Forty Acres Of Freedom

Corey Stiles - Marquette, Michigan
Entered on December 5, 2005
Corey Stiles
Photo by Wendy Manson
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: family, legacy, nature
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I believe in walking my grandfather’s woods at dawn. There is something eerily eternal about the place where he logged hardwoods in the summer and fall and made maple syrup in the spring. It is only at this time in this place that I escape from the madness of the schedule and the lives that I interact with at Ishpeming High School.

My teaching job never afforded the time to think like I do when it is dawn in my grandfather’s woods. I ask questions like: Would my grandfather be proud of the man I’ve become? Did he know it was going to hurt as much as it did this past fall to watch his wife join him? Did he know it would be impossible for my grandmother to keep her promise to live on the farm until she died?

These woods are what is left of them both. They are the inheritance of a lifetime of logging, farming, butchering and for my grandmother, cleaning toilets at the Gwinn Public Schools. I know that weekend warriors or young trustafarians from below the Mackinaw Bridge or from Chicago will purchase a 40 like this one on any given weekend. They won’t know the woods I believe in. The woods where I shot my first deer with a rifle my father purchased for me when he still didn’t have one for himself. I spent a week out of Bishop Baraga Catholic School with my grandfather, to learn how to tap the maple trees and harvest the sap that would become “gold” for the last years of my grandmother’s life. Two mason jars with lids marked in blue permanent maker in her hand writing will grace the breakfast table for the last time when my younger brother Jon comes home from Colorado this Christmas.

I believe that I will be the one to make more syrup. I believe that the reflection of the changing seasons in these maples, oaks and birches are like what my family has gone through. The compassion and kindness that my mother had when she took care of my grandmother the last eight years are like the afternoons in summer when the light trickles through the canopy to nourish the forest. The murder of my grandfather’s son one September was like the fire that engulfs these woods each fall. Empty branches and the blanket of snow that is being created here at dawn reflects the loss I feel this holiday season without grandma to say a funny toast about the girl in the little red shoes. Only at dawn, in this snow do I think about this. Only at dawn, in this snow do I regret the times I played hockey on the ponds in town and skipped the days in the woods with my grandfather.

Only at dawn, in this snow do I see the tin pails my grandmother would fill with slices of ham between buttered bread and the Brach’s candies. I can remember only stopping to eat when Paul Harvey came on my Grandpa’s radio to tell us the rest of the story.

I believe that in these woods my grandfather made me complete. He showed me what life is when you step outside of town. There is still work but it is work that allows me to think. Think like I do at dawn, on his 40.

Corey Stiles lives on the shores of Lake Superior in Marquette, Mich., where he and his wife teach in the local schools. He has a master’s degree in writing and has taught English and journalism for the last 10 years. Stiles has also studied wildlife biology and conservation through Colorado State University.