Live your life each day as you would climb a mountain. An occasional glance toward the summit keeps the goal in mind, but many beautiful scenes are to be observed from each new vantage point. Climb slowly, steadily, enjoying each passing moment; and the view from the summit will serve as a fitting climax for the journey ... H. Melchert
This will most likely be my last post here for a while, so I thought I would write something non-political for a change – something more introspective and philosophical that might cause anyone who happens by here to reflect, or maybe consider some ideas he hadn't before afforded much brain-space (on the other hand, he may leave here scratching his head and muttering, ‘What the heck is she smoking?’ :)
The following observations are not meant to be maudlin. If any readers see them in that way, I offer my apologies in advance. My intention is quite the opposite. I simply offer them as three short and simple ‘tales’ ... all of which I believe speak to the fleeting nature of our earth-bound life, and the natural, innate human desire to leave some kind of permanent personal mark on the ever-changing landscape.
Recent happenings in my family circle have caused me some reflection on the concept of our mortality, and I have somehow become acutely aware of the passing of time, the changing of the seasons, etc.
... which often puts me in mind of a scene from the lovely movie 'A Trip to Bountiful', in which Geraldine Paige portrays an elderly woman whose final, heartsong yearning is to return, one last time, to what remains of her dilapidated and abandoned childhood home on the economically beleaguered Texas Gulf coast. Looking plaintively over the overgrown fields surrounding her nearly-a-century-ago childhood home, she reflects:
Twenty years from now, I’ll be long gone. The river will still be here ... the fields ... the trees ... and the smell of the Gulf. But it’s so quiet now ... so eternally quiet.
My papa always had that field over there planted in cotton. It’s all woods now. But I expect someday people will come and cut down the trees and plant cotton again ... and maybe even wear out the land again. And then their children will sell it and move to the cities.
And then trees will come up again.
We’re all just a small part of all of God’s plan.
We live toward the end of a completely forested, dead-end road in a remote part of our township here in south-central Pennsylvania. Toward the other end of our road, nearing where it meets a main township road, sits a beautiful, well-maintained horse farm that has been in existence since 1831 … a full thirty years before the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter.
Just a few hundred feet from that farm, across a main township road, stood an old red, weather-beaten barn that has to have stood there at least as many years as the old horse farm … through the Civil War, both World Wars, and all of the events, both momentous and unnoticed, that have occurred in the interim.
That old barn sat on the edge of a fallow field that stretches just about as far as the eye can see, and its only companion was a young (in comparison) maple tree that stood sentinel alongside it.
Two weeks ago, someone had painted on the side of that barn, in gnarly, irregular letters: ‘For Sale’, accompanied by a phone number. I didn’t think much of the crooked lettering until, one day last week, I drove by and saw three young Amish men dismantling the old barn (old barn wood is a valuable commodity, since old wooden barns are becoming more rare with the passage of time). Without realizing that it was happening, I found myself audibly sobbing, as I drove toward town, with a river of tears streaming down both cheeks.
The nearby development of upscale houses that began construction last year surely intends to invade and digest the barren farm field in the not-too-distant future, and the removal of the old barn was, no doubt, a necessity in order to accommodate the march of (what we like to call) ‘progress’.
The young maple tree now stands sentinel there alone, with just the remnants of the weathered stone foundation of her older companion, still stubbornly clinging to the ground, insistent on reminding her of simpler, sweeter days.
Directly across the street from the building in which my office is located stands another field. At the edge of that field, adjacent to the road, once stood three lovely oak trees, the largest and oldest of which was damaged about five years ago during a spring thunderstorm that was accompanied by especially strong winds. I suspect that the two younger specimens on either side of her were her acorn ‘offspring’.
Man did nothing to repair the damage that the storm wreaked on the mother tree, and, over the ensuing five years since the storm, insects have had their way with her. Just last winter, the top three-fourths of her gave way and came hurtling earthward, leaving simply a tall, insect-riddled hollow stump. Pieces of her former self still litter the ground.
That stump is scheduled to meet the township road crew’s chainsaw within the next couple of weeks.
When leaving my office this afternoon, I reminded myself to capture the last remaining evidence that that lovely old oak … most likely witness to the Great Depression and beyond ... ever graced that particular spot of ground. Two weeks from now there will be no earthly evidence that she ever existed, but for the two younger versions of her that still stand to either side of her remains.
Below is a short story that I first read several years ago. It appeared in a book many years before my first reading of it. It is a telling and touching story for those who view man’s mortality as something that evokes both awe and dread. And I offer it here as a human counterpart of the simple tales of the barn and the oak.
by Lajos Zilahy
He didn’t stop to wash the turpentine from his hands, but merely dried them on the rag that was hanging on a nail behind the door.
