Musings of a Matriarch: Soon I will say goodbye to my best friend

Sharon Kennedy

Last week my best friend called to say he was buying a house downstate. The news was unexpected and immediately brought tears to my eyes. For me, downstate might as well be outer space. I don’t drive long distances anymore so instead of seeing him every day, I’ll have to settle for a few times a year.

As you know, I’m a sentimental old fool. I immediately thought of all the times we worked together getting his woodpile stacked high in anticipation of winter. For years he cut birch from his own property, blocked it, filled the back of his truck, and brought it to his yard. He split it. My job was to stack it, first it neat piles outside to let it season, then in the woodshed attached to his house.

Unlike couples who usually argue over everything, we were just friends and never a mean word crossed our lips. If I was stacking the wrong way, I didn’t get angry when he showed me how to do it right. When I suggested he leave the pieces larger, he asked if I could handle the weight. I said yes. From then on the splitting and stacking went faster.

Although we hadn’t lived together since 1967, we were never far apart in spirit. When I married in 1968 and moved to Colorado, we kept in touch with an occasional letter. A few months later he enlisted in the Army and was Vietnam bound. We wrote every week. His letters were always cheerful and belied the danger all around him. After his service in that war ravaged country was over, he put in for Fort Carson in Colorado Springs. My husband cleaned our basement and I created a makeshift bedroom for our weekly guest.

In 1971 my husband and I relocated to Michigan. Chuck left first. I stayed behind for a few weeks. My friend’s tour of duty was almost over so I chose to drive home with him. He drove straight through, only stopping at gas stations. In those days there was no such thing as a smart phone giving us directions. I was supposed to be the navigator, but I had no more idea how to read a map than I knew how to fly. We spent an hour going in circles around Oklahoma City. It was a Sunday morning and everything was closed. Eventually we found the right road, and from then on it was smooth sailing as we headed for the sideroad and home.

Time moved on as time always does. I lived in the Detroit area, and my friend got a job on a Great Lakes freighter. In those days his ship ran on coal and the engine room was over 120 degrees. He said he never would have lasted in that heat. It was worse than the jungles of Vietnam. After a few weeks, he became a deckhand. He sailed for nine years. When his first child was born, he quit sailing and took odd jobs until he was hired at the Soo locks. He worked there until retirement.

When I moved back to the Upper Peninsula, my daughter and I lived within a stone’s throw from his house. We enjoyed getting reacquainted and watching our children play together. He had a son and daughter, both older than my Stephanie but still close enough in age to have fun. We remained friends, although not as close as we had been. Things change when a wife is jealous of the time given to another woman and her child.

Eventually we both moved to Brimley, back to the sideroad of our youth. My friend asked Mom if he could move our old garage down the road to his place, and Mom agreed. It was nice to see the building get new life instead of being left to collapse and rot. It’s still standing as a testimony to its strength and my friend’s ability to see the worth of an old shingled garage.

Time continued its steady march, as time always does. Our children graduated high school, then college, then scattered to the four winds. Some married and had offspring of their own. Some divorced. Some stayed together. After my friend’s divorce, we maintained regular contact. The first time I stacked wood for him was November of 1996. I filled his woodshed as a birthday present. It was at that time I realized I loved working with wood.

But as we age, things change. Our bodies wear out, and our priorities are no longer the same as they once were. Handling wood becomes harder as arthritis claims our hands. Our twisted fingers, once so agile and obedient, now balk at the idea of splitting and stacking cords of oak, ash, and birch. The chainsaw is quiet. The axe and maul are forgotten as they lean against an outdoor shed. The wood splitter stands idle and gathers rust. The logs that didn’t get blocked sink deeper into the ground.

We all face changes as time marches on. Some are welcome and others break our heart. We wonder how we’ll get through the days ahead of us without our loved ones. Whether claimed by death or distance, the void they leave can never be filled.

By now you know I’m talking about my brother. Soon he will move where I cannot go. What will I do without him?

Editor’s note: Sharon M. Kennedy of Brimley is a humorist who infuses her musings with a hardy dose of matriarchal common sense. She writes about everyday experiences most of us have encountered at one time or another on our journey through life. Her articles are a combination of present day observations and nostalgic glances of the past. She can be reached via email at sharonkennedy1947@gmail.com. In addition, Sharon has compiled a collection of stories from her various newspaper columns. The title of her book is “Life in a Tin Can.” Copies are available from Amazon in paperback or Kindle format.