The River of Life

Standard

 

 old photos 012416

My wife and I have had a large box of old photographs sitting on a shelf in a storage room for many years. Every now and then when we were looking for more space – to store yet more stuff, which would likewise sit around largely unused – we would tell ourselves that sooner or later we would have to go through that box of memories and winnow it down to a few keepers. We decided the ideal time would be during a snowstorm when it would be prudent to stay indoors – out of the weather and off the bad roads.

On a Friday night, snow, sleet and freezing rain pelted the region and took away whatever excuses we might have to put this chore off any longer. We took the box off the shelf and, handful by handful, dumped the photos on our dining room table.

Early into the task, it was largely a “keeper, non-keeper” game. “Oh, we have another one of these somewhere.” “This is a terrible picture of my mother; she wouldn’t want this hanging around.” “Gee – I had forgotten all about these two – wonder where they are now?” “Wow! Our river trip! Remember what a great time that was?” “Yes, I remember him well; hated to see him die so young.” “She must have been a remarkable women; wish I had known her!” “I have no idea who this is!”

So the decision-making continues as sleet patters on the dining room windows. We recall births, deaths, good times, and sad times. And something happens in the process.

The experience is strangely exhilarating – and spiritual; and gently humbling. It provided a historical timeline that, if we think about it at all, is generally viewed as mere generational history. It did something else to me. I have been looking for a metaphor to describe the experience. Nothing exact comes to mind, but let me try to describe it.

The photos were in no particular chronological order. The contents of old albums passed down from long-gone friends and relatives were thrown into the box with more recent photos. We had long ago given up any idea of cataloging and storing them in some ordered fashion. Now we could look at the solemn face of a grandparent dead before we were born and the happy grin of a newly arrived great-granddaughter – side by side in the pile. What to make of this juxtaposition?

Many years ago, I was on a raft trip down the Colorado River – ten days through the Grand Canyon. At some point, the Little Colorado joins it, and the raftsmen guided us up several hundred yards into that smaller river and invited us to get out and enjoy the water. The river is normally a bright blue color caused by dissolved travertine and limestone in the water.

It is warm and because of the salts and other minerals leached from the deserts it drains, it provides incredible buoyancy. One could float on it with no effort at all. My raft mates and I happily paddled away until it was time to return to the raft and float back down to the larger river.

little colorado swiming

As I looked at the photos, I imagined myself in a boat going upstream in the river of life – not unlike the Little Colorado. The feeling was almost palpable. I wasn’t in a boat of course. I was sitting at our dining room table with my wife, but as I scanned the many faces in the photographs, it occurred to me that I was one of them –literally, of course – since I was in many of the photos, but I was also part of the great spectrum of life they represented.

People were all around me in my imagined boat, and many were in the water nearby, floating downstream, waving and smiling and shouting greetings. “Hello there! See you later!” On our own boat, some were preparing to jump off the back into the water to join those already there. I realized that we were picking up their replacements on the front of the boat, and my own position on the boat had changed. I had once been in the bow, having been helped in, and was learning my duties on life aboard. I had gradually moved amidships to help with the steering and handling. Now, I thought, I am gradually moving toward the stern, largely a passenger, and getting ready to jump in and join those in the water – and make room for new arrivals.

We kept about a fifth of the old photographs. We will make a second pass on another wintry day and perhaps make some categorical sense. Perhaps we will digitize them and put them on a disk we can view on our television. I realized though, no end goal of arranging these pictures can equal the process of sifting through them. Like life itself, it’s the journey that counts. As great minds have taught us, “Time is an illusion,” and “Nature does not know extinction.”

Little Colorado

Books by Chuck Thurston and his wife Heidi can be found on Amazon and Indigo Sea Press. They live in Kannapolis, NC and frequently take a camera to family gatherings. The “great minds” quoted above belong to Albert Einstein and Werner Von Braun.

Advertisements

Boiling Down by Chuck Thurston

Standard

My brother Bob discovered an old fire pit in the woodlot by his house. It brought back some memories. I, and my four brothers, were raised on a farm in Northern Pennsylvania. One yearly adventure was “boiling down” time in the early spring. Simply put, we collected the sap from sugar maple trees and boiled it down to make maple syrup. That’s as simple as you can describe it, but let me tell you about the many associated pleasures.

When nighttime temperatures were consistently below freezing and the days brought sun and thaw – often in late February – our Dad and us boys tapped the maple trees – in a large grove called the “sugar bush,” some distance from our house. Holes were drilled on the south facing side of the trees with a brace and bit and taps – or spiles – were hammered into them. We didn’t have the commercial sap collection buckets, so we made do with many different cans and pails – we often used two-gallon oil cans. We cut off the tops, cleaned out the oil residue – a bugger of a job – and attached wire to hang them from the taps. You could hang two or three such buckets on a single tree, and the sap would start flowing immediately. We didn’t have any covers over these buckets, so we were at the mercy of rain, snow – and bugs. Mom supplied us with cheese cloth, and we poured the collected sap through it when we emptied the buckets in the big milk cans we had at the boil down site.

