Family relations in a one room schoolhouse, stuffy with the smell of mildew and dishes to pass round, enlivens a part of me that never seeks simplicity. I thrive on the complexity of DNA. A tall, thin man in his late 60’s, dressed impeccably after a morning barbecuing chicken for veterans greets me as if for the first time, but I’ve known him forever.
There in his eyes is that friendly detachment so common to people in the country–my country. Intimacy may be too much a risk, but I see in the way this man talks about his daughter that heartbreaking mix of embarrassment, worry and love one has for a disabled adult child and I fall in love, claiming him as one of my own. On rare occasions under old trees by a glorious pond, this family gives you a quick look into their soul and you’re hooked. This push and pull between detachment and openness lives on in my mother who only in movies and novels enjoys the pastoral.
As I road between mountains I wondered about the farmers eking a living on the green but sloping terrain. I don’t believe my forefathers ever stood still long enough to watch grass grow. They fought at Lexington and were captured in Quebec and the men picked quiet, stoic women. This man who is my not-so-distant cousin doesn’t go against type in marriage. His German wife gladly followed him around the world from one army post to another before settling down in this beautifully remote and forgotten region of New York State. For every thriving farm there are three or four tumbled down buildings, some on wheels in weed-choked lots.
What do people do here? I ask myself as the clouds cast quickly moving shadows over yet another abandoned hay field? The answer is that most move. My great-grandfather Orson made cabinets in New Jersey after leaving Cortland County. He and his twin drove Cadillacs and nothing else. Orson lost his wife to cancer. Back then some people still believed a person caught the disease by living a dirty life. I wonder if he blamed my rebel grandmother (his daughter) like my great-aunt did.
My cousin retired from the army and knew for certain that he’d move to his DNA territory. He shepherds what’s left of the family like a good pastor. He’s a keeper of memories–always so many memories of Solon Pond. How did students at the school ever pay attention when the windows overlooked men cutting ice from the pond? One day a horse fell into the icy water. Another horse was sent to drag it out. The men covered the horse with stinky wool blankets briefly before sending the animal back to the heavy labor of ice harvesting.
Do we save old school houses and churches as a reminder of a simpler life? Or do we hold onto these crumbling buildings as the only simple things in any time period. For brief moments we all stand erect with our intricate DNA combinations leading the way.
And what of our soul memories? We see another with our blood. Do we imagine a spiritual connection? Ten years ago I visited the cemetery in Virgil, NY and traced my fingers over the name of my great-great grandfather on his limestone marker, the weather having softened the letters to near extinction. This weekend his name was gone. A sudden exhilaration mixed with my disappointment. My fear of death briefly lifted. The names did not need to be there for me to feel my kindred bond to the others. The wind kicked up and I left. If I died tomorrow I would meet them face to face.