Vagneur: Through the eyes of my predecessors
My dad was, among other things, a diarist who wrote in his ranch book every day. So it was with a bit of trepidation some years ago when I took a peek at what he may have written down the day I arrived on the scene. “Son born today,” read the only writing on the day of my birth. Somewhat disappointing, I thought, but still, lucky enough to make the book with other important notations about the weather, crop growth, number of cattle on the range, etc.
At his insistence, I kept a diary through my high school years — hundreds of pages, all hand-written and not brief at all, notes about my family, my love affairs and fledgling philosophy of life, all small but important details of life, discovered totally by accident in the basement some 20 years after graduation. Before I could read through them, someone with a jealous hand pitched every page. How cruel, I thought.
The other day, 50 or so years after high school graduation, I found myself sitting on the back porch during lunch, watching barn swallows dart through the air, catching their own midday meal. The bright sun gave shimmering green cottonwood leaves a deep meaning unto themselves, and before I could guilt myself into going back to work, visions of my father and grandfather crept into my thoughts.
I was, in a stroke of good fortune that still amazes me, sitting on the very porch that my grandfather built almost 100 years ago, a porch that surrounds not only the house where my father was born, but the same house into which my grandfather was born. No, I wasn’t born there, but began my infancy up the road about a half-mile in a log cabin long since burned to the ground. If you think about it, that was two strikes against me early on — a no-name kid born into a house that not long after burned down.
The swallows have worked hard, building their mud nests up above the second-story window frames, breeding in the meantime I suppose, and now they sometimes sit, two abreast, peering out from the mud above like two big owl eyes, patiently waiting for the newcomers to arrive. Naturally, they still take turns grabbing bugs out of the air in mid-flight, totally without discernible choreography in rapid-fire twists and turns that challenge the believability of the incredible dance they perform.
Barn swallows have been coming here since my great-grandfather arrived in Woody Creek, and I wonder if he or my fathers before me took the time to enjoy the beauty of the backyard, looking upvalley at a scene almost the same in the 1880s as it is today, glimpsing the sun splash down on trees surrounding the house and watching the birds dash through the air, feverishly gaining their sustenance.
And I wonder about the responsibility of one generation to the next, of how the lineage moves along through the ages. Do the older folks become larger than life through incredible deeds, or is that just the way it is? Am I one with my ancestors by circumstance or by spirit?
Having the ability to look at the world through the eyes of my predecessors, I marvel at the world they lived in. I ride the same trails, walk the same roads, live in the same house, see the same views, put up hay in the same fields, and somewhere along the way I’ve developed a deeper understanding of how they lived, of how profoundly they loved the land. They are not so much bigger than life now as they are comrades in arms, men with whom I can identify and men with whom I could go to for advice.
It’s not just about the men, although they are the ones who played the larger role in my upbringing. I understand my mother’s loneliness at being far out in the country, of working hard to feed hay crews, potato pickers and trying to keep a social identity going, not only in Woody Creek, but also in Aspen. She loved the music tent and skiing. And as I head up the stairs to bed each night, or just to brush my teeth, I can still hear my mother calling over my shoulder, “Tony, if you’re going up, take a load of clean laundry.”
In the end, I reckon the lost pages of my diary aren’t that crucial, for people and lives can’t really be reduced to words, although some of us might try. Individuals, at least the ones important to us, are all about spirit, not words on a page, the same spirit that moves birds through the air, that rings love in our hearts and brings tears of joy or sorrow to our eyes. That is the legacy I’ve been given, and the one I hope to leave my offspring.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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