I know one or several who are rooted in their town and who prove instrumental in helping newcomers become rooted there as well – someone who could plow them out; someone who could lend them a rototiller; someone who could repair their water line or dug well; someone who knew the previous occupants; someone who knew what used to be on that piece of land; someone who knew the stories and just how to tell them; someone we laughed with and, gradually, over time, someone on whom we could bestow a favor ourselves.
We just lost such a person. He was Bob. He was the last farmer on this road. He lived a long life and his house and land was also his mother and dad’s home and land. When we moved here, Bob knew the previous owners of our place, helped them put in the water line, dig the well, wire the house. Thanks to all that previous work, all we initially needed Bob for was to show us the septic tank, dig our vegetable and herb gardens, plow us with his John Deere since a pick-up truck always got stuck in the deep snow. Then, Bob rescued our beloved feline Doolittle who had fallen down the fireplace grate into the soft ash bin in the cellar. And so it went.
We relied on Bob just being around, and eventually favors were returned. My Susan found him another dog after his was killed on his road. His vegetables were the best and we always stopped. His was the honor system. Put the change in the red box if he was at the farmer’s market. His pumpkins were the largest, too. The years turned to decades.
My road used to be a rural route, long gone. Bob knew the owners of our place before us and those that came before them, and before them, also. As a boy he sledded past our house because the road was sunken, concave, not convex as now after so much re-construction. But Bob still drove his John Deere, chains on his big tires ringing like sleigh bells, gradually turning into dozens of lanes to plow them out.
Come April, we knew the seasons had really turned when we saw his plant lights shining inside the house. His vegetable stand stood in anticipation of summer. Coal dark soil harbored his long beds of onions and peppers, his sagging barn sat beyond, the big pigs inside, the tractor he’s kept working since 1948, the fields out yonder, a beloved loyal dog who ratted and moused there and occasionally came home with a jaw full of quills. Bob knew what to do. He loved his dogs. I helped him put on his dog tags this year. His dog Brownie allowed me to put them on because Bob stood right there.
On a recent Saturday evening in early January Bob walked across his road to get his mail, as he had done ten thousand times before. This time, Bob was struck by a car and killed. It was dusk and hard to see. People drive our road much faster than they once did. Bob was 92 and wasn’t walking well. He had lived through strokes and rehabilitation. He regained his legs ten years ago thanks to the determined nursing he got. We marveled how he kept planting, taking his produce to farmer’s markets. Bob’s niece the next town over owned a dairy farm and pie store. She was crucial to extending Bob’s useful life in recent years. She looked after him as much as she could. Bob also had many, many friends who helped him during the growing season, and past it. They heard many of the same stories we did, usually an exploit by his dog, laughing with Bob, pretending they had never heard the stories before.
We absorbed the shocking news that Bob had been killed. Suddenly, we thought of Bob’s dog. Was Brownie still in the house, alone? Shouldn’t we go over and find out? A neighbor phones. Brownie had been taken out of the house. We breathed and retreated to our thoughts.
In Bob’s death we’re forced to tote up the years of our own lives, all the changes, the people, the animals and the open spaces gone. We struggle to stay in the present time and to appreciate what we do still have. We’re thankful for Bob.
As our country’s rural poet and storyteller Wendell Berry puts it in his story Pray Without Ceasing (from Fidelity, Five Stories by Wendell Berry, Pantheon Books), “When your time comes you must go, by the hand of man or the stroke of God…It’ll come by surprise, she said. It’s a time appointed but we’ll not be notified…So we must always be ready, she said. Pray without ceasing.”
Photo of where Bob helped us become rooted.