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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

Wood for Garden Boxes

May 2023

Outside my study window, my husband and two young people use a skill saw to make wood for garden boxes for Natalie. We live in Southeast Alaska where the earth stays cool for the summer. We build garden boxes to raise the soil a foot above ground. Given that we’re in a rain forest, the wood rots after fifteen to twenty years. Someone else made the boxes years ago. They’ve moved on and so has the aging wood. I hear the skill saw try to interrupt my thoughts. It doesn’t because making anything with wood is a part of life here. We’re out in the boonies and there’s nowhere to go to buy untreated wood. We’re on our own for solving such problems.

Old garden box needs replacing.

Old garden box needs replacing.

One of my cousins called me yesterday. His sister’s ninetieth birthday is around the corner. He’s putting together book of photos and stories for her. Our minds are aging more slowly than the rotting wood, but still aging. He called to fill in some missing family details.

“I’m missing one of our mothers’ sisters. Who am I missing?”

I love questions like that and get them from family members often. There was a time my brother called me to ask if he’d had the chicken pox. A sister called me to ask where a picture of her was taken when she was three. (I’m eleven years younger than she and eight years younger than my brother.) The picture was taken on the front porch of our great-grandfather’s house in Truro, Nova Scotia. I didn’t know when Bill had chicken pox.

I remembered the photograph of my mother and her six siblings, but asked my cousin to send it to me. Ah yes, that’s Aunt Mary. I corrected the spelling of two of the nicknames—Bouchie (short for Ruth) and Tatty (short for Kathryn). I sent the corrections back along with three stories about his older sister.

He marveled at my memory. On my father’s side, my father and two cousins also remembered such family details. They have all died so I have become the family memory. I can’t fall apart like a piece of rotting wood. I must write all these stories down first. I suppose there’s no problem with them being lost forever, but stories are fun and our link to the past. The past tells us part of who we are now. Joel Ferré and David Witmer, two of my four-greats-grandfathers supplied munitions and grain to Washington’s troops. I love that story because that makes my family a part of the history of this country. It gave me reason to take a college course in the U.S, Constitution. Another ancestor was a member of the Constitutional Congress. I live by the rules he and his friends pondered, argued about, wrote down, a document that made us the first modern democracy, Greece being the old one in 300-500 B.C.E. The stones and ideas of that period live on, but Greek wood is long gone.

I don’t try to remember these things, I just do. They come to me as stories, facts and pictures. I see the drive around Nova Scotia with George driving, Hallé riding in the front seat, John and I in the back. I hear our conversations as if they are written. I hear John in his perfect BBC accent telling me his life story.

“I was born in London because I wanted to be near my mother who was shopping in Belgium at the time. Time passed and I learned to walk. More time passed and I started school. More time passed and here I am now.” Oh John! Those three cousins are gone, but I remember our laughter, picnics, and camping along the coast of Nova Scotia including Cape Breton Island. I also remember George, tired of my what’s-next and when-will-we-get-there questions, saying we’ll see, or I don’t know, or we’ll know when we get there. No one ever argued on that three-week trip. Argument seemed to be non-existent on both sides of my family.

Now I have become that old piece of wood, not rotting but older. I am pleased to be the family memory, to tell all the stories once again to whomever will listen. Yes, as one niece said, I must write them down.

I will as soon as I finish writing the stories I remember about my dear friend, Diana, who died when her boys were fifteen and thirteen. Someone needs to tell these stories for her four grown grandchildren. They need to know what a remarkable person their grandmother was. I shall be her storyteller.

I hung on to stories when I was a child. I still hang on them, only now I’m the teller not the listener. I remember writing stories before I started school. The usual kind for a four- or five-year-old girl. I was a princess or a child of privilege whose parents owned not just where we lived but the whole hillside down to where the road to Hopkinton ran. We owned everything that was in my view. Yes, I owned everything in my view because all was in my thoughts. It wasn’t wood that would rot. It wasn’t stone that could crumble. No, these thoughts could last as long as I did…or as long as anyone would read what I wrote.

The house is gone. All the many flower gardens and shrubs are gone. Only about a half a dozen of the twenty-six trees remain. I think two massive red oaks and the blue spruce tree still stand. All this elegance gone and replaced by Framingham State University’s student union. What a fine tribute. Our home was the gathering place for the family. The students who get a cup of coffee or a hamburger there have no idea that the history of the spot still lives in their conversations and relationships.

My mother, the oldest of six, gathered the family around her. My cousin, who asked yesterday if he had the names right, and his family lived there when he was a boy and we lived in New York City. Both of my grandmothers had lived there. Two other aunts and their children had lived there. Even today when I talk to a relative or a friend from the neighborhood, they start talking about the house. Its windows and wood may be gone but the memories still live within us. The house and its wood, windows, and furniture were more than just that. They were also family members.

The skill saw outside my window is now quiet and the pickups have left for Natalie’s community garden box.

Natalie puts together a new garden box with wood she helped mill on our sawmill.

Natalie puts together a new garden box with wood she helped mill on our sawmill.

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