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I have a Lake Superior cabin celebrating its 100th year of welcoming guests. I’ve maintained, I think successfully so, the property near to its origins as practical. But in ways far more important than stacks of logs forming walls and stones piled to make a fireplace the authenticity of a cabin comes from its people. The tale of log and stone isn’t much without the stories of human hearts beating sagas of meaning for those able to grasp an entire story in a flickering moment of detail.
One warrants retelling. Near a generation ago an elderly recognized the cabin.by its familiar iron knocker. The unexpected visitors explained the man’s connection with the original owners. His mother had been the cook and housekeeper at their home in a well-to-do part of Minneapolis. The owners took a liking to the housekeeper’s son and gladly took him north to enjoy the cabin with them for the summer. Of course it was expected he’d help out. Nothing is for nothing. The boy was happy enough to repeat this for several summers running. He’d rise early to grab his own breakfast before doing chores of firewood and water hauling. Tasks done he was free to put a sandwich together and hike off to the nearby Brule to fish and swim until afternoon.
A catch in his creel he then went to a settler’s home where an old couple had a granddaughter near his age. Sharing his catch was not necessary, but he did so to prolong the time available to be around the attractive girl. Those were pleasant times talking with the settlers, the girl, and most times enjoying with them whatever food and drink they thought fit. In early to mid-teens the boy, Harvey, was living large and happy. His tasks at the cabin were light. Hours at the river to fish and swim were pure pleasures. Visiting with the settlers was another avenue of enjoyment and satisfaction as you’d know ever having shared a fresh catch of trout with people able to appreciate both the fish and the effort.
Back at the cabin Harvey would hand the remainder of his catch over, his contribution to the evening meal, and then go about the tasks of restocking wood and water as needed. In time he’d be called for the evening meal and would arrive at the cabin door. There a plate was ready for him with fried fish, a portion of baked beans from the always in use fireplace bean-hole, and whatever else was available for the menu. Harvey would take his plate to the bunk cabin where he ate the evening meal alone. The cabin owners very often had guests who with Harvey used the bunk cabin. Guests ate in the main cabin with the owners. The boy never did.
Details, sometimes subtle, are the lifeblood of a revealing story. I say that to precede telling you there was no guile or animosity in Harvey’s voice, eye, or manner as he talked while I set coffee and whatever else available (visitors hadn’t been expected) on the table in an impromptu tuck-up. The man, near the end of his time then as I am to mine now, spoke with fondness of the original owners as having been very good to his mother and to him. “They wanted, and would have,” he confided with seriousness, “put me through school, but.” His account held. “But I didn’t want more school. I’d rather DO things. They were disappointed, but soon as I could I was in the Navy and off into the world. I never forgot what they tried to do, but it wasn’t right for me.
I had to find my own way.”
When someone gives you a true account of an important part of their past living it’s a thing you should treat with care and respect. There was no doubt in my mind that Harvey was telling true of his past and was very much feeling, as he sat there with a cup of coffee and a meagre store bought cookie, a depth of things I could only guess at and hope not to cast away or lose among my own self-important worries. In any case and for whatever reason I did not miss one of the more important details of that day when Harvey looked up with a smile and said “I never sat at this table (the original log and board table) with the owners. This is a first.” There was obvious contentment in his voice.
I value Harvey’s story because it says so much in such a simple setting. If you think back to a time when American was somewhat Edwardian in culture the implications of Harvey’s story will make fuller sense. First keep in mind that the original owners indeed liked this boy and that he liked and respected them in kind. But yet, he was never part of the group at the evening table.
No matter how well people got along distinctions were met and kept. Harvey was the servant’s son. The son of a servant simply didn’t belong at the main table with owners or guests.
The elements of this account have struck me many, many times. When I talk about it I always add that despite the disparaging and critical things we can say about past practices we have come a long way from days when class distinction was to sharp a barrier separating one humanity from another. There was division. Of that no doubt. But how we characterize the split is a question for today. Was the formalism of the past malicious and destructive or simply sets of conventions people worked within? We’ve come, and happily I’d say, a long way from the burden of some of the effects of old social constraints. But looking at this I wonder if replacing a set of conventions with another is liberating in itself or will rise to a higher level through loving understanding of others. Ownership of stuff is no measure of humanity.