Life after PeggyWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
EDITOR’S NOTE: Peggy Zachel died last week.
I was beginning to think no one would ever type those words; she lived so long and so fiercely that I was beginning to believe she would outlive us all.
This unworthy portrait of her was published in October 2008; nothing about her changed to the very end. I offer these words again because I am unable to process any better ones.
Peggy Zachel grabbed the steering wheel from my hands the first time I met her and she’s never really given it back.
In July 2003, I was assigned an Adrian story that took me to Zachel’s property in Seneca Township, near Morenci, Michigan. Peggy, who was about to turn 85, had dedicated several years to restoring a one-room schoolhouse that stood on the farm she and her husband John cultivated.
I met Peggy at her house, and she slowly climbed into my car for the short drive to the schoolhouse. As we came upon a place where the path split, she tried to guide me the correct way, but I wasn’t catching on.
Suddenly, the octogenarian reached across the seat, smacked my hands off the steering wheel and began directing the car. Surprised by her speed and strength, I did not question her authority.
“Turn right! Right! I need you to be on that path,” she said, exasperated.
I worked the brakes and gas while she steered the rest of the way.
“I’ve been in the country all my life,” she admonished. “You city people just don’t do things like we do.”
Looking back at my Daily Telegram description of Peggy, I can see that my admiration and slight intimidation of her mingled from the very beginning: “Zachel’s hair and face bear the strain of squeezing each drop of life out of every day for more than eight decades. But her eyes are focused and clear, reflecting her state of mind. In blue canvas sneakers and a red cotton dress embroidered with flowers, she looks like a Norman Rockwell grandma. But she does not suffer fools lightly — or, more accurately, at all.
“Zachel climbs the concrete stairs with the concentration of a wizened Sherpa navigating Everest. A knobby, polished-wood walking stick supports her. As she opens the door of the one-room schoolhouse, the brick seems to soften and embrace her presence.”
I spent a few hours with Peggy that day, watching her soften as she walked me through the schoolhouse, which had been painstakingly restored with the help of neighbor Jack Sampson. Walking into the schoolhouse was a time-machine experience. From the late-1800s textbooks to the framed portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the schoolhouse stood as a transporting pocket of rural America.
But as fascinating as the restoration was, it faded as I learned more about Peggy. Everything about her emanates a stability and grace rarely seen in modern people. Peggy pioneered speech therapy in the 1940s, establishing a program in Lenawee County. She and John are approaching 60 years of marriage, and their children include Alaskan adventurers Robert and Cortland and published author Gretchen.
As our tour of the schoolhouse ended, Peggy sat down for a rest on the bench of a player piano. With a little prompting, she placed a scroll in the ancient music maker and started pumping the pedals, raising a fine ruckus.
After the lengthy article was published, Peggy and I stayed in touch, and I wrote small articles as the schoolhouse neared completion. The restoration of the bell was the last major touch, and by the time Peggy rang it for the first time, more than a year had passed and I considered her to be a great resource of wisdom and guidance.
There are people in life who see things more clearly than the average person, people who have insight and sense on superhuman levels. I do not mean to turn Peggy into a caricature by invoking fictional wizards like Gandalf and Kenobi, but Peggy stands in my mind as hyper-real, someone of supernatural talent and presence.
My wife and I made several trips to the Zachel farm, to watch John herd turkeys and to share meals that consisted only of things he and Peggy grew on the farm. On one visit, as the adults talked, we opened a package of dried apple pieces to feed Evan. The snack is 100 percent apple, nothing artificial, and the package makes for easy transportation.
Without saying a word, Peggy went to her kitchen and cut up a farm-grown apple, giving Evan small slices, which he devoured.
“Nothing like the real thing,” she said, and we haven’t bought dried apples since.
Neither of my sons will know their paternal grandmother, who died more than 10 years ago. I know it is unlikely they will have decades to spend around Peggy. But if they can soak in just a few atoms of her spirit, that wise, determined, steady and no-nonsense soul, they will be better men, as I am a better man for knowing her.
A decade into our relationship, I see no need to ask Peggy Zachel to relinquish the wheel; I trust that wherever she drives us will be a good place, a safe place, and all I have to do watch, listen and learn.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com.