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05/29/2012 @ 9:09am

Let’s talk about encumbrance.

It’s a word I think about this time of year.  On Memorial Day we make the rounds of our local cemeteries, stopping to visit the graves of our loved and lost.  Usually, the last place we stop is the little country cemetery where my great-grandparents, Adolph and Marie, are buried.  They’re the ones who homesteaded the farm where we live and built the house we live in.  We have a newspaper article written about their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1929 and part of the text reads, “They have built up a farm of four hundred acres free of encumbrances…”

One of the definitions of encumbrance is “a claim or mortgage against property,” and I imagine that’s what the reporter was talking about.  Kudos to the great-grandparents for pulling that off.  They came over on a boat as newlyweds.  Great-Grandpa spent his first winter in America shoveling snow off railroad tracks and in the spring, they crossed the prairie in a wagon and started from scratch on the 40 acres of land they homesteaded.  To start from there and end up out of debt on the eve of the Great Depression was good work indeed.  

But I wonder how unencumbered they really were.  In that same little cemetery, lay the graves of three of their children who didn’t survive childhood, and their first child, a little girl, died on the way to America.  They helped build a church and a school, and served on various township boards and community committees.  All of that will put a weight on your shoulders and when you look at their photo from 1929, the weight shows.

According to the dictionary, I’m free of encumbrance, too.  I don’t owe anyone any money, and it took me about as long as Great-Grandpa to reach that point. I don’t feel unencumbered, though.  As a county commissioner in a very rural county in Minnesota, I feel some weight every day, because there’s a lot that needs to be done and not as many resources as are needed.  As a father, a husband, and son, my responsibilities are never far from my mind and I’m pretty sure everyone who reads this can nod in understanding.  We are all joined together by a web of connections and commitments that share the load, but also ensure that there will always be a weight on every shoulder.

And then, of course, there’s Memorial Day itself.  Talk about encumbrance, about a debt that is owed.   I may have paid off the mortgage and the credit cards, but Memorial Day is all about a debt that can’t be paid, but should be, must be acknowledged, entered in the books and never forgotten.

That’s another thing about the encumbrance biz.  When I was borrowing money all the time, my banker and my accountant would patiently explain that there are two kinds of debt.  First is frivolous debt, when you borrow in order to get something that you don’t need and can’t afford, and that’s just dumb.  There’s also productive debt, when you need some help obtaining that which is valuable and necessary.  That is the debt which while it leaves you encumbered, also makes you richer, in more ways than can be counted.

We live in interesting times.  There’s talk of people not wanting commitment, of living free and unencumbered.  We read that each of us should rise or fall solely on our own merit, but that’s just not true – in fact, it’s hardly every true.  We stand on the shoulders of those who came before and we brace ourselves to allow the next generation to climb above us to a higher place, and the only reason we can keep our balance is that we all reach out to the side, link arms, and steady each other.

My great-grandparents weren’t free of encumbrance, and neither am I.  Sometimes the weight bothers me, but in my heart of hearts I know that to remove all the burdens would not let me be free to soar.  It would just make me very lonely, with very little of any real value.

Copyright 2011 Brent Olson

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