Digging for Nothing

A logic too simple for grown-ups to understand.

| Spring 2018

When, for a time in the 1980s, the medical drama St. Elsewhere was the most-watched series on television, few people had ever heard of the seventh-century St. Eligius for whom the fictional hospital was named. Fewer still would have known the profession for which Eligius was patron. I was one who did.

My youthful fascination with the calendar of the saints—a literal calendar started it, one given away free at the back of the church each new year—has studded my memory with loads of such largely useless information. St. Eligius, I happened to know, was the patron saint of excavators.

Maybe St. Eligius smiled on a warm day of April when my daughter Annie, who was seven at the time, asked if she could dig a hole. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to find the shovel, hand it to her, and say, “Sure.”I think I made the decision not with the mind but with the nose. Here in Minnesota, the smell of cold wet dirt is least as welcome as the proverbial robin. Children are anointed with the muds of April.

As I rummaged through the garden tools for Annie, I thought about my Grandmother Davitt’s house in the small town of Green Isle in Sibley County, where we visited almost every weekend. One Saturday when we pulled up in our Chevrolet station-wagon, I hopped out and ran to my waiting grandmother, asking, “Do you have a shovel?”

Grandma laughed. I suppose my greeting was indeed a non sequitur. It made sense to me. Having come from the confinement of a city lot, digging holes in the fields near her house seemed an ideal way to fill up a weekend.

Weekends needed filing up. Children were not particularly welcomed in Grandma Davitt’s home. She deliberately set mousetraps in the drawers so we wouldn’t go poking around, In fact, the whole town of Green Isle—about 350 people at the time—seemed quite self-contained and suspicious of outsiders. Like all small Irish communities, its residents raised tedium to an art form. We diverted ourselves by walking down to the railroad trestle, climbing on the International Harvester farm machinery parked in a field next to my grandma’s house, and by leaving pennies on the railroad tracks for the morning freight train to flatten. Otherwise, visiting Green Isle meant hanging around while the adults talked. The town was populated, it seemed, wholly by relatives of my mother’s: old ladies who took a scrupulous interest in the ritual of determining who looked like who.Having sorted that out, my grandmother and the other adults gave the impression that they would just as soon not be bothered by children.

4/9/2018 10:44:30 AM

lovely writing and reminiscences. I had a childhood home with good soil as well. perfectly reasonable to dig holes.

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