Thursday, April 10, 2008

Ode To Delmer

The Internet tide brought in some lovely things yesterday.

I spoke of Delmer, the noble Shaker Brother. There is a tightrope aspect to my scribblings, because I am generally writing straight out of my head, and memory is an imperfect thing. While I'm not exactly General Motors in the hypertext world, enough people see what I write so that if I make an egregious error, I will be found out. After all, people dispute with me occasionally over matters of which I have first-hand knowledge, so I know second-hand knowledge is fraught with peril. I was once scolded by another Internet scribbler that I had no idea what I was talking about regarding an obscure but noteworthy musician. The scribbler had made a sort of study of the personage amid the bookstacks of academe. He asked me, in a flurry of expletives, how I came up with such a crazy formulation of the workings of the mind of the object of his affections.

I told him the fellow had told me that directly while I was working with him.

So I wrote of Delmer, and K2 showed up in the comments and had an actual remembrance of him:

I lived with the Maine Shakers in the winter of 2006/2007, and Sister Frances Carr remembers Br. Delmer Wilson very well. I use to ask her lots of questions about him. She would tell you that he was an old-fashioned Shaker; straight-laced and upright. Even during his last days, he would not allow the Sisters to respond to his final needs. Brother Ted Johnson slept on the floor of his bedroom and attended to Br. Delmer in his last days. During Br. Delmer's life, he made not only wonderful boxes, but other wooden items. The tables we eat at in the dining room were made by Br. Delmer. (He's still a very important part of daily life at the village.) He drove the Village's first car, took fabulous photos, was a first-rate orchard overseer, built a wonderful cabin on Sabbathday Lake, could fix anything broken, and was generally a well-rounded person in mind, body, and spirit. He didn't like waste, however, and would not have been happy having any of his work spoiled by lack of care. This was a man who would call the Sisters to his side of the dining room to remove toast crumbs from the butter before he would take it. Lack of care in all things was not his style. He was, truly, an old-fashioned Shaker. His influence is still much felt throughout the Village today. He passed, by the way, from this life, in 1961.

I was alive in 1961, too.

Delmer had got me to thinking, and I had decided to search him out as best I could, and write about him today. But my work was half done before it began, thanks to K2.

Sabbathday Lake in Maine is one of the Shaker communities I study. There is Mount Lebanon,NY, which gave a name to this table I make. There is Watervliet and Groveland, also in NY. Harvard and Hancock, Mass. Enfield, CT. Union Village in Ohio, who made me think of their neighbors buying this from them. Kentucky had a village.

I found Delmer's picture in the book I told you about, just as I remembered it. I refuse to break the spine on a $150 book to scan it for you. But the Internet is our friend here. The Maine Memory Network has some Delmer. It's piquant that Delmer took most of the Shaker pictures featured there, too. A polymath pilgrim, my ghostly friend Delmer is:

That's Delmer Wilson on the left. I believe the man seated is his brother, in addition to being his Shaker Brother. Delmer's mother left her sons at the Shaker Community when they were small. People don't associate the Shakers with children because of their celibacy, but they would take in whole families, or orphans, or foundlings. They made lots of cradles and little furniture for little people, and not just for "The World," the term many used for people who were not Shakers.

Delmer's mother came back years later to get her her boys, and Delmer refused to go. What did a world that abandoned him have to offer? He lived his whole life as a Shaker.

Delmer was highly respected by his peers. I speak from time to time of the grudging respect of men in the ditch for one another if you pull your own weight. There are always a few that command a sort of respect that approaches awe among their contemporaries. It's not just an old fashioned ideal. People who work in trades still are like this. Bulldozer or block plane; makes no difference. Unlike intellectual pursuits, your credentials mean zero. If I told an academic I had a Doctorate from Harvard I would be accorded immediate respect. If I was placed in charge of men pushing dirt around, and I reached for a pointed shovel to spread processed gravel around instead of a square shovel, I'd be immediately chided and scorned by persons I had the authority to fire on a whim. They are not afraid. Only afraid to let down their mates. Anyone in the military knows what I'm talking about, too.

There's all this talk about walking the walk. To be a Shaker was to walk the walk. Delmer Wilson inspired respect among people who did not bestow such regard lightly. That is a kind of awe, isn't it?

Our Internet friend Ruth Anne Adams wonders if I could make Delmer's box for her. I've made things for her lovely family before. It gives me great pleasure to send my trifles out into the world to serve and perhaps to give a sort of enjoyment. I do know how to make Delmer's box, though I have never made one. It's not a complicated thing to make. But it is a very complicated thing, indeed, to make even a simple thing that approaches perfection.

I am grateful that there are people in the world that picture a person like Delmer and somehow see me. It is entirely unmerited. But we are all vain, and I am no exception. I have occasionally won the respect of those like Delmer, who think I'm a fool, but willing. It is enough.

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