My grandfather is the oldest resident of Harmony, Wisconsin.
Granted, Harmony has a population less than or equal to 211 people, but in any case, 90 years is still quite an accomplishment of longevity.
Especially when you are 90 years old and still doing all of the things my grandfather is still doing, like:
chopping his own firewood in the backfield to heat his house all winter
harvesting apples to feed the deer that live on his property
Walking through all his fields and acres of woodland to clear trails and make sure everything is passable and in good shape.
hunting deer for venison and cleaning and butchering them himself.
Up until a few years ago, he was still polka-ing every Sunday and climbing apple trees in the fall.
When I was a kid I used to dread visits up North. Generally, its Cold Up North. Turning onto the unpaved, gravel road to my grandfather’s always made it feel like we had truly Left Civilization Behind. The house has no shower, no, phone and no cell phone service. The beds and most of the furniture dates to before WWII and there are plenty of flies and tics to keep a person feeling jumpy year round.
Up North, the TV was always on and the options were: a) Hunting shows; b) Fishing shows; c) Old Westerns; d) Polka competitions. I distinctly remember once being stuck on my grandfather’s couch with strep throat and feverishly watching a Blue Gill fishing marathon for over ten hours.
Sometimes I wonder now if I was ever stranded on a lake front, whether I would go into a sort of trance and fish for blue gills with a perfectly improvised fishing pole made from bent bark and spider webs.
In any case, a lot has changed since I was a teenager spending long weekends up at my grandfather’s.
These days, it’s still always cold up in the North Woods, and the closest shower is still at the Motel 8 in town 20 minutes away (where they politely request that you not clean your motorcycle or butcher your deer on their hotel bedding). But now the woods seem more enticing, spending time with my family seems more fun and important than it did when I was 16.
I like crunching through the backwoods and playing gin rummy at the kitchen table with whomever is around. I like hearing my grandfather talk about his life. I like hearing about the all of the wildlife that meander by his house and hearing the concern he has for them as they struggle through the long winters.
I like the rolling hills and the wooded trails that my grandfather keeps clean and tidy every year. I like the wood piles in the back fields are stacked by my grandfather with such precision, they could almost pass for a piece of modern art.
I like looking at all of the old photos of my mom, her sisters, my grandfather, my great-aunts. All of the wedding and baby photos that followed.
I like my grandfather’s collection of mirrors.
Attached to the side of the house are a set of mismatched mirrors perched at odd angles. They seem to be nothing more than a bit of eccentric decoration. Until you sit down in my grandfather’s easy chair. Those mirrors give a perfect view of the country road, the driveway, the fields around the house, even the trail leading into the woods.
If a bear, a friend, or a wanna-be traspassing hunter comes within a 200 yd radius of his house, he finds out without ever having to leave his chair.
It will be another 2 years at least before we get back to my grandfather, to his woods and rickety kitchen table. I have no doubt that when we come back, he will still be there with updates about the bears and the wolves and the deer and complaints about the deterioration of Major League Baseball. That makes me happy and I can’t wait to come back.