Then he untied the green carpenter’s apron from his waist and shook the shavings from his trousers.
He put on his hat and, before going out the door, turned to the old carpenter who was standing with his back to him, stirring the glue. His voice was weary as he said:
A strange mysterious feeling had shivered in him since morning. There had been a bad taste in his mouth.
For a moment his hand would stop moving the plane, and his eyes would close, tired.
He went home and listlessly ate his supper.
He lived at an old woman’s, the widow of Ferenz Borka, in a bare little room which had once been a wood shed.
That night – on the fourth day of October, 1874 – at a quarter past one in the morning, the journeyman carpenter, John Kovacs, died.
He was a soft-spoken, sallow-faced man, with sagging shoulders and a rusty moustache.
He died at the age of thirty-five.
Two days later, they buried him.
He left no wife, nor child behind, no one but a cook living in Budapest in the service of a blank president, by the name of Torday.
She was John Kovacs’ cousin.
Five years later, the old carpenter in whose shop he had worked, died, and nine years later death took the old woman in whose shed he had lived.
Fourteen years later, Torday’s cook, John Kovacs’ cousin, died.
Twenty-one months later – in the month of March of 1805 – in a pub at the end of Kerepesuit, cabbies sat around a red clothed table drinking wine.
It was late in the night; it must have been three o’clock. They sprawled with their elbows on the table, shaking with raucous laughter.
Clouds of thick smoke from vile cigars curled around them. They recalled the days of their military service.
One of them, a big, ruddy-faced, double-chinned coachman whom they called Fritz, was saying:
‘Once my friend, the corporal, made a recruit stick his head into the stove …’
And at this point he was seized by a violent fit of laughter as he banged the table with the palm of his hand.
‘Jeez!’ he roared.
The veins swelled on his neck and temples and for many minutes he choked, twitched and shook with convulsive laughter.
When he finally calmed down he continued, interrupting himself with repeated guffaws.
‘He made him stick his head into the stove and in there he made him shout one hundred times ‘Herr Zugsfiere, ich melde gehorsammst’ ... poor chump, there he was on all fours and we paddled his behind till the skin almost split on our fingers.’
Again he stopped to get over another laughing spell.
Then he turned to one of the men, ‘Do you remember, Franzi?’ Franzi nodded.
The big fellow put his hand to his forehead.
'Now ... what was that fellow’s name ... '
Franzi thought for a moment and then said: ‘Ah ... a ... Kovacs ... John Kovacs.’
That was the last time ever a human voice spoke the name of John Kovacs.
On November the tenth, in 1899, a woman suffering from heart disease was carried from an O Buda tobacco factory to St. John’s Hospital. She must have been about forty-five years old.
They put her on the first floor in ward number 3.
She lay there on the bed, quiet and terrified; she knew she was going to die.
It was dark in the ward, the rest of the patients were already asleep: only a wick sputtered in a small blue oil lamp.
Her eyes staring wide into the dim light, the woman reflected upon her life.
She remembered a summer night in the country, and a gentle-eyed young man, with whom – their fingers linked – she was roaming over the heavy scented fields and through whom that night she became a woman.
That young man was John Kovacs and his face, his voice, the glance of his eye had now returned for the last time.
But this time his name was not spoken, only in the mind of this dying woman did he silently appear for a few moments. The following year a fire destroyed the Calvinist rectory and its dusty records that contained the particulars of the birth and death of John Kovacs.
In January, 1901, the winter was hard.
Toward evening in the dark a man dressed in rags climbed furtively over the ditch that fenced in the village cemetery.
He stole two wooden crosses to build a fire.
One of the crosses had marked the grave of John Kovacs.
Again two decades passed.
In 1920, in Kecskemet, a young lawyer sat at his desk making an inventory of his father’s estate.
He opened every drawer and looked carefully through every scrap of paper.
On one was written: ‘Received 4 Florins, 60 kraciers. The price of two chairs polished respectfully Kovacs John.’
The lawyer glanced over the paper, crumpled it in his hand and threw it into the waste paper basket.
The following day the maid took out the basket and emptied its contents in the far end of the courtyard.
Three days later it rained.
The crumpled paper soaked through and only this much remained on it:
' ... Kova ... J ... '
The rain had washed away the rest; the letter ‘J’ was barely legible.
These last letters were the last lines, the last speck of matter that remained of John Kovacs.
A few weeks later the sky rumbled and the rain poured down as though emptied from buckets.
On that afternoon the rain washed away the remaining letters.
The letter ‘v’ resisted longest, because there where the line curves in the ‘v’ John Kovacs had pressed on his pen.
Then the rain washed that away too.
And in that instant – forty-nine years after his death – the life of the journeyman carpenter ceased to exist and forever disappeared from this earth ... but for this ...