Life and death in Hope: The true value of memory

Hope’s exterior

By Eric Mink

It’s 8 in the morning on Oct. 11, and I’m standing under a drizzly gray sky on a sprawling muddy lawn behind a rock-solid limestone building in the middle of nowhere. Everything feels wrong.

This place – the limestone structure and several outbuildings; the surrounding hills, woods and fields; the creek across the road – had radiated warmth, strength and a sense of gentle peace from the first time I saw it in 1979. On an October morning 35 years later, it feels cold, fragile and forbidding.

Death can do that.

The great limestone building hugs the west side of County Road N about 25 miles southwest of Hermann, Mo. In 1979, it was abandoned and in disrepair, but when it was built in 1860, it was a bustling gathering place, a general store serving families scattered across rich Missouri farmland. A road sign calls this place Hope.

Peter Dircks, a restless 31-year-old Minnesotan visiting friends in St. Louis in 1979, also saw Hope for the first time then. He saw right through the disrepair and immediately sensed that it was where he needed to be. He eventually came to own the general store, the outbuildings and 25 acres of land and made Hope the center of his personal and professional existence for three-plus decades. He recalled this place to life. 

The feeling in Hope started to shift, inevitably, after Peter’s death in 2013 from esophageal cancer. For the couple of dozen friends and family members of his close circle, it was a profoundly traumatic and disorienting event. 

Peter and I met in 1965. We were 17 and college freshmen living in adjoining, shabby rooms on the same floor of misfits in the same pit of a dorm three blocks west of the White House on the campus of George Washington University.

We both could be silly and serious, confident and insecure. We were both angry and anxious about the Vietnam War and the draft, both wrapped up in music, and both sorting out who we were and pretending we already knew. We bonded, and the bonds held tight. Nearly half a century and countless conversations and shared experiences later, after triumphs and tragedies for us both, there was no one I trusted more or confided in more completely. 

So, no, nothing felt right at Hope at 8 a.m. on Oct. 11, a year and two days after his passing. At 9 o’clock, Schneider Auctioneers LLC – under the protective direction of Peter’s devoted sister Cathy Ediger and her husband, Jon – was to start auctioning off Peter’s massive accumulation of professional and personal belongings: furniture, folk art, Missouri antiques, a dizzying array of hand and power tools from a fully equipped workshop, home furnishings, vintage artwork, firearms, vehicles, and a mind-boggling array of building parts and construction materials.

The Schneider folks had prepared for a huge turnout. They understood that an auction of Peter Dircks’ possessions would be viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, literally. Throughout central Missouri and beyond, Peter’s artistry and craftsmanship as a hands-on restorer of historic buildings and their contents had been universally admired and in much demand. So had his ability to manage the skilled crews he selected to work alongside him on large-scale undertakings. 

Indeed, at the time of his death, Peter was in charge of building construction and restoration for the Hermann Farm & Museum, a living-history project of the Dierberg Educational Foundation on 160 acres just east of Hermann.

Sure enough, on that dismal Saturday morning last month, Hope was overrun with strangers, hundreds of them, crawling around the grounds trying to inspect pieces they might want to bid on. Even in the comforting presence of other friends and his devoted family, it seemed wrong.

Strangers had no business in this place. They should not be rooting around in Peter’s things. For that matter, it was wrong to sell these things at all, things that were a part of him, things in which we saw our friend, our brother, our uncle, our brother-in-law, our colleague and co-worker, our beloved.

But if we were honest, we’d admit that everything felt wrong because at the heart of everything was the wrenching wrong of Peter’s death.

The auction proceeded anyway, of course, pulling the hordes through the property. There were items spread across tables in the backyard, items laid out on flatbed trucks, items lined up inside the general store, items stacked in piles in and around the monumental barn.

But as the hours ticked by and a selling rhythm took hold, something strange happened: The angst and anxiety began to ease. Was it possible that auctioning off Peter’s things might be, well, if not entirely right then not entirely wrong, either?

Up for sale went the chairs, sofas and ornamental iron; the brightly enameled wood-burning kitchen stoves, books of all sorts, ancient wooden trunks, rag rugs and hooked rugs; cupboards, cabinets, tables and gigantic wardrobes; walnut beams from a room-size weaving loom, boxes of fabrics and tall stacks of weathered wood siding, windows and paneled doors salvaged from buildings long gone.

At some point, some of Peter’s relatives and friends, including me, began to participate, bidding for his things, sometimes becoming their new owners. What better custodians could there be, I told myself, than the people who knew and loved him?

Over the course of the long, sad day, a truth seemed to emerge from the drizzly mist. It was by no means a revelation and would have been obvious all along, I think, if the circumstances hadn’t involved Peter and Peter’s things and Peter’s place at Hope.

The truth is this: People are not defined by things they acquire.

The people we know and love and sometimes lose are defined, rather, by the work they leave behind -– Peter’s reclamation of Hope, the meticulous reconstructions at Hermann Farm, the flood-ravaged historic homes he restored – and by what we keep of them inside us:

Unique moments of poignance and irreverence, of joy and wonder and sorrow, of laughter and crazy dancing, of shared secrets, of unwittingly pitching camp in a town dump, of a phone call with bad news about John Lennon, of financial crises endured and overcome, of a hitchhiked ride with a wild man in Newfoundland, of a portable radio tuned to a late-night political speech, of shameless gossiping, of marriages and divorces, of injuries and illnesses. Even that very last one. 

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. Contact him at [email protected].