January 13, 2011 —
There is an African saying from the Fang tribe: “When an old person dies we say a library has burnt down.”
So it could be said for my uncle, Francis Dirig, who died just before Christmas, at the age of 86.
His obituary reads simply: “He was a logger and farmer all his life…” But within this spare line lies a whole world of life and work and knowledge that tells of a vanishing time and place.
Francis had a life that was lived chiefly outdoors—winter and summer in heat, and cold and mud. He was a life-long resident of French Woods, NY. When he started logging in the 1940s, he used work horses to skid the logs out of the woods.
Some of my earliest memories are of the wonderful things he brought home from the woods for us to see—wild comb pouring with honey, ginseng, exotic orange wood lilies and once a walking stick insect that he had found and stored in an old coffee can in the fridge. (It was a bit sluggish before it limbered up in the sun.)
I spent a good deal of time at his house—hanging around with my aunt and cousins. In winter we sat around the large “Jewel” woodstove that Francis had reputedly hauled home in a truck with the hot coals still in it. (He liked to tell that story.) On summer evenings my cousin would play the piano—Chopin’s études or preludes or Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words,” while Fran, exhausted from work, dozed on the sofa.
When I went away to college, he wrote me letters telling me about the crop of wild blackberries that season. When my parents’ house burnt in the mid-1980s, we stayed with my uncle and aunt—it was typical of their generosity.
In recent years I helped to take care of Francis—mostly by driving him to doctors’ appointments and unraveling his insurance claims. We went to the bank and to Peck’s where he bought oatmeal and éclairs. We ate eggs at Lander’s—where inevitably someone would come up to talk to Fran. Everyone seemed to know him and to love him—even though in recent years, as his memory failed, he might not remember them. Each time there were the same handshakes and kind words, and we had the same whispered conversations about who these people might be.
He used to like to show me the houses he had built and the places he had logged as we drove around. He pointed out the snakey hillsides and the route of the milk truck when he drove it. He showed me a place where the skidder had broken down. He looked for deer and turkeys. His continual lament was that he couldn’t work like he used to, that he wasn’t “allowed” to use a chain saw anymore. Or, on the other side of it, that he had missed seeing his kids grow up because he worked all the time. That he was so tired.
What Francis liked best was to drive up to “The Hill”—the farm where his wife Marjorie had grown up. It is in Rock Valley, not far from Long Eddy. It is a wild and beautiful place—the kind of place in which he was most at home.