"That was some building," my brother-in-law recollects with a wry smile, shaking his head in disbelief that he lived there. "In the morning, you'd be frozen in to the blankets." He's talking about the one-room country school where he was teaching circa 1950. "That place had two stoves--an oil furnace I bought myself, right beside the bed. Still, you couldn't change the sheets because they were frozen to the mattress. The kitchen had a coal stove. I'd stoke it about 12:30 a.m. when I went to bed, and the embers were still red when I got up. Yet, the water in the pitcher on the other side of the stove was frozen."
My husband and I are lingering with him over coffee after taking him out for a birthday supper. He's eighty-four now, and it must seem like another life ago to have slept in that school wearing long underwear, heavy pants, and a winter jacket The memories are vivid, and we feel privileged to be sharing them.
We don't see him as often as we might. He's a busy man, hunting, making sausage, baking bread. His wife, Elmer's sister, passed away four years ago. With her gone, it's easy to get wrapped up in our own lives and neglect our extended family. We have a responsibility, now, at our age, with our parents gone and Elmer's two sisters deceased as well, to maintain the ties that connected us for decades.
It's our turn. Elmer places his insulated bag of hearty snacks and hot coffee beside his heated boots by the front door. "You're going ice-fishing with Victor," I comment, noticing the bag of fish hooks and Elmer's layered look. Nothing gets past me.
"We'll be back around 5:30. Our reservation is for 6:30," he says. I'm looking forward to the evening, and feeling a little guilty that we don't do it more often. In the wake of Alannah's passing, we feel the responsibility even more acutely. Cousins are leaving now, not parents, or aunts and uncles. That truth is the subtext of our conversation with Elmer's cousin, who found us as we packed our music books after Good Friday service this afternoon. She wanted to talk about Alannah. Together we reminisced, and grieved, connected by our common family experience. We talked a long time, not wanting to separate, as if parting would sever yet another link.
We need to preserve the bond that life has given us. How doesn't matter--ice-fishing, birthday suppers, quiet conversations, email, Facebook messages, telephone calls. The imperative remains, to check up on our present, tell and retell the stories of our past, and support each other in our future.