By Steve Prusky
The cottage belongs to me now. My mother’s death deigns it. A faded handwritten tea paper document decreed it.
In his unique prose, President Lincoln awarded sixty virgin wooded acres of Michigan White Pine wilderness to Colonel Rickett, my great, great grandfather, on April 10,1865; the day after General Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House, the same day the Colonel’s cavalry regiment secured the same area, five days before Lincoln’s assassination. Lincoln commanded the Colonel own the land tax-free as gratitude for his “… courage, loyalty, unquestioning service to the preservation and sanctity of our Union.” The Colonel served from the first to the last day of the Civil War. It was Lincoln’s intent the land be held in perpetuity by the Colonel and his seed for as many generations as his bloodline lasts. The plot is located at the northern tip of Old Mission Peninsula: an eighteen-mile long shriveled arthritic ring finger that juts into the Monet colored Royal Blue Grand Traverse Bay off Lake Michigan. The land and the cottage Colonel Rickett built on it passed to his son after his death, then his son’s daughter; my grandmother. It stayed with her until she passed. It belonged to my mother until she died. I buried Mother last week. I am her only child. I am sixty-two years old, unmarried, fatherless, last of my generation, the last of my great grandfather’s lineage. The cottage is mine.
The Colonel built the cottage himself. He had cut and hand hewn two acres of the tall Pines from the surrounding woods given him and erected the original white washed board and slat shell of the cottage in 1869. To support his wife and son after his discharge from the Army, the Colonel distilled a reliable supply 101 proof sour mash whiskey harvested from certain crops he purchased from the neighboring farmers. He labeled his product “O Be Joyful.” He
successfully marketed it throughout Leelanau County. He and his whiskey were revered through out the Peninsula. No deaths were ever recorded from the consumption of it. The Colonel always kept a special blend of the liquor on hand for himself and his closest friends. He was a friendly neighbor; never handled a gun after the war; helped rebuild the abandoned old Catholic mission the Peninsula was named after; never attended church. I’m certain the Colonel had faults, although lengthy genealogies tend to diminish foibles of family legends. All three-hundred residents of Old Mission Peninsula attended his funeral on June 29 of 1887.
The Nineteenth Century flavor of the structure remains, though it has morphed somewhat over time. Each succeeding generation added their own touch to the place as if, at their deaths, they meant to convey their distinctly iconoclastic memorial of the Colonel to their inheritors. Each new heir took over the cottage as if it was his or her turn to modify the torch of the Colonel’s legacy for the next in line to interpret, reevaluate, revise, relight. Electricity arrived during the Great Depression; pull chains still operate the ceiling lights. Where the spider-infested outhouse once sat a bright colored rose bush thrives unattended. The hand pump over the kitchen sink remains intact and functional. The well that feeds has never gone dry. The manual pump was the only in house source of water until Mother had the shower and flush toilet placed in an addition to the cottage sometime in the 1960’s. A toxic kerosene furnace sets in the middle of the living room (Nope, no basement). The brown metal behemoth is an obstinate obstacle to get past rather than a supplement to the more functional field stone fireplace that warms the house during the Peninsula’s brutal winters. No previous member of my lineage ever admitted to its ill planned installation.
The most important pieces of my cottage remain. The Colonel’s scarred 1860 chromium army issue Light Cavalry Saber hovers above the fireplace hearth. If seen at the proper angle, its bright finish is a blinding lightning bolt when struck by the afternoon Sun beaming through the living room window. Since I was a child, I have heard tales of the Colonel waving the weapon above his head, the blade reflecting a glint of bright dawn light from behind him as he led a victorious cavalry raid down the Shenandoah Valley in spring of 1864. Below the sword two single shot sixty-nine caliber model 1799 North and Cheney horse pistols are firmly mounted opposite each other undusted, untouched, unoiled,unused for over one-hundred fifty years.
Now, I own the past. It is not yet lost to the industrial parade GM, Ford, cybernetics, antiseptic wars and Stealth march to. The cottage still exists as raw as the surrounding wilderness it was cut from. It is as solid as Lincoln’s order it remain a perpetual gift to my family seed. It is as immune to time as the embellished tales of the man that built it one-hundred forty-three years ago. Gratitude was more substantial then. There was more at stake, more to give. Back then, an untamed patch of land was ample reward for the Colonel’s faith in a threatened principle he volunteered to defend. The gift stands, not as reward to a man who luckily survived a kiss or two from the lips of death, rather, it is an equitable trade for his belligerent belief in an abstract value he was determined must endure, at least ‘till his bloodline ends.
Steve Prusky’s work has appeared in Eunoia Review, Foundling Review, Orion headless, Assisi Online Journal, The Legendary, Whistling fire, and others.