Last night a man showed me a photo of his parents taken around the time they met. His father was a Midwestern G.I. stationed overseas, his mother a Japanese seamstress. Faced with a language barrier and no other means of arranging a date, the young soldier would purposely cut the buttons from his uniform so he had an excuse to visit the seamstress.
Decades evaporate. The soldier and the seamstress are gone, the black-and-white photos taken when they met paired with a snapshot of the two of them gray-haired and elderly, framed and smiling from the wall of a small rural Wisconsin cabin decorated to commemorate their lives and love as well as a grandson who died young. Outside the cabin, a large group of friends and family sat around a bonfire and small outdoor bar, celebrating, swapping stories, and, in quieter, more private moments, running a thumb along the edge of harder memories to see if they had gone dull. They rarely do.
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I came to the gathering by chance and slow degrees, beginning back a decade or so when the man who owns the cabin and I were waiting in line at the local gas station during deer season. This was back when you had to haul your deer to town to register it, so the line was moving slowly, and we struck up a conversation. Time passed, and at some point the man started a lawn mowing service. One day our old mower disappeared in a blurt of blue smoke, and the man bailed us out with his equipment. This led to us shooting the breeze in the yard, that led to him lending me his torpedo heater to save my shed roof from the snow last winter, and that led to an invitation to the bonfire.
I don’t want to overstep: The man with the cabin and I are on friendly and relaxed terms, but I am not his confidant. I can’t really overshare, as I’m not privy to that level. Rather I carry the vision of those black-and-white photos beside the full-color snapshot taken a lifetime later, and how it causes me to view my own life in terms of decades rather than this afternoon’s chore list. How we stood in that little room looking at the photos of the three departed even as the noise from the bonfire circle echoed across the yard, present evidence that the three lives represented remained cause for celebration off some county road among the dark Wisconsin pines.
You wonder in these moments what sort of bonfire you might precipitate, if any. Not the usual ephemeral monuments, the faded commemorations, the brass plaques for the young to pass by and briefly wonder who that was, and not even the full funeral home, but rather the stories passed around the flickering circle, the passing smile on the face of the person back in the shadows, the sparks and smoke rising as we toss another stick on the fire to keep it burning.
An original “Roughneck Grace” column exclusive to the Wisconsin State Journal. Audio versions may air on “Tent Show Radio” (tentshowradio.com). Read more from Michael Perry at www.sneezingcow.com.