"Our life is frittered away by detail ... Simplify, simplify."
- Henry David Thoreau
Uncle Jack could have retired when he sold the dairy farm he had worked non-stop for 40 years, or after he became a widower and his material needs were less. But maybe it was because of those fulfilling, working years, or the prospect of a too-lonely life, that he agreed to move to a sprawling retreat for troubled youth in Epping, New Hampshire, and manage the farm. Remembering how much I enjoyed visiting the old farm, I was anxious to see him again during a visit "back home" a few years ago.
We found his "little house" just where he said it was, "around to the left and behind the big house," not far from the barn or fields that normally claimed his time. He had an hour or so, he said, before the "hosses" had to be fed, and my brother and I would be welcome.
The years vanished as soon as we saw the stacks of firewood and smelled the wood-burning stove. We were back at our grandparents' house where we children always filled the woodbox, Grandma swept the wood chips back from the center of the floor, and the family gathered around the stove to hear the grown-ups swap horse and people stories. Television of a generation later would never entertain like that.
Part of the current farm's therapy was to work the land with as little machinery as possible. They had a tractor "to bale hay and spread manure," Uncle Jack said, but used horses for everything else. Since he was responsible for the care and acquisition of the animals, his fodder of horse stories never seemed to run out. As soon as we were seated around the stove he began.
"I had this fella trying to sell me a pair of colts - wanted $1,500 for the pair - but I told him I didn't want his colts. So he dropped the price: $1,400, $1,300, $1,200 - all the way down to $700 - while I kept telling him, 'I don't want your colts.' The next day another fella said, 'I just met a man with a pair of colts to sell for $1,500. I told him I'd buy the smaller one, but he said he'd only sell the pair.'
"Well, that gave me an idea. I told this second fella I'd buy the pair of colts and sell him the smaller one for $700, to which he agreed. Then I went back to the fella with the colts, told him I'd changed my mind and offered him $600 for the pair, $100 less than his last offer. We agreed to split the difference and I paid him the $650.
"Then, when I drove over to the other fella's house to drop off his colt, he said, 'You know, I believe I'd rather have the larger one.'
"OK, I said, but I'll have to charge you $900. 'Fine,' he says. So I unloaded his colt and drove away with $250 more than I started with, plus a colt I later sold for $1,500."
After we stopped laughing, I asked him if he'd ever considered selling used cars.
"I don't have much use for cars," he said, reminding me of a "car story" of my own a few days before.
Soon after picking up a rental car at the airport, I approached the Massachusetts Turnpike and attempted to retrieve my toll ticket. It was already dark and I had to search for the button to roll down the window. By the time I found the button, and half a dozen impatient drivers had appeared behind me, I realized I was too far away to reach the ticket. I pushed on the handle to open the door, before I remembered that most cars newer than mine lock when the car is running and I had no idea where the locks were!
By the time I found the lock the ticket had disappeared and the angry motorist jam had grown to a quarter mile. Thankfully, out popped another ticket, which I snatched like a hungry bird and quickly drove away.
Anesthetized by the warmth of the stove and surrounded by these dear people, I couldn't help envying my uncle. For the moment I could see a lot more value in filling a woodbox or going out in the cold to feed the "hosses," than fumbling through ever-changing modern technology for a ticket to race down a heavily-traveled highway.
Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at aol.com.
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