When I was a kid, staying home sick from school meant watching morning game shows like The Price is Right. The host gathered audience members selected to be game participants who often had to pick a door to reveal their prize. Behind one open door, a new car. Behind another, a pack of gum.
When doors first open to us, we feel the excitement of a potential grand prize. A new car, a new opportunity, a new chance to shine. We can also feel the shadow of doubt. What if it’s a pack of stale gum, a scam, something we will fail? Doors that open challenge our expectations and hopes, our fears and doubts.
Like the contestant who freezes on stage, the worse we can do is not pick a door. Go for it. A pack of gum is still a prize and we can snap bubbles as we search for the next opening. If what we wanted is not in hand, then it is still out there. The search is not over.
I feel like doors are cracked all around me. I have the heady excitement of going back to school coupled with the reality that this time I’m the teacher. I feel a strong sense of responsibility and expectation. What I want to feel is confident, flexible, and open to the growth of the entire class, including what I will learn from my students and the experience. This is a new door and I don’t yet know what to expect. And that is okay.
While I was away, exploring the Keweenaw with my good friend, I learned about a different kind of door, the one that slides open beyond the curve of a waterway. If the pool beneath a bridge where we put in our kayaks was any indication, like a ramshackle front porch to a house, I didn’t expect much. Around the corner we went, meandering a watery path until the front door slid open and we entered a beautiful slough surrounded in sedge, marsh plants, and framed by evergreens in the distance. Sheer magic appeared behind the open door and we explored.
Doors open up to writers every time curiosity, imagination and story form a key. Do you like to follow one lead or blend multiple inputs? Do you write from your mind or your heart (or both)? Do you keep stories in your head or jot notes on paper? I like to be a mixologist and blend birds, sand, cedar with hardrock mining, stories of people from the fringes of what we think we know, and a twist of what-if. Stories that make me think and feel inspire me to write.
Once my curiosity for slipping through the front doors of sloughs ignited, we ventured to a beaver pond on the west branch of the Eagle River at the base of Cliff where miners angled shafts 900 feet deep from 1852 to 1881. They came to chase flows of native copper and we descended with kayaks to circumnavigate the pond and reach the abandoned cemetery. We put in and slid up pond to watch Blue Heron spear minnows. A kingfisher zipped across the open water and two pileated woodpeckers dove from tree to tree. Larch hung feather boughs over the pond’s mine-side edge, the woods obscuring mine ruins and the old wagon road.
We left our kayaks on the far side of the pond from where we put in. I remembered the cemetery to be within view of the water and near the town garden plot. Naturally, I took us the wrong direction, following a rocky two-track that was once the road to the upper mines. The further we got from the water, the less certain I was that gravestones would emerge from the shadows of moss-grown boulders, brush and trees. We swatted flies and gnats and nibbled thimbleberries until we spotted a pile of berry-seed laden bear excrement. That was not a door I wanted to walk through and we turned back.
Above the pond, we found an overgrown trail off the two-track. A massive apple tree reminded me that the cemetery was near the town garden. We were near. Sure enough, an old wire mesh fence, rusted and dilapidated, announced the perimeter. Within, body-sized depressions hinted at unmarked graves. We walked gingerly past arranged stones, hallows, and chipmunk holes until we came upon a smattering of toppled graves with one stately obelisk standing tall. Below the crest of the cemetery hillside, the beaver pond glimmered a deep blue. A peaceful resting place.
Later, I returned to earlier notes I made on the site of Cliff, the half-opened door to a memory of a Black undertaker. A woman who lived among the miners, having escaped slavery. Her name, as I jotted in my earlier notes, was Fannie Harriet Wells. According to the Keweenaw National Historical Park, she served as the undertaker for these graves at Cliff. This is a story from the fringe. I didn’t expect to find much in the online historical records, but I did find her in an 1860 Federal Census record. She was living at Eagle Harbor ten miles up peninsula from Cliff, working at a hotel. The census record reveled she was 39 years old, born in Kentucky and living with two other Black women, 22-year-old Francis Wells, and 33-year-old Jane Courton.
Think about the open door to freedom.
Three enslaved women made their way to the copper mines of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Francis must have been Harriet’s daughter. The only other census record I can find listing any of the women is 1880. Harriet Wells is living next door to a doctor in Houghton with her 5-year-old granddaughter, Mary Wells. Both are listed as Mulatto. There’s no mention of Francis, but Mary’s granddaughter is noted as mother born in Kentucky and father born in Connecticut. Harriet is listed as widowed. When did that happen? In Kentucky? What happened to Francis? I can’t stop thinking about the journey these three women made to the Copper Country. Did Harriet watch Blue Heron spear minnows in his long beak?
A story behind each door. You, the writers, get to pick. Even if it’s gum, you can make a winner out of your story. Let’s get to it!
August 5, 2021, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about an open door. It can be literal or metaphorical. What is behind the door? Who is seeking and why? As the writer, how will you manage the discovery? Go where the prompt leads!
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A New Door Opens by Charli Mills
At fourteen, Francis hid behind doors, gripping Mama’s hand, her breath hard as ore in her chest. One door led to another until they boarded a creaking vessel, shut below decks. Water lashed. The ship rose and fell and swayed from side to side. Wind howled. Finally, the hatch opened to sunlight and seagulls. They merged with a sea of humanity, walking to a mining camp called Cliff. When the mine captain’s wife died, Mama was the only one willing to wash and prep the body for burial. A new door opened – a job, income, a life beyond slavery.