Monday, January 16, 2012

Things Passing, Buffalo, SD: Column for the Bay City Times

Uncle Sike and Aunt Lil had lived in Buffalo, South Dakota since the Great Depression, and have been, from my very first encounter with them, two of the most remarkably wonderful people I will ever know. They could talk for hours, tell the absolute truth and still never say a malicious word.
Going to Buffalo was rather magical as a kid. The trip took just short of forever, and there was nothing to be seen between the Black Hills and there except peacfully ripp'ling prairie. Suddenly over the top of the last hill, you saw a small patch-work of trees, (the only ones for miles), and knew you were there.

Thier house was something between a time-machine and a magic treasure chest: There were odd weapons and bits of tramp-art all over the walls and in odd nooks, strange pieces of old oak furniture from the early 1900's, fountain pens, and a juke box in the corner of the living room that lit up with bubbles running through its front.
The kitchen walls above the counters were covered with old cooking utensils that went out of vogue long ago, and the seat next to the counter was a stool made from the seat of Aunt Lil's daddy's tractor. Nothing in the house really matched, but there was a zany sort of unity in the sheer uniqueness of each item. And then there were the rocks.

The back yard had neat rows of wooden barrels and old zinc sinks full of rose quartz, Apache tears (obsidian), clear, sharp quartz crystals, agates, fossils, petrified tree stumps. In the basement there were rows of glass cases filled small, museum-quality specimens. Underneath were tidy little piles of fossilized dinosaur bones, agatized wood, and tins of delicate, pearly fossils and psudomorphs of corals and ferns. It was like a museum rummage-room. And we were alowed to rummage and take what we liked.

The very first time I was in that house was for a family. My mother and I were still very new to the family, then, and Uncle Sike and Aunt Lil knew it. They knew it, and somehow made me feel that I belonged as much as they did. (I later learned that they didn't belong that well themselves, and that they never really seemed to mind.) Uncle Sike gave me my first rock.

Sounds wierd outside of a tribal setting, but it meant a great deal to me and launched me upon one of my few childhood hobbies. That first rock was a slice of agate he had polished and cut himself. It was a thin slice of translucent, milky-hearted, amber-edged Montana agate with tree-like inclusions. To me, it was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen.

In later visits, I was to hear wonderful stories about the humdrum-to-them time gone by. I remember the first time I tasted Aunt Lil's home-made doughnuts; they were heavy, rich and warm. I tried making them myself from her mama's recipe, but, not having had her mama's teaching, they never turned out. Closest I ever came was to get the smell right.

We still went to visit after Uncle Sike passed on, and I remember sitting in the living room once after supper and Aunt Lil's getting up, crossing to the juke box , and making it play for the first time in one of our visits. She wanted me to dance with her, just once, and I felt too shy. She never did push it, and she never poked fun about it.

I've had cause to remember a lot about them, lately. He's gone, now, and she's missed him so much. They never had children - just each other and occasional visits from the outside - but they'd been enough, so long as they were together.

Aunt Lil is in a nursing home, now, and I heard that the house was emptied out and sold to strangers. I still have that first slice of agate that Uncle Sike gave me. I still make biscuits using Aunt Lils' mama's recipe ("cut 'em out with a greased bean can - nothin' else will do").

I never have gotten over regretting that one dance missed with Aunt Lil; it's not the sort of moment one can expect twice. I think that dance I missed is the reason I dance now, and I know Aunt Lil is proud of me for it as if I had been her own child. It is so easy to love someone like that, and so hard to let go when it is time.

(Originally published in the Bay City Times in 2005, SPM)

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