I’ve been thinking about the importance of being a good listener. My friend Junie was born in the 1890s. When I sat at her table, my young legs barely touching the floor, the world opened up to me through a secret passageway. Her wrinkles were so deep they could grow corn. Long crisscrossed lines cut her cheeks and sliced into her lips. Canoes of droopy skin folded around her eyes, and when she laughed her face crumpled like crushed paper. I don’t remember her words. Her wisdom may have been beyond my reach. But I felt something flow from her then that gave me a lifelong connection to her strength. She enjoyed solitude.
To get to her house I walked the shore path around Big Bearskin Lake from my grandparent’s cottage to Junie’s tiny cabin in the trees. She had a long history in that place, but by the time I knew her, she was living alone, wearing clothes her family left behind, sitting on mismatched furniture in a room hung with faded treasures, walking to get firewood in her dead husband’s work boots, wearing three pairs of socks, fingers gnarled like turkey feet, silver hair swirling out of a bandana into curls around her face, in a calico dress covered by a plaid apron, wearing a flannel shirt until noon when the sun finally hit her windows. I never thought of her as being poor, but now I see that she was.
My grandmother often sent me to Junie’s with a basket of vegetables from her garden, a jar or two of some jam or chicken-in-aspic she put up herself, and sometimes an envelope of seeds. My grandmother and Junie were seed savers. They knew the lifecycle of the plants in their garden. They watched and waited for the seeds to age and cure. Then they stored them in envelopes wrapped with rubber bands, and labeled in pencil with the plant name and the year. This was my introduction to the cycle of life, my keepsake of sacred knowledge from the women who showed me the way.
A little girl woven into the lives of elder women picks up a sense of what life becomes, the benevolence of time, and the mystery of joy. When I went to visit Junie she was always delighted to see me and together we did the tasks of her day. We collected sticks for kindling, made a fire in the woodstove, boiled water for tea, toasted bread over an open flame, poured the leftover hot water into the dirty dishes in the sink, sat face to face at her table, and watched the sun glitter on the lake. It was time she gave me, her presence, her thoughtful listening and focus. She made me feel like my words mattered. I was just a child, but I see now that she was nurturing the woman inside.