On the second floor, among the many collections of tools, a lovely woman in period costume named Susan demonstrated the art of weaving from flaxen thread to make linen, as well as the meticulous process by which the strands of soft flax emerged from a course stalk.
One of the room depictions in the grist house, which included a kitchen and room where the spinning wheels worked, was a little girls room. The furniture was adult furniture, carefully crafted in miniature, the bed, one in which her parents would watch her sleep, praying that she never knew fear or hunger. On the bed was a doll, a small, clothed artifact of that innocent corridor that is childhood.
On wooden pegs on the wall, hung several female garments. Much of the material was plain in color and rough in texture, yet there were colorful cottons, formed by as much as six yards of fabric, the material expanding as the body would change in pregnancy. As I traced one delicate floral design with my fingers, I could picture a young woman standing in sunlight, the skirt billowing around her, a flash of color, not on a dance floor but among a swirl of chickens as she went to gather eggs.
Life for the men was no easier. It was a time where if one didn't work, one's family didn't eat. But it was also a time that even if you did work hard, there was no guarantee you would eat, the grain and its grower subject to the hour and urge of weather, the root bloom of the lands frailty. The tools used for food and life were heavy, sweat and limbs playing a clumsy accompaniment to the music of metal, wood and stone. The work was not only physically hard, it could be dangerous.
Yes, the lives of past history are seldom easy, but there would be riches of experience we can not see, the accomplishment of crafting something that would last for generations. There is the pride in your teaching your own family. You teaching, not a school, not a "village", teaching the skills they would need to not just survive, but to prosper beyond the scope of your life. There was also the saving, not perhaps love or riches, but what is left behind in a human spirit when everything else has been taken away.
But they did not.
How many slaves did Mr. Graue shelter there in the basement of his gristmill? How many people passed through this room, putting their trust in a strangers hands, hesitant perhaps to take hold, as a hand too near the stove remembers pain. How difficult must that have been, trust replacing the whip of whistling air, the blow.
On the walls were pictures of some of the slaves, their eyes all projecting something, not words to be spoken but rather a profound and distracted listening for something they know exists, but do not yet know its sound. I paused as I looked at the photos, one of those prolonged moments that contains the distance between this place as it was, and what it is now, everything that has been evoked or dared to bring us both to this place.
As I walked up the narrow stairs from that small and once dark place where women and men ran for their freedom, out into the light, an echo spoke which was not mine but rather all of the lost immutable "should haves" which haunt all dwellings, all the enclosed walls of home or heart. It lingers in the air as a hand takes mine to guide me safely away.
I left the mill with some bags of grain, but even more, with a renewed sense of thankfulness. Not just for my lightweight iron and the luxury of a long, hot, solitary bubble bath, but for something else. I left with a sense of enduring hope for that which is the human spirit, the recognition of a life lived by ones own hand and choice.