June 25, 2015
My former father-in-law, Alden Kennett, died last night. He was a quiet, decent, moral man who was also smart and witty and filled with intellectual curiosity. He was my daughters’ grandfather, and for nine years I was privileged to call him “Dad.”
Although (except for a stint at “warden school” prior to becoming a Maine game warden) his formal education had ended with high school, he was deeply interested in a wide variety of subjects and he pursued them all with an intense scholarly passion.
He didn’t have just a passing interest in early American homesteading skills. He read books, visited museums, and watched documentaries until he had learned everything he could about a particular craft or trade.
He built himself a blacksmith’s forge and learned to use it. He designed and constructed a replica of an old New England sugarhouse, tapped maple trees on his property, and boiled down syrup. He procured an antique draw shave and a froe (and it’s thanks to him that I even know what that is: a tool for splitting wooden shingles), built a shaving horse, and, dressed in Colonial garb, gave shingle-making demonstrations at the Bethel Historical Society.
He was interested in local history, Native American history and crafts, genealogy, gardening, the Boston Red Sox, animal husbandry, and trees. After he retired from the Maine Warden Service, he became a certified arborist and had a second career with Sunday River Tree Service.
He grew an enormous vegetable garden, as well as raspberries, blueberries, and fruit trees. He raised chickens, turkeys, pigs, and, once, harking back to his youth on a dairy farm in rural western Massachusetts, a cow. He milked the cow by hand, skimmed the cream to make butter, and ordered rennet from a homesteaders’ supply catalog to try his hand at yet another new old skill, cheese-making.
Alden treated everyone with respect, and he never swore. (Well, almost never.) Instead of four-letter words, he had an assortment of old-fashioned curses that were so mild that whenever he used one, it lightened a tense situation so that no one else felt a need to swear, either. (And if they had, they’d usually be laughing too hard to get the words out.)
“Balderdash!” “Gee crickets to Betsy!” And my favorite, “By the bald-headed old pooch!”
In all the years that I knew him, I heard him swear just once.
He had raised two pigs for the freezer, and the day had come to send them to the butcher. Alden had assembled a crew that consisted of my then-husband, a friend or two, and perhaps a son-in-law.
While the womenfolk looked on, the men took on the task of loading the pigs into the bed of a truck. One pig, lured with the promise of an apple, stepped willingly up the ramp and into the truck, but the other—bigger and apparently wiser—was having none of it.
It took all of the men, pushing, pulling, and cajoling, before it finally set foot on the ramp. With a few more apples, a few more shoves, and a lot of grunting (mostly on the part of the men, but probably some from the pig, too), it was finally maneuvered up the ramp.
But before the men could utter a small, self-congratulatory cheer—and before they could detach the ramp and slam the tailgate—the pig had second thoughts, wheeled around, and charged back down the ramp.
There was a moment of stunned silence, then Alden said, rather quietly, “Damn.”
“Alden!” my mother-in-law gasped, shocked.
“Mabel,” he said, “if you can’t take the language, go back in the house!”
For Alden, his family was the mainstay of his world. He was kind and generous to everyone, but most of all to his children, his grandchildren, and his great-grandchildren. He loved and respected each of them, and they loved and respected him.
And so did I.