One of the best cartoons I’ve seen in the past year comes from the pen of Bob Eckstein. In it, an old gentleman, leaning on his walker, stands beside a younger man as they contemplate a garage door opened onto an assortment of bulging cardboard boxes, lamps and other junk.
“One day, Son, all this will be yours,” the old guy says …
My son, and daughter, undoubtedly can relate; my wife and I clearly have too many “things,” and I don’t believe our kids are interested in having most of them. It is human nature, I suppose, to collect, to save, to hoard a bit, particularly since our parents — children of the Great Depression — did the same. Joanie and I are doing better at selling and discarding and re-purposing, but when we are gone, there is still going to be one heck of a sale.
Although I usually ignore those yearly magazine pieces that hand out sage advice as to how senior citizens should go about “de-cluttering,” I have done a little better in recent months with handing off and handing out. However, I do tend to keep letters and cards and notes; they have a human connection, a personal touch, a sentiment that I can’t stand to condemn to the shredder or recycling box or trash.
Since it has been over four years since I last shared a bit of correspondence from readers like you, I thought we could do with a look back on the past year as we steel ourselves for the one ahead. The only negatives in my mail were in the form of corrections for things I let slip past the goalie or were poorly written. But, for the most part — yes, I know I am beginning a sentence with a conjunction, so don’t write to me about that — the mail I had waiting in my real mail box, or its digital cousin, was positive.
I can’t mention but a fraction of the letters I’ve had this year, but one of the best came just a few weeks ago with a stamp on it. Its author, John Haag, repeatedly tried and failed to email me, and his note included a lengthy passage from “The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry Reader.” Typical of Berry, the excerpt John chose is about what the essayist and poet finds as he wanders along the streams of his native Kentucky: “And now I find an empty beer can lying in the path. This is the path of the ubiquitous man Friday of all our woods. In all my walks, I never fail to discover some sign that he has preceded me. I find his empty shotgun shells, his empty cans and bottles, his sandwich wrappings. In wooded places along roadsides one is apt to find his over-traveled bedsprings, his outcast refrigerator, and heaps of the imperishable refuse of his modern kitchen. A year ago, in this same place where I found his beer can, I found a possum that he had shot dead and left lying, in celebration of his manhood. He is the true American pioneer, perfectly at rest in his assumption that he is the first and last whose inheritance and fate this place will ever be.”
John wrote: “This made me stop and think of the times you have mentioned how you would come across these same scenes. Disturbing! I hope it never ceases to be disturbing.” He signed his letter, “A friend,” and I have to say that any man who thinks this way, is, indeed, a friend of mine.
Another note that made my day came in mid-December when a Parke County transplant — in response to a column I had written about Max Ehrmann — sent a poem he’d penned. Dr. David Hay, a celebrated poet, emailed his, “A Christmas Toast,” which I subsequently posted for my friends to read and cherish, and many certainly did just that. His final stanza reads: “Live our lives as best we can/That peers may one day say:/We left the world a better place/Because we passed this way.”
Another former Parke Countian wrote to me in November just after my story about the old Mecca schoolhouse fire. Mike Phillips no longer lives here, but he hasn’t lost his memories of the place. “It is sad to reflect upon how we so often fail to appreciate other people, events, and landmarks until they are gone,” Mike wrote. He is hopeful that the rebuilding of the Bridgeton Bridge after it was burned proves to be an inspiration for those who believe the turn-of-the-century school can be brought back to life again.
Paul Hardesty, a faithful reader from Louisville (he frequently reads my columns in the Jeffersonville newspaper), wrote not long after he came north for the Covered Bridge Festival. He said, “I grew up in a small farming community, working on farms in the summer time, so I knew of the quiet, but it has been many years since I experienced that lack of any NOISE, except perhaps a bird chirping. It was, for me, very calming, in some ways better than reading a Frost poem. I had forgotten that even though we live in the suburbs and thought we lived in a quiet area, that was not really true.”
Pam Edge sent a note after reading my story from late September called, “All the secret little things you see.” I wrote about walking sticks, and she wrote about another creature: “I read your piece on observing things in nature with relish. It made me think of a recent encounter with a praying mantis. We had quite a stare down. It was perched ever so delicately on a bowing fox grass stem, waving in the wind up and down, back and forth. Needless to say, he won the staring contest. As I walked away, I was in awe of a very delicate moment that lent to what I feel was a day that was ordinary, yet very extraordinary all at once.” I couldn’t have said it better …
I had dozens of letters this year, and although this story got me through just a few of the best, I appreciated every one. One of my favorites, however, came directly to the newspaper office. Inside a box of wonderful old books was a note: “I was downsizing and thought you might like these vintage nature books. If not, pass them on.” The note was simply signed, “D.”
I wish I knew who D was, but among those beautiful old volumes was Catherine Dunn and Angeline Carey’s “The Hoosier Year” (Max Hyman, 1916). Published on Indiana’s centennial, the book featured short passages, organized by the days of a year, including a leap day, all written or spoken by Indiana writers and orators, from George Ade to Daniel Voorhees. It was a wonderful gift, and I have no intention of passing it on anytime soon.
So, to my children I will say this: Someday, it will be yours.