Grampa Louis

Louis, my husband’s grandfather, was born in 1888 in Lithuania/Russia. Women frequently died of complications in childbirth in those days, and so it was that Louis was the son of his father’s second wife – who was also his first wife’s sister.

An older half-brother had immigrated to New York City and then had the incredible good fortune of winning $7,777.77 in a lottery, a small fortune in those days, enabling him to pay for Louis’ passage – if Louis could escape Russia.  Louis must have traveled quite some distance to reach the border, as Krekenava was in central Lithuania, and his destination was Antwerp, some 1,745 km to the southwest.

On his first attempt to cross,  he was caught and jailed for trying.  Louis was a good checkers player, and so was an imprisoned Cossack captain, and they became friends.  Louis was a small 17-year-old (5′ tall and 122# is recorded in his “Declaration of Intention” to become a U.S. citizen), and the Cossack looked out for him. After his release, Louis then succeeded in sneaking across the border disguised as a girl going to market with the village women.

As he neared Antwerp, Louis was hungry.  He approached a street vendor selling fruit, but they spoke different languages.  The vendor used gestures to convince him to buy a banana, something Louis was completely unfamiliar with.  After biting off a portion of it, Louis spat it out, concluding that the vendor had fooled him.  He didn’t know that he was supposed to peel it!  Years later he would laugh as he told the story.

Louis reached New York City in December of 1905.

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Have You Driven a Ford Lately?

Today “the boys” will come over to pick up our old Ford 8-N tractor. Built in 1952, it has served us well since the fateful day in 1979 when we bought it. I say fateful, because it was a day I’ll never forget.
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The owners, back-to-the-land acquaintances not very unlike ourselves, were splitting/divorcing, and the stuff they’d accumulated for working the land had to go. A divorce is divisive in more ways than one, and apparently this divorce was leaving the male half of the sketch – whom I’ll call Exhibit A – with a strong need to show he knew what he was doing.
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It was a chilly March day, and we arrived around 10AM with the F-600 flatbed truck we used in our firewood delivery business, expecting, as we’d been led to expect, to back it
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up to an embankment or ramp of some kind, but Exhibit A waved off this necessity. He said there wasn’t anyplace we could do that, and he had some planks we could use to drive it up and onto the truck bed.  Keep in mind that this bed was a good four feet off the ground.
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He produced the planks: 2x10x12s. (If you can do the math, you find that two planks twelve feet long rising to a height of four feet is… well, pretty damned steep). Exhibit A was very hard to dissuade, but there were three of us telling him it was an extremely bad idea, so he hauled out two more planks and some cement blocks with which to make a longer – and therefore less steep – ramp, and this time there was no dissuading. Finally, anxious to get the thing done and get out of there, we caved, and he mounted the tractor. I tried to get him to wait for us to nail the planks to the truck bed, but he drove on.
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Up the ramp he went – the three of us holding our collective breath – past the cement block support and joint between between planks, and about two feet from his destination atop the truck, and to our amazement, it looked as though he’d been right, that he could just drive the 8-N onto the truck.  He stopped…, calling out, “Am I okay?” Collectively we shouted, “KEEP GOING!!!!!”  He yanked down on the throttle, the burst of speed spun the tractor’s back wheels, sending the planks flying backwards and out from under the tractor, and as it fell, it’s bucket-loader caught on the right side rack on the truck! Ford and driver swung back and forth wildly as he tried to jump off, not sure which way it might fall, as we gasped a terrified breath.  Slowly it stopped swinging and was still. Exhibit A stepped gingerly onto the truck bed and then jumped down to Mother Earth.
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No one spoke. Silently, we all walked to the house. Tea was made in silence as our minds re-ran the near tragedy we had just witnessed.
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Eventually, we returned to the yardand the dangling tractor.  Its rear wheels were nearly three feet off the ground.  We chain-sawed a vertical line down the side rack of the truck, separating the tractor-hanging section from the rest of the rack, and then I took over the engineering. Exhibit A wisely kept his mouth shut.
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The task involved a lot of used tires and a rope, and it’s a bit long to describe, but several hours later my husband was driving an empty Ford F-600 and our two kids the 35 miles back home, and I was learning to drive the other Ford.  It had to be that way because my legs weren’t long enough to reach the pedals in the truck.
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I Smell A Rat!

‘Funny the skills you accumulate over the course of a lifetime: driving a nail, mending a mitten, riding a horse, baking an apple pie, tap dancing, writing a blog.  Many of them you don’t ever think about, but now and then a learned skill might catch your notice as something that sets you apart from the pack.

