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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

A House with a Past

October 2020

The house has lost its doors and windows. Open to wind, snow, and rain, this house with a past lies on the south side of a road in Oregon’s High Desert. I enter the house with reverence. It is the home in which two immigrants reared their family.  

Bridget Cotter Barry, whom my husband has always called Grandmother Barry, once lived here. As soon as I met her I also began to call her Grandmother Barry. Dark-haired and slender, with peaches and cream complexion, from the finest home in a wee town in County Cork, her father, Philip Cotter, had his daughter, Bridget Cotter, take a dinner bucket to Philip Phillip Barry. Imprisoned for the murder of the tax collector, his two teenaged friends had pointed the finger at Phil Ban’n, but the two young men were still forced from the county and country of their birth. For ten years Bridget, aged five to fifteen, took Phil Barry his once-a-day dinner bucket. At Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the queen pardoned many prisoners provided they left the country forever. Phil Barry immigrated to Eastern Oregon and two years later sent Bridget the money for her passage. Lying about her age and traveling alone, she arrived at Ellis Island at age 17. She worked as a seamstress in a Greenwich Village brownstone home on West 9th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, two blocks from where I grew up. We talked about the neighborhood and from her teenage years to mine, a span of about 60 years, there had been little change.

Several years later, Phil came east to fetch her. By this time, she had made herself some fine dresses to entertain when she arrived at her new home in Oregon. Little did she know that her new husband would take her to a ranch 100 miles from town and perhaps 50 miles from her nearest neighbor. Fine clothes were of little use.

Gone were the lush fields of Ireland and the green grass and forests of the northeast of her new country. He took her to a desert and the new house he had built for her. Being her genteel self, she made the best of it. When she saw dust on the road in the hills, she knew that in four or five hours, she would have someone pass by and stop in. That gave her time enough to fix a fine meal no friend or stranger could pass up. She put a roast in the oven, potatoes and a vegetable or two, and baked some bread and a pie or two. Whoever stopped had no choice but to stay for the meal. That is how she found someone to chat with besides her husband when he came home exhausted from sheep and cattle ranching.

Yes, the sky was blue, the sagebrush a soft green and fragrant, but with the sight of a person as rare as the sight of a tree, she soon tired of feeding only men—Philip and ranch hands. She had papered the walls, put a border across the top, all ordered from a catalogue. She dusted once a day and on some days probably more than once. She cooked, baked, fed Gold Tooth Phil and the ranch hands who all called her ma’am. She also had the grit to change her lifestyle, and, like the lady she was with the British accent and Irish lilt, she had the graciousness to entertain the way she had learned as a child.

This was the summer my husband and I exploring the High Desert of Oregon. I took him to the Barry Ranch, a place where he’d never been. Really? I thought, as I introduced him to the house and outbuildings. When he was a child, the Barry Ranch house was no longer used. It was the Jack Creek house or the Shirk Ranch, twelve miles up the rough dirt road from the now-paved highway. The Shirk place, painted white, is what he remembers from childhood, his grandmother and mother cooking for the family and ranch hands. The dining table was long and with a kerosene lantern at each end. Although the dining room is large, the kitchen and pantries are even larger. In addition, the larder, and cold cellars were also filled with food.  Today, thanks to a metal roof, the house, built sometime between 1881 and 1910, still stands. When we went in Shirk house this time, each room had four swallow nests. Not only complete with bird droppings down the walls and on the floors, bannister, and newel post, the swallows were still in summer residence waiting for the fledglings to leave. Such cries they put up as I walked into each room—parlor, three bedrooms, and a dormitory room. The staircase is still solid, but all the windowpanes are gone, either from severe occasional storms or vandalism. When we went a few weeks later in late September, the nests were empty and parent swallows had left for the winter.

I may have grown up in New England, New York City, and with a brief stint in London, but no, they are not who I am. Even at age ten, I knew that I was rural. When we moved from Maine to New York, I begged my parents to let me stay with the family of a friend or to go live on my aunt and uncle’s farm on the Brandywine Creek in Pennsylvania. No, they said I had to go with them. I learned a lot in the cities, but the country is where I belong. I could live at the Shirk place with neither phone nor electricity. I’d just have the wide expanse of land and sky…and a lot of hard work and writing opportunities. I’d have learned to ride a horse much better than ever before. I feel happy whenever I am there, much in the same way I feel happy next to the ocean. Both places have a past where I belong.

The Shirk Ranch house

The Shirk Ranch house, looking westward, still stands. I took this photo 22 September 2020


Less than a week later, I reentered the world where most people live. I donned an N95 facemask and a clear plastic face shield to board a plane. I headed to Colorado to join my son and his family for a trip to Colorado before our return to Alaska for winter. I need to return to Gustavus. Maybe I’m making a mistake—flying, heading into the rain forest again where it will rain for days on end until the snow falls. But it is still remote.

I was psychologically tired with the COVID-19 restrictions and lack of friendly face-to-face visits. Then came the forest fires. I’d heard for several years they were predicted. They came. For the first time in decades, I wept over the status of the planet. COVID-19 plus the fires took me over the edge. I had worked too hard on writing and editing too many databased articles and books the previous six months. There was too much stress, too much going on, no chance to land my imagination on the beauty that surrounded me, that surrounded my work on poetry or novels. For several days, perhaps a week, I folded in on myself.

Different from Grandmother Barry, my personal life is safe and secure. I do not want as she did. Perhaps those were the days of putting one foot in front of another and just moving on. Yes, today and all my life I have led a secure personal life.

Today, though, that is not the case. We are endangered by a pandemic with winter coming on. We live amidst forest fires or floods, oceans that rise. We live on a planet that may be dying because we are killing it. The Barry house on the south side of the highway is almost dead. It cannot be fixed up and renovated. It cannot survive.

What about our planet? Can we fix it? Will it survive? Or are we killing it slowly, piece by piece in a similar manner to the decay and destruction of the Barry house or Shirk house? It’s one thing for a house to decay and lose life. It’s quite another for civilizations to come and go, and it’s even quite further another for this to happen to our only planet home.

We must offer our planet reverence.

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