tasks, however dull, however painful. Let us walk in patience and in truth, uttering only kind words, words that restore and heal. Let us be balm, not briar: slow to anger and quick to love, just like our true King is. And when someone finds our shoe, a century from now, may they say “here is the shoe of one who walked, though imperfectly and with stumbling, the path of peace.”