Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Little Something For Women And The North Woods In Summer

A woman I know told me a story from her childhood, when she would occasionally get shipped off to spend a few days with an aunt who lived out in the country up near Nisswa in Crow Wing County, Minnesota.

This would have been in the 1950s. Nisswa was a resort community, known for blue lakes, tall pines and vacationing city people. I imagine her aunt would have lived in a part of the township summer visitors rarely saw—back in the second growth remainder of the old North Woods, where the local people had carved out small, sand-bottomed farms.

Some of those places still didn’t have electricity or running water, and a woman’s life would have been hardscrabble and isolated. She would have spent her spring planting and her summer gardening, picking berries, canning and preserving food, tending livestock, cutting wood, and doing housework. Her autumn would have been spent harvesting and readying the place for winter, which she would have spent feeding the fire, sewing, and enduring the almost-oppressive silence that would have descended when the songbirds departed in October and lasted until they returned in April.

I imagine the aunt to have been shaped by the seasons and her routines; to have been hard-working, quiet, and suspicious of strangers the way rural people almost always are. Her work and her life would have introverted her, and I imagine her relatives sent the girl out to break the tedium and provide a little bright young company, if only for a few days.

The girl would have been seven or eight at the time, and she almost certainly would have barraged her aunt with those questions, both vast and insignificant, that children ask. If not questions then the kind of gossip, intimations and confidences little girls overhear as they listen to the women around them.

The girl’s company would have winched the woman up out of her introspection whether the woman wanted to be winched up or not. I picture the girl following her aunt down rows of vegetables, both of them hoeing, the girl talking a mile a minute, the aunt smiling to herself, recognizing local people and long-recurring themes.

And the girl continuing to talk while the two of them collect eggs from the henhouse, still talking as they shovel live ashes from the kitchen stove firebox into the metal coal scuttle, still talking as they sweep and scrub the linoleum floor.

Often, after supper, a neighbor lady, Mrs. Jones, would come over to sit outside and watch evening descend and night come on. Not just the sunset. The entire end of the day—daylight to twilight to nightfall in the North Woods in summer. She remembers the two women sitting quietly, awash in the evening.

She remembers, too, that Mrs. Jones had lost two or three fingertips, some farm accident no doubt, and that the woman painted little squares of nail polish onto the ends of her fingers where her nails had been.

I have written the conclusion to this piece over and over again, but some images are perfect in-and-of themselves. So  I’m just going to leave the three of them sitting there, the two women watching night come on and Infinity revealing itself overhead, the girl stealing glimpses of Mrs. Jones’ manicure.