The sap would be collected during the week. We’d hike over into the woods and empty the sap buckets into the milk cans. The amount would depend on the weather for that week. Cold nights and sunny days worked best. On weekends we’d start the fire in the fire pit and start making syrup.

The boil down container was a long and shallow rectangular metal vat: approximately three feet by five feet, and perhaps five inches deep. It was put in place over a fire pit, made of laid up stone. The fire had to be kept fed with fuel as the sap boiled away. That was the hardest part. Luckily, we were in the middle of a wood lot, but the branches and limbs had to be collected, hauled back to the fire pit and added to the blaze. Clouds of maple scented steam would billow up during the boil down.

As the sap boiled down, we would keep adding more until it thickened and began to look more like syrup. At some point, we judged our boil down in the woods had done its job and we carried the product home in pails. Mom completed the job on a wood stove in the kitchen, and the house would fill with the aroma from that job. When she judged she had a finished product, she put the syrup in jars and sealed them with paraffin.

We put it on everything. Oatmeal, grits, pancakes, milk toast – I am not sure I remember ever having a bottle of commercial syrup in the house. My brother Al continues to do a smaller scale boil down every year, but he isn’t personally fond of the syrup anymore. Childhood overload, you could say. Whatever he makes, he puts up in pint jars, and gives away as gifts. Lucky the recipients of his generosity. You can easily pay over seven bucks for a little twelve ounce bottle.

My wife never had maple syrup in Denmark, and we were quick to introduce her to it. She immediately saw the attraction. We occasionally had Danish house guests, and they were similarly drawn to it. At one breakfast, a Danish lady guest was observed dipping her teaspoon into the little serving pitcher – more than once – and taking it like medicine. She is currently experiencing some health problems, and I believe we will have to find a way to send her a pint.

maple syrup fire pit

 

Chuck Thurston is the author of “Senior Scribbles Unearthed” and “Senior Scribbles Second Dose.”  Many other tales of a boy’s life on a Pennsylvania farm can be found there.  Both are available on Amazon.

Christmas Leftovers by Chuck Thurston

Standard

Scribbles_FarmBoyChristams

Yesterday my wife and I took down the Christmas decorations: The evergreen and ribbon swags on the windows, the wreath on the door, the garlands around the mailbox and inside on the fireplace mantle. We had put up only a small ceramic tree this year, since we would be out of town with family and weren’t planning on doing any entertaining ourselves.

All that remains now is to go over the many Christmas cards we received and read those that had comments or newsletters – the better to respond to our dear family and friends and make plans to get in touch with them soon.

Some artifacts are sure to remain behind. The great musician Louis Armstrong was raised in an orphanage and didn’t get his first Christmas tree until he was forty years old. He was so enthralled by it, that he asked his wife to bring it with them when they left for a tour. As his wife tells it:

I kept that first little tree until way after New Year’s, putting it up every night and taking it down every morning, in a dozen hotels. And then when I did take it down for the last time, Louis wanted me to mail it home. It was a real tree, not an artificial one, and I had to convince him– I really had to convince him– that the tree would dry up.

When we decorated our cabin for Christmas a few years ago, one of the things that didn’t go back to storage was a tin angel we had hung on the wall. I convinced my wife that it was as good as any picture we might find to put on that empty wall space. We had been looking at it for some treatment or other – and angels aren’t Christmas-specific any more than pumpkin pies are unique to Thanksgiving. You can have a slice any time of year – really!

Danish nisse

The Nisse is the leprechaun of Danish folklore. They are mischievous elves that have the capacity to do you a good turn or a decidedly bad one. The Danes placate them at Christmas to influence their better nature by laying out the traditional treat – a bowl of porridge with a lump of butter in it. The butter is important. Without it, a nisse might conclude this was an oversight deserving of his chicanery. For farmers, the next year might bring a failed crop, a sick cow, a broken piece of machinery. A pair of scissors might go missing, or a favorite shirt. One must take care to stay on the good side of these imps.

Danish nisse porridge

The Danes frequently place little paper cutouts of nisse all over the house at Christmas time. I suppose this is to let them know they are welcome guests in the household. When decorations are removed after Christmas, the paper figures are gathered up and put away until next year. Invariably, one in some little-used corner is overlooked and left in place, perhaps discovered later when the area is dusted. It’s left in place, so as not to invite trouble.

As I type this, one is looking down at my keyboard from a bookcase along one wall of my office. He is a jolly little fellow reading a book by candlelight – very appropriate for a writer’s work place, I would say. After finding him some few weeks after Christmas many years ago, I left him there. There he is and there he is going to stay. I don’t know if he has made my writing any better or worse, but I am taking no chances.

Danish bookcase nisse