The log guest cabin on my property will be 100 years old next year. Owner number three, I have as best I can, tried to keep the cabin feeling and looking within a decade of its birth. Unlike the owners before me I need to rent out the cabin in summer; the income helps me afford to keep living here, but also it is enjoyable seeing people react and fit in to the old place. Guests say they like the experience of going back in time, but none complain of the running water or the “period” gas range replacing an old wood stove. I’m glad people enjoy the place and that I’m willing and able to keep it going. I spend more time and effort keeping the cabin up than I do on my nearby house.

There’s more to this kind of property ownership than having possession of a quantity of stacked logs and a stone fireplace. In addition to wood, roof, and mortar there is a heritage and tradition to observe and keep. In a sense I’m a steward of the lives and histories of the earlier owners who are as much an essential part of the cabin as are its logs. When guests show an interest in the history (most do) I oblige with the spectrum, sunshine to gloom. Being a special part of human lives, the cabin has invested meanings that don’t jump out. They must be coaxed and cultivated.

I first got a real sense of hidden story thirty years ago when an elderly couple appeared asking to see Trailsyde. A request that easy to satisfy brought an unexpected reward. The man’s mother had been the first owner’s cook and housekeeper on Kenwood in Minneapolis. The owners were fond of the woman and her son. They said they’d put him through college. That did not come to pass because he was more a “doing” than “studying” type boy, but ages thirteen through fifteen or so he spent two or three summers with them at Trailsyde, where at the time he slept in an adjacent cabin that’s no longer there. His reminiscences were warm recalling there rarely being a night he was alone. The other bunks were most often occupied by overnight visitors. The first owners were both successful and outgoing.

As a teenage youth Harvey did not fit into adult society, but had instead his own round of doing. Each morning he’d do firewood and other chores for the cabins before going off with pole and line to fish the Arrowhead (a name no longer applied to that river). Between getting his catch he’d enjoy dips in the river. With enough fresh fish for the present he’d pack up to return, but on the way back would stop at another cabin where he’d visit with an elderly man and his daughter. Harvey liked the girl, and also liked the lemonade and cookies served him. He’d leave a fish or two for them and continue on his way. In that day Harvey was living about as large as a boy might dream of. His duties were light. He fished and swam every day he cared to and enjoyed lemonade, cookies, and a little love interest as well. His days those summers were largely grand ones. He did not say so,. The warmth of his voice said it for him.

Back at Trailsyde he’d turn the fish over to the owners and go about doing whatever chores remained before the dinner bell when his plate would be ready for him to take. While he talked we were seated having coffee at the same handmade log table that was in the cabin during his youth when Harvey suddenly stopped. Remembering a detail he said, “I never sat at this table before. I always took my plate to the other cabin. That’s how it was those days.” That detail is a story.

Remember, the owners liked mother and son, would pay for the son’s college, were happy to have him in attendance some summers running, but yet he’d never sit at their table with them. Put simply enough, he was the servant’s son at a time not so long ago when servants did not sit down with masters. I like to tell that story because it shows, slow as social change might appear, that we have come an important distance away from some past distinctions. I think we can understand conventions of the past and even somewhat appreciate them but still feel the sad burden of social convention that separated rather than joined. It’s difficult to grasp how the owners could like a boy well enough to offer to pay for his education and yet never have him sit at table with them. It seems a tragic division that kept social classes from seeking and enjoying experiences of mutual reward and benefit.

As I do, you’ll frequently hear about social ills; sexism, gender bias, age bias, color bias, race bias, and more. And it’s quite true. American culture and society is not perfected. Are you surprised? Fairness and equality are not easily realized. By writing this in English in a particular style and being of my gender some will find fault and point to this as a supposed example of male dominated colonizing. That, I believe, puts focus on division rather than union. Union and cooperation is not found in making others look bad so you can appear better.

The lesson I draw from the Trailsyde table is this. Emphasis on difference, identity, race, gender, or language distinction, and etc. is always dividing rather than unifying and should be resisted. There are ritual or other occasions where a role or class can be presented, but in social interaction whenever people set themselves apart by dress, behavior, speech, or attitude they are playing division by either sending others off to eat alone or demanding that they themselves do so. Much gets lost when division gains ground. Life is a round table open to all, but we can’t sit to the feast when distinctions keep any of us standing or outside the door. Sitting at the table is mutual or it is nothing but an emptied bowl.