Thursday, June 22, 2006

Angeline, not dead but gone before

But there are moments which he calls his own,
Then, never less alone than when alone,
Those whom he loved so long and sees no more,
Loved and still loves—not dead—but gone before,
He gathers round him.
– Samuel Rogers

Angeline said she’d like to come with us, so one frigid December morning several years ago, with north winds whispering down from the Arctic and a furze of snow whitening the pockets of grass and staked in the lee of fence posts, we drove out to her house east of the river, turned down the long driveway and crossed the small stone arch bridge. I stepped from the warmth of the car and rapped on the door. Her face swam through the frost on the glass. Sticking her head out, she said, Too cold for me.

There was a smile on her face.

There was always a smile on her face.

So a friend and I drove on, a half-mile to where the road bends sharply to the right and passes over a small culvert. We parked and walked up a narrow two-track, our binoculars dangling from our necks, our breath fogging the crystalline air. Past the old house, collapsing into itself, the stairway leading only to low clouds and drifting snow, the windows hollow and dark. Past the outbuildings, weathered, paintless, sheltered beneath ponderosas, home now to the stratified dens of wood rats. Down to the edge of the pond, where we heard, on the wind, the call of a lone magpie.

When Lori and I went to work last Saturday Angeline Bigham was alive. When we went home she was gone, and in those short few hours Blue Rapids, and those who knew her, lost something precious and irreplaceable.

It’s impossible to measure the impact one individual can make on a place or a person, or, in our case, two persons. It’s not something that can be divided or added to, or poured into a beaker, computated against a yardstick, or quantified. And, sadly, the measurement is only recognizable once that individual is gone, leaving those behind scrambling for memories and, perhaps, reasons for why they didn’t spend more time together.

I listened to Lori the next day commiserating with a friend, and through their tears a story came forth that I had not known. When Lori’s grandfather died, it was Angeline who brought food for the family, the congregation not entirely sure who the widow was. “That was Angeline,” Lori said. “She saw a problem and she handled it. She was that way with everything.” It was not my intent to eavesdrop, or intrude on her grief, but the catch in her voice stopped my heart.

For us transplants from the big city, there was always Angeline. She was there from the start and she was there at the end, befriending us, making us welcome, assuring us that we were now part of an extended family that cut across genealogies, ideologies and bloodlines. When Lori started an informal historical gathering to document the history of Blue Rapids, Angeline was first to help. For the Memories Around the Round Town Square group, and, at the end, the Blue Rapids Historical Society, Angeline was more than the official historian—she was the history.

One of the things we wanted to do was to record oral histories of the old-timers. It was, like many plans mercilessly harried by time, only partly successful. Several important candidates passed away before we could interview them, while others teetered on the edge. In the last two weeks the historical society made plans to purchase a digital video camera to fulfill the mission. We agreed this time to do it right.

Saturday afternoon we saw a fire truck zip past, red lights blazing. A few minutes later, there was another. Someone commented on not hearing the fire whistle.

That evening, we learned that Angeline had wrecked her car east of town. It’s possible she died of a heart attack prior to running off the road. Somehow, we never managed to interview her.

In her last months she’d asked that I write something about the old bridge across Elm Creek. The problem was in finding a paying market for the story. Since the only publication interested in it was the historical society’s newsletter, I made excuses and put if off. Finally, she wrote something herself. It appeared in the June issue under the headline, “Bridge History, as written by Angeline Bigham.”

She once mentioned something about an old cemetery nearby, one that a farmer had plowed under. Though she’d brought two of the finest dowsers in the county out there to search, they drew a blank. She told me someday she hoped to try again.

It was early afternoon when I drove out to the bridge. I almost didn’t recognize the place. The last four or five times I’d been there had been in the dead of winter, with the trees stripped and the ground hard as iron. Now it was a veritable jungle, and standing on the bridge I could hear the trickle of water and the singing of an indigo bunting. If Angeline were here I would tell her I finally understood the importance of doing something for love rather than money.

I wish Angeline could have heard that magpie with us. It was the only one we’ve encountered during five years of Christmas bird counts.

I also wish I knew what that bridge meant to her, why it suddenly seemed so important.

Mostly, I wish we’d had more time.


cheryl said...

A touching tribute. It sounds like Angeline was a beautiful person. I'm sorry for your loss.

Laurel Johnson said...

Wonderful writing as always, but especially effective because your heart was in every word. I did not know Angeline, but wish I had.