Our adventure over the past three years has taught us much about being part of a community. We have met so many people, each with their own story to tell. We have been blessed to know them, whether they have shared much of their story with us or only brief hellos each day.
Sometimes we are told a story that has been told many times. Whether true or not, the story is part of them, the part they want known. These stories often involve the history of this place, when they first came here, or how they grew up here. These stories make up the fabric of our little community.
Sometimes we are told stories that are not widely told. Sometimes they are told to us only because they need someone to listen.
Over the few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas we lost three members of our community. Larry was a neighbor who came from Iowa to visit a childhood friend some years ago and fell in love with this place. Rod was born and raised in Emmaville, on the family homestead just down the road. And then there was Rob, who frequented the cafe with wife Linda at least once week and loved to talk hunting and fishing.
Larry liked to kid around and give Mary our cook a hard time. The two shared a history of pranks, involving rotten fish under car seats and the like. He would come in the store in the mornings with loud greetings and exchange slaps on the back and mild insults with his neighbors who had gathered for coffee.
We heard Larry's story as a hard luck tale. When his friends weren't around and it was quiet, he would talk about his failing health. He would grow wistful, saying how the doctor couldn't do much for him, and how he could no longer enjoy doing the things he once did. On top of that, he had fallen on hard times, made a bad real estate investment and was likely to lose his home. There wasn't much we could say to buck up his spirits, but he seemed to appreciate us listening.
Larry and wife Pam did lose their house and moved into an apartment in town last year. We only saw Larry a couple of times after that. As always, he kidded around a bit, but he also asked how we were doing. He always wanted Emmaville to do well and stay in business.
Rod had deep roots here and liked to share the history of the area with us. Some of the pictures from his grandmother's photo album decorate the cafe. Rod was quiet and somewhat reserved but when he had something to say, you listened. He was a man everyone in the area respected, a man people sought out to help solve problems.
As a man who lived most of his life here, working with his hands in the woods and in the dirt, it's easy to imagine Rod as someone insular and distrustful of the world and its complexities. But Rod was quite the opposite, a man who enjoyed seeking and sharing knowledge. With his wife Sandy, Rod literally traveled the world and came back to Emmaville to share what he learned.
Rod was diagnosed with brain cancer the year before last. He and Sandy had to forego their travels as Rod underwent treatment. Last summer, Rod went back to work at his sand and gravel business, and came in for lunch a couple of times a week. He didn't have much to say about his prognosis, but was focused on the day-to-day. Small victories became important, like being able to bend over and pick up something he dropped. The last few times we saw him, he seemed to be doing well, still interested in having a good conversation. Rod had made it known that he was unlikely to recover, so when we heard that he had taken a bad turn, we knew we wouldn't see him again.
Unlike Larry and Rod, we didn't get to know Rob very well before his accident. As a biologist with the DNR, Rob was very knowledgable about local fishing and hunting, and clearly enjoyed participating in those sports. Rob also appeared to us to be very devoted to his wife Linda, sharing many meals with her in our cafe. Sudden inexplicable deaths are always shocking, leaving us with nothing to say.
Regardless of what we know of their stories, it is hard to know what to say to those they leave behind. It's hard to watch as their families struggle with the voids left behind. All we can do is be ready to greet them when they come in for their morning coffee or to pick up that loaf of bread on the way home from work. We can be ready to listen to their stories.