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In the Woods
A Gift

Jim Wood
Mecosta County Historian

About the Author: Jim Wood was born in Big Rapids and is a retired aerospace engineer. His wife Doraluvinia, was born in Los Angeles and is a stained glass artisan. They reside at Peachwood in Millbrook Town, Mecosta County, Michigan on a high and windy hill where times stands still.

This tale of the Muskegon River Valley begins in the spring of 1937 when the Wood family moved from their residence at 423 Marion Avenue in Big Rapids Third Ward to their recently purchased home in the Fourth Ward. Across Sanborn on the southwest corner was the large mansion owned by Claude B. Parker, co-owner of the Parker-Ryan Department Store. Mrs. Jesse Van Keuren, his widowed sister lived with Mr. Parker who was a bachelor. A housekeeper-cook assisted Mrs. Van Keuren in maintaining this beautiful residence. A gardener maintained the house grounds. On the south side was a large lily-lined fish filled reflecting pool. I never knew where the fish went during the winter; they just showed up each spring and disappeared each fall.

Mrs. Van Keuren was a member of the Big Rapids Bridge Club. She also was am avid member of the Big Rapids Garden Club, growing prize-winning roses. She was a very grand lady who was known for her civic responsibility and charitable deeds. One day that spring, my mother spied through the dining room windows her little blue-eyed cotton-top tagging after the gardener as he prepared the neighbor's yard. Mother corralled her errant two and a half year old and apologized to her neighbor for the thoughtless behavior of her son. Then Mrs. Van Keuren said that she did not consider me a trespasser but that she enjoyed seeing a little boy playing in her yard and that I was welcome to do so any time without permission. I was no longer a sinner who could not be scolded or punished.

Instantly a scrubby little boy realized that the elegant and gentle lady who lived in the large house was a new friend. Some time after this historic event in my life, the housekeeper came to our back door. Mrs. Van Keuren hoped that if I was not to busy, would I come across the street and share milk and cookies with her. Mother after scrubbing my face, brushing me down and attempting to tame the cowlick, relinquished me into the housekeeper's custody. Mrs. Van Keuren and I sat in her sunny kitchen enjoying cookies and milk. Actaully she drank tea and I ate the lion's share of the cookies. WE chatted about squirrels, robins, roses and a little boy's projects, the important things in life. These tea times were repeated and sometimes they became formal. Gussied up, with shiny shoes, and dressed in good clothes, I was allowed to cross the street under mother's watchful eye and knock at the manor's front door. On these occasions we held our tete-a-tete in the sunroom with a view of the south yard and the reflecting pool.

Each summer, my schoolteacher father earned the family sustenance as a route salesman for the Mandeville and King Seed Company. Mother and I accompanied Dad each year, living the life of gypsies while seeing the USA. The summer of 1939 when I was four; we left Big Rapids in early June, traveling through Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa. As usual we wended our weary way home in late August. After we returned, Mrs. Van Keuren informed Mother that she was dying of cancer and did not expect to live out the year. She then told Mother that I was to go to Parker-Ryan and pick out my Christmas gift. I could select anything that I wanted without regard to cost. They decided that I was then to show Mrs. Van Keuren the gift, which would then be opened on Christmas Day.

On a sunny September's day, MOther and I dressed up, took my red wagon and went shopping at the Parker-Ryan's store. When we approached the toy department I immediately saw my gift, a beautiful red barn with white trim. I convinced Mother that two farm sets, each consisting of fencing, a Holstein cow and a calf, a horse and colt, pigs, a dog and chickens, were also needed. The clerk checked with the bookkeeper, wrapped the packages and we headed home. Instead of going directly to our house we stopped across the street to show Mrs. Van Keuren. The nurse and Mother sat in the living roon while my friend and I sat at the dining room table. Examining and discussing the gifts we both knew without saying a word that I had made a wise choice. Each of us was thrilled with presents just as if it were early on Christmas morning.

My friend, Jesse Parker Van Keuren, age 61, went to meet the Master on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1939. Christmas morning packages were opened and the blue-eyed cow-licked boy began using his special gift. Six decades later, having survived four moves across Michigan, storage and a young boy's careless play, the red barn, much like a weathered real barn, still exsists and is one of my treasured possessions. Thoughts of Jesse Van Keuren are always with me. We have been friends all these many years and her everlasting gift of friendship will continue while we are absent one from the other.