They say that Romantics are incurable, This must be true, else cousin Bill Taylor would not have been searching for the remnants of the outhouse. Yes, I said “outhouse.”
I suppose a bit of an explanation is advisable.
Bill’s mother and my father were sister and brother. Thus it was that when their sister, my Aunt Althea, died, Bill came home for the funeral. Now, when I say home, I mean to Lamb, Michigan, a tiny burg that sits a dozen or so miles outside my hometown of Port Huron. It is there, in a quiet country graveyard adjoining the old country church, that Aunt Althea is buried.
I do not recall much, if any, of the funeral service, but its site is a permanent place in my memory bank. The church, which I guess is still there-I haven’t been out there for a few years, and it is possible that it has gone the way of much of rural America, into investment in country-living- only held about sixty or seventy people, when full. The building is typical American style for a country church; it is a whitewashed affair, with the expected steeple. The pews, at the time of the funeral, were stained a dark oak and were built so that there were three aisles, one on each side of the building and one aisle down the middle. A pump organ sat in an obscure corner, at the front.
My wife and my mother accompanied me for the recognition of our aunt’s full life, and in our pew also sat cousin Bill. He had come from Flint, which is sixty-five miles west of Port Huron.
As I said before, I do not recollect much of the service, other than nodding in recognition to other relatives whom I had not seen since other, previous funerals.
After the service was over, everyone went outside where, under a glorious summer sun, the interment took place amid decaying and fading stones of other souls. And after the final words had been spoken by the pastor, small groups of the living souls wandered or stood around in the grounds of the cemetery, talking somberly with each other as is expected in such a solemn setting. It is during such times that memories turn to the past, and nobody enjoys turning to the past more than do Romantics.
I am one of those hopeless Romantics, as was my mother, and as was Bill. Both Bill and I regaled each other about the great days of our youth-he was several years older than I, but our memorable experiences overlapped at times. We were reminiscing about times that we had known on the old family farm, which was just about a mile down the road. There, on the Lamb family farm, was the homestead that had, at various times, drawn members of the Taylor and Miller families to gather, since Charles Lamb, the owner of the farm, was closely related.
There is nothing more enjoyable to a Romantic than speaking about the good ol’ days, when life was meaningful and comfortable. We recalled great picnics that were held between the house and the barn. And there were memories of sleepovers, when it was deemed too late to head home in great darkness; there was always some place to bed down in so great a house.
Would it be there? And if so, how much of it would still be standing. We spoke about the vast field that was annually tilled. And about the inevitable barn, where on one particular occasion my twin-brother Jerry and I received an awful tongue lashing from Uncle Charles when he discovered us jumping from a ladder into a huge pile of hay.
It was the kind of adventure that most boys would have taken joyful advantage of. Thus Jerry and I could not understand why Uncle Charles was so upset, until he walked over to the pile and, after feeling around in it for a few seconds, drew out of the pile a mean-looking pitchfork, its shiny tines menacing even in the obscure shadows of the barn’s interior. When he held it up, in a dramatic manner, Jerry and I were grateful for being rescued from our stupidity, and Uncle Charles was obviously relieved.
But that was merely one memory out of a thousand, all part of a past that lured us to drive down the road and see what was possible to see.
Bill and his family were ahead of us, the road winding through old oak trees that spread their tops over us like umbrellas. There were fields planted in corn and beans, and occasionally there was a newer house, their owners opting to buy a piece of the country, a phenomenon that is taking place all across America.
All of a sudden Bill slowed down, and then stopped. He was getting out of his car as I braked my car to a gentle stop behind his, and I could see excitement on his face, and he was gesturing at an old house that sat far back among ancient trees of various kinds.
“This is it,” Bill said with great vigor. “I know it. This is it!”
I couldn’t tell, myself. I had not been at the Lamb house for many years, so my recollections were vague, at best.
But Bill was all agog, and the smile he wore told me that he must be right. The fact that he was a few years older than I was sufficient reason to believe that he was right.
There was a hint of an old path that led up to the front porch, and we could see that the window frames had suffered from years of disuse, the window panes themselves having either fallen in or been broken by local youths. The second story of the house had settled awkwardly on the roof of the first story, most of the shingles having given up their existence due to the years of rain and snow and wind.
“You know what, Larry?” he said to me as we stood there in the overgrown front yard. “I wonder if the three-seater is still there.”
And I laughed, for anyone who had ever been at the Lamb homestead could not fail to remember what was perhaps the most peculiar feature of the farm: a three-seater outhouse that Uncle Charles had personally built.
Many of the neighbors of the Lamb family used to talk about the outhouse, with Uncle Charles receiving a great deal of ribbing about what they thought of as extremely unique structure of sociability. Some of his neighbors had two-seater outhouses, but no one else had one that contained three seats. Certainly it was highly unusual. And I do not recall ever sharing the outhouse with more than just my brother. I cannot speak for what others had experienced.
Bill and I left the others in the front yard, while we meandered around the house toward where the barn once stood. I say “once stood,” because there was no barn to be seen. There was just a weed-choked piece of ground, with a few broken boards scattered around. What had happened to the barn might be seen if one observed closely enough the small sheds and huts that lay scattered in the surrounding yards. Most likely some of them were built with scraps of lumber borrowed from forgotten properties.
It was a big disappointment to us, and I was about to return to the others when Bill let out a yelp.
“Look, Larry,” he practically shouted, his arm sticking straight out from his body, pointing toward a dilapidated wooden fence.
I looked where he was pointing, and. . .wonder of wonders, there, leaning eerily against a fragile post of the fence, was a crude wooden affair that was curiously shaped like a small building. A couple of slats slanted ungainly down and across a seemingly short platform, and the platform had three distinct holes.
We walked over to the beaten old structure, and for a few precious moments we stood there, looking at it, each of us silent, each of us caught up in whatever memories the structure brought back to us.
I wondered, at the time, whatever had possessed Uncle Charles to build such a thing. And I also wondered if, at any time, it had ever been used by three persons simultaneously; and, if so, what kind of conversation would have taken place among them. Such a structure, it seemed to me, did not lend itself to social meetings, for the real uses were, at least in my way of thinking, extremely personal.
Standing there, I found myself out of place, in an era that had passed me by. Yet it still was useful, for it was time itself that had been brought back to life. Death is inevitable. But it is the passing of time that strangles life. Yet the memories linger.
I looked over at Bill. There were a few tears on his cheeks, and he was not ashamed of them. And then I realized that a few tears had made their way down my cheeks, as well. For I recalled a number of times when cheeks of a different kind had been splayed against the rough boards.
And I began to chuckle. Not a full laugh. Just a chuckle. And I could sense, rather than see, Bill looking at me.
And then Bill began to chuckle also. And we stood there, tears giving way to grins of happy moments that had been spent in the glorious past. Such Romantics!
Larry Miller was born and raised in Port Huron. Author of two novels loosely set in Port Huron: “When Life Was Good, Sometimes,” and “Haunted Youth.” Larry and wife Carol have three children, seven grandchildren, and ten
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