It was the buckets that gave it away.
“Oh, look!” I said, excited at seeing something that was fairly uncommon where I used to live in Minnesota.
George and I, our cameras and the dog had been exploring, one of our favorite ways to spend a Sunday afternoon. A back road here, an unexpected turn there, and always adherence to the car rules: Either of us can request a stop or a backtrack to get a photo or a closer look at anything.
This time, it was a quick right turn down a narrow, muddy lane, past a charming stone house, to a halt in front of another stone building where who-knows-how-many-hundreds of gallons of maple sap are turned into syrup every year and sold throughout the county. We’d bought many a jar at the grocery store. Now, we were at the source, and since our jar was running low…
The place looked dark, but the sign said “open.” Below it was another sign. “Ring the bell, come in, turn on the lights, and wait. Someone will be right out.” Going through the process made me feel a bit like a shopkeeper, opening up for the day.
That changed as soon as I walked through the door. I took one look at the shelves and became a shopper, one unacquainted with the word “no.” George was no help. As soon as I pointed to something, he said, “get it.” Apple syrup, maple syrup in an irresistible maple-leaf shaped bottle, pumpkin-ginger mix, cherry-almond syrup and jam… The items piled up, both arms were full, and I set things on the tiny counter. That’s when I saw the other sign.
“Working in back room. Blow car horn,” it said. George went back outside to do just that, and I began looking beyond the edibles to the things that were hanging on the walls: a set of moose antlers, a pair of snow shoes, old, old family photos, a drawing of a barn with an unusual square silo, a collection of ancient cameras. A feast for the imagination as well as the appetite in this place.
Then, a voice from the back room.
“Is anyone there?” she asked.
A quavery voice. Someone’s mother, sent to man the store, I assumed.
She appeared, heavier on the bottom than on the top, stooped, her hair covered by an old gray stocking cap, walking with some difficulty. She muttered something about turning off the huge tanks overhead according to her husband’s instructions.
“Wait half an hour, then turn them off, he told me,” she said, and plunked herself down on a stool behind the counter. I had no idea what she was talking about, but I assumed it had something to do with maple syrup.
She pulled off the stocking cap and patted at her hair, excusing herself for “looking a fright.” Her husband, she said, was off collecting sap from the buckets, and the job was taking longer than he expected. Here was no one’s mother simply manning the store. This was half the team responsible for the store.
“This is yours?” I asked, and she chuckled.
“My husband’s been sapping since he was 10, and that was 75 years ago,” she said, starting to add up our purchases on the counter. 85? The man was still collecting sap at 85? I hardly had time to marvel because she had seen me looking at the bits of history on the wall. That’s when the stories began, offered randomly, shotgun style, as they came to her mind. I wished I’d had a tape recorder. I didn’t, but I listened hard.
Stay tune to part 2 and I’ll share some of those stories.