North Idaho was not like any other place
I’d lived. I predicted that moving here would be like moving back to Wyoming where I was born. Maybe that would be true for parts of Idaho, but I learned, quickly, that I didn’t move to Idaho—everyone in the panhandle says “North Idaho,” and for good reasons. It’s not considered a Rocky Mountain state, like Wyoming. Most people here relate more to eastern Washington, western Montana and British Columbia than the rest of Idaho. It’s like a different state.
Starting almost four years ago, when I moved to a rural community south of Sandpoint, I began to meet lumberjacks, not cowboys. Soon after I arrived, I met Mel who sounded like a North Idaho lumberjack, except more polite and deliberate with his words than the ones I’d met.
Mel began showing up in my life, here and there, in this and that conversation. My first impression proved accurate. He was much more polite than most men I’d met in rural North Idaho. “Polite” might not be the best word. He had a gentle spirit about him. He was soft spoken and careful with his speech, but those habits came from a deeper quality—a quiet humility that I began to notice more and more.
One day I mentioned England while chatting with a group of people. Mel approached me a little later and said something about England.
“I was referring to a small, agricultural county,” I said. “I wasn’t making a general statement about England. I was in a small, isolated place that Americans don’t visit. I’m sure it’s different from other parts of England, especially cities.”
“Yeah,” Mel answered, quietly. “That’s the kind of place in England where I was born.”
“What?! You were born in England?” I said, not so quietly. “Where?”
“Oh, you wouldn’t know it,” Mel said. “It’s a small town not close to any major city.”
I persisted, asking, “Where? I’m curious about places.”
“It’s called Shrewsbury,” Mel replied with his usual quiet tone. But it was loud to me.
“Shrewsbury! I married an Englishman from Shrewsbury.”
It was the only place in England I knew. I ended up living there for a few months when my mother-in-law was dying in 2009. “How did you get to North Idaho from Shrewsbury?” I asked.
My mind was boggling as my new, North Idaho life collided in my head with my Shrewsbury, England life. Although about 4500 miles apart on the same planet, they are in different worlds in so many ways. How could someone in Shrewsbury imagine giant evergreen trees and snow covered mountain towers, or a bear or a moose? Or how could someone in Bonners Ferry, Idaho—Mel’s last home— imagine an uncovered Roman ruin, an ancient abbey, medieval alleys or all the song birds in green and greener deciduous gardens?
Mel’s father had been stationed in Shrewsbury in 1945, before the end of World War II. His mother sang in her family band for the Red Cross—this family from a place awarded as the most tranquil village in England. (The historic Clun family of southern Shropshire in Shrewsbury county, entertained the troops with their 1940’s music and dancing.) Mel’s father had been more than entertained by the Clun lass, and they married. Mel was born soon after, and his sister one year after him. And since Mel’s father still served in the military after the war, Mel’s mother was on her own in Shrewsbury with two babies.
My late mother-in-law, who loved making clothes, must have met Mel’s mother while buying needles, thread and patterns from her little seamstress shop.
When Mel was one and a half, his mother, he and his six-month old sister left Shrewsbury and traveled to his father’s parents’ farm near Pullman, Washington. “I have memories of that boat trip to New York,” Mel said. “I remember a dirty yellow railing and I remember something happening. I found out that I got lost on the ocean liner, and was found rolling dice with sailors. Then there was the train from New York to Spokane where I met my Grandpa. I remember being afraid of trains, and Grandpa lifting me up into his arms. We were buddies.”
Mel described his early life on the farm with his grandparents. Looking into that space of recollection he mused on all the events and people that made him who he was. He smiled often. He paused and looked into that space, often.
He would interrupt his reverie and share tidbits with us: “I was afraid of big white chickens pecking my toes… I was on a horse at the age of four. I remember my father, saying, ‘Don’t do this or do that, or I’ll chastise you severely.’ He never did. I don’t really know what that means. My father sang ‘I’ll Cherish the Old Rugged Cross.’ He sang before he died of Alzheimer’s.” Then Mel looked up, and announced, “All the differences were resolved between us before he died.” He looked truly happy, and I saw a glimpse of where that peace came from that emanated from him.
“My mother missed England,” Mel said. “She missed fish and chips in newspaper, her family and friends, and English money. She taught us about English money. She’d liked all her schools and camps. She would never change the clocks. She kept English time.”
Mel’s family moved to another farm, in Idaho, just west of Moscow. He talked of how much he learned on the farm, from school and from his friends and their parents. It didn’t matter how ordinary or practical, or from where he learned, he smiled and looked grateful, commenting frequently on the value of stories, of sharing, of exploring and working to progress.
“Moscow was a great place to grow up,” he said. “We were aware and grateful for this good place. It was small, about 5,000 people, but a university town with music and events. Washington State University was near by, only 6 miles away. I went there for ball games at a young age. The college kids were nice, really nice. Our teachers were often married to professors. Our neighbors and friends were connected to the university. My best friend’s father was a professor. We were great friends. We went to the movies together—12 cents each. We could both go for one quarter.”
“My 10-year-old birthday party was amazing. We all went, the whole party, to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
, the first film in cinemascope. My father gave me and my friends five dollars. It bought movie entrance for all of us—and popcorn and drinks and candy—for the whole party!”
Mel looked up as if he woke up to the present. “I’m just so grateful for the old ways—self-reliance and interdependence. We stayed in the same area, my family, being cared for. I’m grateful for the gifts of stories from my childhood, and my parents’ childhoods.”
I wish I’d known more about this man who made me smile every time I saw him. I only know that he worked his entire professional life in the Idaho Forestry Service, and lived in a beautiful wilderness area. When he talked about trees and nature, I heard the same appreciation for lessons and stories. He talked of the trees the same way he talked about his grandparents, parents, childhood friends and school teachers.
Looking out my window
, I attempt to finish an inadequate story to describe this man full of so many stories, a life of fullness and quiet joy. The towering green beings outside wave long branches toward me as if they have much to say. But they are so quiet, and so slow. It would take me decades living with them to hear their stories and learn their lessons. I no longer have time to live in and among the trees to study their slow messages. Mel did slow his life, living with these royal sentries, listening and watching, learning gratitude from their outstretched arms, practicing to be a gentle, observing and deliberate witness.
“Stories are really helpful,” Mel continues to whisper through the swaying pines, firs and aspen of North Idaho. We never know where we will land, whom we will meet, and what stories will transform us. Mel was able to translate tree lessons for me. Tree stories became his stories, given for me to tell.