Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Letter from Harrisburg--April 12
Late every winter, just at the time when we dare to hope for spring, a row of daffodils appears along Highway 99E.
Across the wide ditch to the north as we leave Harrisburg, and then to the west as the road takes a turn toward Halsey, there they go, a long thin line.
From Hayworth Seed to Fishers and their array of farm equipment, then on to Alford Cemetery in a steady progression.
On the other side of Powerline Road they take off again, bobbing their sturdy yellow and white heads in the pouring rain, dozens of them, hundreds, thousands.
A pause for Cartney Drive, then faithfully on to Lake Creek. And then, suddenly, they stop, a mile and a half short of Halsey, and the wide grassy ditch goes on without them.
Still in winter, we see dull green shoots pushing up among the vivid grass. Determined buds appear, then the pop of yellow and white opening to the gray February skies.
Through rain and wind, cold and fog, year after year.
“He being dead, yet speaketh,” the Bible says of the faithful Abel. And every spring, Bruce Witmer still speaks to us, not in any creepy sort of way, but quietly, persistently, through a thousand flowers.
“This is my legacy,” he says. “What’s yours?”
“There’s planning and dreaming about doing, and then there’s doing,” the daffodils say to me as I drive by, windshield wipers swishing. “We are the difference between. See?”
Yes, I see.
I think of upstairs hallways yet to be painted, fabric purchased but not yet sewn, elderly relatives waiting for a visit.
“One by one,” they say, heads nodding wisely on thick stems. “That’s how we got here, by one task repeated a dozen times, a hundred, a thousand.”
I think of books yet to be written, one word after another, each slotted into its place.
Of quilts stitched a tiny triangle at a time.
Of children slowly nurtured one breakfast at a time, one kind word, one little hand after another washed clean, innumerable times over.
Something in me wants the grand accomplishment, the sweeping once-and-done success, not the daily repetition of small things.
I never knew Bruce, but he must have been a master of the tiny task done faithfully, of beautiful results from careful craftsmanship.
He was a large man, I am told, a transplant from Pennsylvania Dutch country who never lost his accent.
Before retirement, he worked on a number of large buildings in the area and was proud of his work — especially, says Kenneth Birky, my brother-in-law and a fellow volunteer with Bruce at the Harrisburg Museum, of the Rubenstein’s store in Eugene and its beautiful entrance. Unfortunately, says Kenneth, a woman in high heels slipped and twisted her ankle on the tiled floor that Bruce had designed so carefully, and, after that, his handiwork was covered with a carpet.
After retirement, he worked on many projects, including incredibly detailed miniatures of well-known Oregon buildings, now on display at the Harrisburg Museum.
Like the daffodils, they also speak, of detailed planning and then of doing, of hundreds of tiny pieces of wood, shaped and carefully put in place.
Bruce’s wife died a few years before he did and was buried at Alford Cemetery.
He drove out every morning to visit her grave, Kenneth says.
No one seemed to know what gave him the idea to plant all those daffodils, but I wonder if it was that daily trek to Alford.
Mike Lutz, a former Harrisburg resident, says, “I knew Bruce as Mr. Witmer.
“In the early 1960s, when I was about 11 or 12, Bruce took over the leadership of probably 20 young hoodlums from around Harrisburg, as their Scoutmaster ... after the prior leader left town with the money we had raised to purchase supplies for a 100-mile hike.
“Bruce’s legacy spreads wide in the area. He was a builder, craftsman, friend and second father to many.”
Mike adds, “In his 1998 letter (Bruce) mentions that he planted three miles of daffodils from Harrisburg to Alford cemetery, to give it a beautiful view while driving that part of the road.”
Bruce’s yard was full of daffodils, I am told, and at first he dug up those bulbs to plant along Highway 99. Eventually he needed a lot more, so others donated theirs.
My mother-in-law, Anne Smucker, remembers digging bulbs out of the field by what is now our house and giving them to Bruce.
But he planted them all himself, Kenneth says.
I picture a large, aging man parking his car, getting out, gathering his bucket and trowel, crossing the ditch — down one side, up the other — squatting, digging, planting, moving forward another few inches.
Day after day.
How much easier it would have been to stay home and think about it instead of tying his shoes, getting in the car, going. Starting where yesterday’s work stopped. Digging and planting.
Eventually, Bruce decided to plant daffodils all the way to Halsey, a small town nine miles from Harrisburg.
He did not live long enough to finish the task.
When he didn’t show up as expected to work at the museum one weekend, museum president Iris Strutz called the police, who found him at home, alive but unconscious.
After a hospital stay, he was cared for at a nursing home. He passed away in 1999.
Now, in early April, Bruce’s daffodils have finished blooming for the year.
The tall grass will soon obscure the last of those stiff flat leaves, and then summer will come to turn them all dry and brown.
But I still hear them speaking, quiet and insistent.
There is thinking and dreaming and planning, they say. And then there is doing. Not once, but countless times over again.
And the doing is the only thing that persists, that speaks, that blooms every spring, that blesses the future with a row of beauty and faithfulness, seven miles long.