My winter route to work takes me past a house that has a story to tell. It’s a private story about a woman who died too young, and I don’t know more than a few intriguing pieces of the tale.
A couple of jobs ago I was an account clerk in a county highway office. One summer we hired a young woman, still in college, to work in the office. We were working with a map publisher to revise and reprint the county highway map in conjunction with implementation of a county-wide 911 emergency call system. It was important for the map to match the information at the call center, especially since many roads had been renamed and renumbered. One of M.’s main jobs that summer was to pore over the proofs we got from the publisher, looking for errors. It was a harder job than it sounds, and a big responsibility entrusted to a young person. She fully engaged in the social life of the office. M. had strong opinions, loved the draft horses that she and her father owned, and managed her money carefully. She also skillfully managed a potentially serious medical condition so well, no one in the office realized she was dealing with medical matters until she confided the information.
By the way, I heard at the time that map publishers will have a deliberate typographical error in a street name or something similar to help prove breach of copyright protection should someone else reprint their map. I don’t know whether that is true or not, but the road I live on was misspelled, and we could not get that error corrected in the final proof.
M. was training to be a teacher, but no teaching job was in the offing for her. She ended up working full-time for the highway department. She learned how to drive the big dump and snowplow trucks, and got her Commercial Driver’s License. She joined the blasting crew, learned how to handle explosives, and became a licensed blaster. I understand that she was the only female licensed blaster in the northeastern United States.
Early in her adult life, M. took advantage of the opportunity to buy a house at the annual county tax sale auction that was in good condition and near her parents. She renovated the house inside and out. It’s an asset to its rural neighborhood, attractive and well-maintained.
Whether M. lived a life on her own terms, or whether she made use of the opportunities she found along the way, she built a life that looked like a good one. It did not include a husband and kids, but it did include close relationships with her family and co-workers.
One day, in the fall of 2010, she was gone. The obituary said that she passed away unexpectedly. She was 37 years old, and in line to take over the blasting crew someday when the current head blaster retires. Now the blasting crew may cease to exist in a few years, as no one has taken the training to take her place. One passing leads to another.
Her house sits empty, seemingly heated, with a few lights on at night and her car parked in front. Her father keeps the driveway plowed and takes care of the place. Does her father still find a trace of her presence in her home?
And this winter, again there was a tree lit with lights in the back of the house, in the fringe where yard transitions to field and woods, only able to be seen briefly when traveling by from north to south. For me, M.’s tree is part of the bittersweet of the holidays, evocative of love and loss.