In my case, being able to insert four fingers in my mouth and rip off a loud, shrill whistle has always seemed to me to be one of those things that elevate me to a place most girls don’t get to.  It’s good for calling a crowd to order or summoning a dog, not to mention the fact that people are impressed.

And although you often hear somebody say, “I smell a rat!”,  I really can.  This doesn’t happen very often, but yesterday, in the barn, there it was:  my nose, and the unmistakable aroma that falls somewhere between piss, vinegar, and old sneakers.  I’d forgotten all about rat-smelling as part of my skill-set, but yup, sure enough, I, my friends, have it.

Rat cropped

It’s funny what life in the country can teach a girl.  And now I need to impart that knowledge to the cat.

Tech Support

My home Internet connection wasn’t working this morning.  I tried the old turn-it-off-then-turn-it-back-on trick, but still no Internet. I called tech support.

After half an hour of testing and resetting, the serious and methodical “Simon” and I found the problem. At the end, he asked if he could send me an email which I would use to rate his performance. I spelled out my address, but when he read it back, he had substituted “b” for “p”. I tried to correct him, saying “P, not B” but he didn’t understand me. So I clarified:

“P as in Paul.”

“B as in Ball?” he replied.

No, I said, P, as in… Punjab.”

He began to giggle, and then the two of us just howled with laughter. Have a great day, “Simon”!

Snowbound

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Our son, whom we named Joseph Whittier, was born in mid-May of 1977.  It was a little less than a year after we had the bright idea, a no-brainer, actually, to buy a used trailer (what is known in more civilized parts of the country as a mobile home) and move from our in-town apartment to the land we had bought.  We wondered why that plan hadn’t come to us sooner than it did, for building a house in one place while living in another some twelve miles away was a pretty ridiculous and unrealistic scheme.
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Within a week we had found a trailer.  It was quite an interesting experience.  The thing was 12 x 60′ and had two bedrooms and two baths.  Part of an estate sale, it sold completely furnished. The thing cost around $2,000 – less, at the time, than a late-model used car.
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We’d been living in it for a little more than a month when I began experiencing some nausea. Our water was being pumped from a spring about 500′ away, in a pipe laid on top of the ground.  This was a temporary arrangement, as a well would soon be drilled at the actual house site.  We attributed my illness to the water and began boiling it for drinking.  It was now at least mid-September, and in addition to nausea, I began feeling physically exhausted.
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Finally, it seemed to me that I had only felt this way twice before:  when pregnant for our daughter, and when pregnant for a baby we lost.  But that couldn’t be.  I had been diagnosed sterile.  I had seen the x-ray of my blocked fallopian tubes.  Not possible.  And yet the signs were there, such that I finally made an appointment with a local doctor.  As the doctor would later say, “Well, if it’s the water, there’s a lot of fertile water around here.”
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During the long winter nights of that first year on Orebed Road, as I grew in girth, Bob and I frequently read poems from a collection of John Greenleaf Whittier’s work.  We’d take turns reading aloud just before turning out the lights for the night.  I think it was Whittier’s Snowbound that had spoken to us because of the cold darkness and snow that surrounded us on those nights.
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Our due-date was the end of May, and while we had settled on a girl’s name, the right choice for a boy had eluded us.  Two weeks before I was expected to deliver, I felt particularly tired and lay down on our bed with our copy of A Gazillion Names for Your Baby (or whatever it was titled). An idea came to me: Why not Whittier?  But what if the kid didn’t like that?  Well, maybe Joseph Whittier… Joseph is my husband’s middle name, and if the kid didn’t like Whittier, he could choose to be Joe.  I wrote the name Joseph Whittier  on the inside back cover of the book, but I didn’t think to mention my idea to the father-to-be.
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The next morning, my water broke and we were hospital-bound.  On the 25 minute drive to town, he spoke.  “What do you think about naming him Joseph Whittier if it’s a boy?”  I replied that he must have seen that I wrote that in the baby names book.  “No, I just thought of it.”  And that was that.  The baby was a boy, and Joseph Whittier has called himself Whit ever since.

 

Scream

There are sounds that a person recognizes the first time they’re heard. The metal-on-metal crunching noise of one car smashing into another turns your head, but your eyes are not at all surprised to see what caused the noise. Although the actual damage may be shocking, you already knew intuitively what the sound was.

