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“Right of Way”



by Ruth Minshull


            I live in a picturesque little village on the shores of Lake Michigan.  The wintertime population is no more than a few hundred hardy souls.  However, when the ice thaws and the cherry trees bloom, the robins return–along with several thousand summer people.  The town comes back to bustling life for a few months.

            Among the year-round residents, there’s a mallard and his missus who make their home in a charming millpond about a block off main street.  During a cold winter the pond freezes over, but there’s always a little bit of open water near the dam.  So the ducks are able to dive down underneath the ice and search for fresh food.  On a warm day, they can often be seen sunning themselves on the banks of the pond. 

            But once a day (about mid-afternoon) they take a stroll down the road to the coffee shop on the corner.  As soon as the proprietor or a customer sees the approaching ducks, he or she grabs a handful of corn from the bowl at the end of the lunch counter and sprinkles it around on the shop’s back patio.

            Next to the bowl of corn there’s a ceramic duck with an opening in the top.  I think it began life as a planter, but now it’s a repository for “The Duck Fund.”  Local people drop in some spare change now and then.  The money is used to buy feed for the ducks.

            After the mallards finish their meal, they stroll back home to the pond.  Motorists who happen to be driving on the street behind them slow to a crawl as the ducks waddle leisurely down the center of the road.  No one here would think of honking or driving around them.  It’s understood that the ducks have the right of way.

            Folks don’t mind, however.  Nobody here is in that much of a hurry anyway.

            These are the same people who might stop at the farm house down the road, pick up a peck of apples from the front porch and leave the payment in a coffee can on the table. 

            At other times of the year they stop at the roadside vegetable stand to buy cucumbers, lettuce, squash or green peppers.  They weigh the produce, calculate the cost from the posted prices and leave their money in an open metal box (making change if necessary).  On the wall at the back of one such stand, there’s a sign that says, “Thank you for being honest.”  Just to cover all bases, however, the owner has posted another sign which gently cautions, “God is watching you.”

            Residents also go to the tomato farm, weigh out tomatoes and leave the money in a cigar box (which may contain up to $50 at any given time).  They can also buy strawberries, maple syrup, zucchinis and other fresh produce–all on the honor system.

            Certainly there are disadvantages to living in such a small village, far from any big city.  We don’t get to enjoy the opera or stage plays; we can’t shop in glittering malls.  If we want to buy something, we usually have to send away for it.  We have little in the way of museums, major art exhibits or zoos.  We don’t have dress-up occasions very often.

            When we need the plumbing fixed or the furnace repaired, we can’t call half a dozen contractors for competitive bids  We call the one repairman in the area–and hope he has time to stop by.

            And by the time the cutting edge of technology reaches us, it’s so dull it wouldn’t slice warm butter.

            But those who live here do so by choice.  Some of us discovered the area while on vacation and rearranged our lives so we could move here permanently.  Others were born here, went away to big cities for a few years and came back to stay.  Some grew up here and never left at all. 

            Many of our residents are retirees.  Those who still work, have usually taken drastic cuts in income in order to live here.

            But for all of us who stayed, migrated, or returned to this beautiful place, the sacrifices are worth it.  We’re willing to pay the price to live where the air is crisp and clean, where the turquoise water sparkles like a field of rippling jewels, where the night skies are dotted with a million stars, where people say “Hello” whether or not they’ve met before, where the honor system works.

            And where the ducks always have the right of way.


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© 2009 by Ruth Minshull

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