The Soul of Place


One can revisit the past quite pleasantly, as long as one does so expecting nearly every aspect of it to have changed.
Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov
A Gentleman in Moscow
I’ve had a nightmare every so often for a couple of decades. In it, the woodland surrounding our family cabin is ravaged by social development and becomes the poster child for urban sprawl. The nightmares started when my parents still owned the cabin. When they passed, I became owner for a short time, but now it’s no longer ours. My nightmares continue and the disturbance within them escalates as each installment unfolds.
The Cabin hosted laughter, celebrations of seasons, hunting stories, fires inside and out, and countless family gatherings. Its feng shui insisted that the outside come inside. As such, we occasionally harvested cattails from a nearby marsh and stood them to dry in an old wine jug just inside the front door.
The Cabin was a great place for doing uncle stuff. My sister-in-law brought her young family out to watch a Packer-Viking game on TV. The adults settled into libations while the kids revolved in and out the door. At one point, my five-year-old nephew breezed through and brushed against one of the cattails. Some of its fuzz fluffed airborne and levitated behind him. I asked him if he had farted. He smirked a, “No, I did not.” So, to legitimize my question I said, “Because there’s one sneaking up on you right now.” I pointed to the floating cattail dander and he turned. “See… That’s what they look like.”
His smirk instantly turned to panic and he clamored for escape. But the air current from his movement swirled and the fart chased him inquisitively out the door.
On the Fourth of July, my Mom’s unbridled patriotism made Uncle Sam look like a communist sympathizer. Arrayed in a cardboard tiara fashioned with red, white and blue foil, she’d perform a spirited interpretation of the Statue of Liberty in live motion. With a crackling sparkler in each hand and a candle burning nearby for re-lights, she conducted Sousa marches that blared out the Cabin windows from the eight-track player inside. She didn’t quit until every sparkler in the box had fizzled. The sight was enough to make wood thrush roll off-perch.
The Cabin was sheltered between modest hills on a curved road two intersections from the main highway. The anticipation of reaching it peaked at the sight of a neighbor’s small white duplex on the first bend of the blacktop. Especially after a troubled week, stress began rinsing away.
The house belonged to an older bachelor that my wife DyAnne and I befriended not a minute too soon. His intriguing eyes reminded us of Rodney Dangerfield. We’d known who he was for a couple of years and exchanged friendly small talk on occasion. His mother was an opera fanatic. His father played for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Our friend sided with opera. Once, he’d stopped over and by chance mentioned he’d never been inside the Cabin. I was more than surprised and properly ashamed—never again.
Get-togethers thereafter became habit. He’d bring the pork loin and we’d provide the brandy and cider. He liked using its cinnamon stick as both cocktail stirrer and Tiparillo when emphasizing philosophy and pontification. We’d sit around the outdoor fire at dusk listening to turkeys flying to roost, wingbeats like muffled garbage bags being shaken open.
Throughout life, his primary occupation was a handyman. He was a wizard with machine tools and small engines, our ancient lawn mower a specialty. The motto for him: If he can’t fix it, it ain’t broke.
He had two cats who lived into their twenties. But with that came his inevitable acceptance that their family as they knew it in this lifetime would need to conclude. He sent them over together so one wouldn’t have to be without the other even for a little while. When he told me, he was so distraught that he leaned his hand on my shoulder at first, then he fell into a full hold and sobbed. He had a hell of a clinch from a lifetime of turning wrenches and compassion for others.
Dy and I had recently made that decision for one of our cats. Shortly afterward, he called our house in town and announced, “I’ve got your new kitten.” Came to find he also claimed two of its siblings for himself. That meant more brandy and cider, another fire and extensive discussion on reincarnation. That kitten became our cat for 16 years.
My parents didn’t realize how close we had gotten to him. Dy and I eventually moved 400 miles away from the Cabin and we only returned twice. Some time later, my folks called to say another Cabin neighbor found him in bed a month before. He had passed away in his sleep.
The Cabin had a soul of its own and nurtured our dreams. It woke me to recognize I had fallen in love with DyAnne, my wife-in-the-making during our early days there. By her account, I was a little tardy in coming around. But infinite walks with her down the Cabin’s pine-scented lane, rain, shine or snow, had an effect on me. Finally, when Mom and Dad were up for a visit, we took a bottle of champagne to the Cabin and announced our engagement. Mom cried. We expected nothing less. But Dad thought I was joking and walked outside to do something else. I had to fetch him back and tell him it was for real. Then he was all loud and joyous with us.
My memories of the Cabin and surrounding area are as crisp as if I’m actually there. I can still smell its earthy must, hear the creaky oven door open and close, see the two-foot artificial Christmas tree that doubled as a nightlight year-round. But in my nightmare, unfamiliar neighbors freely trespass with complete disregard for our solitude and their sense of entitlement to whatever is on our property. The formerly dense woods on the hilltop behind the Cabin had been gutted and I can see the road on the other side a mile away. Sidewalks and culverts replaced deer trails. The undersides of branches wear the light from a convenience store just over the rise.
Maybe my nightmares have given me a heads-up, though I don’t think they’re reality—at least not yet. But soul overpowers nightmare and I’ve come to terms with my physical separation. I have no desire to return. My memories are enough.


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