I once had a sound-recognition experience that I will always remember. It wasn’t the impact of metals, glass and plastics coming together, it was the screaming of a rabbit, and although I had never heard it before, I recognized it as such.

I grabbed my camera and raced toward the sound – not stopping to wonder why the rabbit might be screaming – and there, under my back porch, Nature’s plan was being carried out. The rabbit struggled but could not kick free of the mink’s jaws. Death was swift.

The mink – beautiful though somewhat bloodstained – eyed me for a moment, moved closer as if to get a better look, and then went about the task of dragging the rabbit’s body to a protected place where he could dine on it as his needs arose. I watched from about six feet away.

Standing there, I suddenly understood the waning of the local mouse population. The mink had probably been hunting the area for some time, unseen and unheard as he consumed the deermice and voles, nature’s quiet Quarter-Pounders. But for the rabbit’s screams, I would never have seen him, and although sorry for the snowshoe hare, I welcomed this four-legged rodent trap.

A week later, the daughter of a neighbor dropped in to say hello. She was home on a break from her missionary work. I casually mentioned having seen a mink under my back porch, and with amusement, she told me about coming home and finding a mink in their yard, writhing in agony. Her father had poisoned it. Eventually bothered by its suffering, she got a friend to shoot it.

This young woman and her dad believe in Heaven and Hell, and being born-again Christians, they feel assured of a place in the former. I am not so sure. In fact, I hope that there might be a peaceful place, an eternity, where God’s innocent creatures could go about their business without ever having to cross paths with those who so blatantly disregard their beauty and their importance.  I care a lot less for those who harm them for no good reason.

The Andrus Trunk – for Roseanne

I had the honor of reading this poem in Picton, Ontario, at the annual meeting of the Historical Committee of the Canadian Friends (Quakers).

 

Wide boards cut from virgin trees
By racing water-powered mills,
Its nails of iron made by hand,
Ancient hinges working still.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Westward moved our pioneer fathers,
Through Connecticut to the Hudson,
Cleared the land with Friends and cousins,
Fed on potatoes, corn and venizen.

Their trunk held quilts and dear essentials,
It was sometimes luggage, sometimes chair,
A furnishing for the new log cabin,
Like a family member there.

Once it held a diary,
The record of a family’s tossing
On a wooden ship with sails,
From England to a new world crossing.

Cracks in its boards appeared at times,
Like the splits that came between
Loyalists and Patriots raising rifles –
Stirring hatreds unforeseen.

War, like passion, often heedless
Of its consequential harms;
To the victors went the spoils:
The Loyalist’s beautiful, hard-built farms.

Again the trunk was heavily laden,
Again the treasures and quilts it bore,
To Saratoga and finally northward
To Upper Canada’s southern shores.

New log cabins were built and cherished
As shelter from the northern cold,
Quilts from the chest brought warmth and comfort
As our family roots took hold.

Soon a home, a school and a Meeting House
Graced the community in the new land.
A sawyer, a joiner, and a village smithy
Provided the means for it to stand.

In time the trunk – no longer needed –
Found its place in a farmhouse warm.Chest of Andrus family showing dovetail joints
The Andrus men had toiled to build it,
A marker on their prosperous farm.

Yet deep inside the pine boards’ casing
Was the treasure most had forgot:
The diary of those long-dead travelers
Who left England and freedom sought.

This treasure might have slowly decayed
But for an Andrus son who looked to see
The tale of his ancestral fathers
And the words they wrote in their diary.

His name was Hercules (though small he was);
His keen eye scanned the written pages
From the family’s crossing and their new start –
Their place in The Colonies’ early stages.

We might still have this diary,
But poor Hercules had unfortunate luck:
A fire raged through his family home,
Destroying the diary when it struck.

And so the empty trunk remains
Kept by a cousin in a storage shed,
Empty of its historical cache –
Keeping history to itself, unsaid.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

A trunk is but a lifeless boxChest with Roseanne 2
Of the mute and stoic kind,
It keeps the family secrets
Without heart or hands or mind.

But to each succeeding generation
A human touch its help must lend,
To gather and protect the past
The family heritage to extend.

Ben, Elfleda, Cliff, Roseanne, all vital in their time,
Each with a loving heart, giving
To save what was and pass it on –
Sharing history with the living.

I thank you, dearest cousins,
Blessed be your memory,
The keepers of the treasures
My children’s children will someday see.

Chest of Andrus family Apr 22 2005 qf