While sitting in our favorite crepe restaurant the other night, La Creperie www.lacreperiechicago.com, our oldest son asked, “What have you spent money on recently that you really wanted?” The question was directed at my husband and after thinking it over he said, “wine.” I know this is true because his smartphone is always tuned to Robert Parker’s wine reviews when I turn on Google. Like his father, he has become somewhat of a student of wine, forever in search of the exquisite yet affordable (no more than $15.00) red table wine. When you are paying for college and private high school, you don’t buy much for yourself, but the question woke me up in the middle of the night calling for an answer.
My wants are more intangible; more of God’s presence, more time in my garden to get the insanely invasive “prairie plant” under control before it destroys the entire perennial bed, the opportunity to travel the world and see every painting ever painted by Caravaggio. These items do not come by my debit card and they don’t answer our son’s question, but one item comes to mind and it is a lesson in how we probably shouldn’t desire a certain thing too much.
Emma Toft is one of my heroines in life. Her image can be found on my Pinterest under the Hero’s category, https://www.pinterest.com/margaretphilbri/heroes/ but her watermark is best found on the 300 plus acres of land in Wisconsin that she bequeathed to the University of Wisconsin. I’ve spent countless hours exploring and praying in her woods, even geeking out with binoculars and gawking at an eagle’s nest that reappears in the top of the white pine tree each spring. When she could no longer live off the land, she moved into town on highway 57. Her clapboard home recently became the town Visitor Center and during the renovation I saw them, two castaways inside a chain link fence out back, two old wooden ladders. We are talking old ladders, as in dowled together, covered with splatters of whitewash and rotting in the rain old. I’ve been fantasizing about acquiring Emma’s ladders and placing my hands on her rungs. Climbing one foot at a time where she placed her work boot protected feet. Although she’s been dead for more than thirty years, somehow owning those ladders would draw her closer to me. So like any wise woman intent on getting what she wants, I plotted.
In June I walked into the visitors center and asked, oh so casually if I could have them, just to take the rotting garbage out back off their hands. The adorable senior volunteer smiled and said, “No. I’ve already asked for them and the folks said no. I thought they’d be cute to hang plants on ‘em.” Hang plants on this sacred object? Hmm, this was not going to be as easy as I’d imagined. I seriously thought about stealing them but the Lord’s Prayer kept me from that temptation as well as the thought of how to explain to my husband the sudden appearance of two ancient fifteen foot ladders. By the end of the summer, I decided to call the town hall and find out who was in charge of the visitors center. “Well I think that’s June Greeley, just let me check here.” I told June I would give a donation to the Visitor’s Center if she would let me take those ladders. “Oh, let me talk to the board about it and I’ll get back to you.” The Board of a town visitor’s center, a town of less than a thousand people? You are kidding me. A month went by and she didn’t call.
I couldn’t bring myself to pray for these ladders, the thought was too selfish. What would we do with them if we did get them? As fading summer crickets chirped in the evening, I clung to the chainlink fence, staring down at them. They looked unusable, half rotten. I began to talk myself out of it, This is a completely impractical, irrational desire, get over it, But then the blessed voicemail came. “The Board has agreed to let you have the ladders for a donation. You can pick them up any time.” JOY inescapable washed over me as I drove home from teaching that Monday afternoon. Emma Toft’s ladders were ours! A piece of Emma, coming into our home! They would transform the living room with their primitive character and unique aesthetic. However distant, a part of her life would inhabit ours and this glory was accomplished for only a small donation.
Both ladders were soaking wet when I picked them up. The smaller of the two ladders fell apart into six pieces when I put it in the car. The giant ladder was full of earwigs, seeping out of each interlocking joint. They would need some serious repair and drying out. After a few days of debugging and baking in the sun I managed to prop the giant one up against the stucco wall in our living room. It looked incomplete, like Shel Silverstein’s Missing Piece or the Bridge to Nowhere. Perhaps someone didn’t finish painting the room and they left their ladder behind hoping to come back? The ladder is so huge and old that it’s dangerous. It could fall on a visiting child or crush the piano. It took me twenty minutes to get the beast back outside without killing myself. I called my father for consolation and a dose of vision. He helped, a little. “Oh you need to make a complete display out of it with a variety of rural antiquities, you know, a bunch of old farm stuff mounted on the wall in a group.”
Right now the dilapidated ladders are resting under an outside staircase waiting for their redemption and restoration. What would Emma Toft do? What will we do with them? I really wanted these ladders but now I seem to have inherited an even bigger project by acquiring them. Was it worth all the energy spent desiring them? This story is incomplete, but I might just be at an age where I need to stick to my holy, intangible desires … praying for them, trusting God to fulfill them in his own way and in his good and right time. If you have an idea of what to do with these monsters, please let me know. And, if you want to read more about the inimitable Emma Toft, here’s the link. Now I put our son’s question to you, what have you spent money on recently that you really wanted? How has it worked out?
My favorite quote in this article, when asked what she wants to be remembered by: “Trying to keep the home place. Making people enjoy the out of doors. If you can’t make people love the out of doors, then they’re ignorant. Make them enjoy it. It’s the little things. That’s, I suppose, why so many people don’t see it.” Emma Toft’s interview with author Norbert Blei