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TALKING TO MYSELF: 8 JANUARY 2013 We buried my father twenty-three years ago today in a January Rain. I have come to believe that we are never done with the burying of our parents.
January is a muddy month here. The mud pulls at our ankles and even our knees, as though it would take us with it on its long slide to the spring floods. Or maybe it’s trying to hang on to us, wanting to stay put. I don’t know. But more years than not, the snow forms to the north, and wears itself out pushing south across the Ohio River. By the time it reaches Kentucky, it’s a thin, relentless rain that beats our old hillsides into giving up. So when I remember the day it happened, all I remember is the rain. As if our tears were not sufficient for our emotions, it rained, and rained, and rained until the broad, low bottoms that lie along Eagle Creek were flooded.
The rain finally stopped after five days, but by then Daddy had already turned the tractor over on the slick hill behind the barn and crushed the life right out of his bones. By then, we had sung the hymns, and eaten the neighbor-brought casseroles, and of course, we had buried him, but not until the hearse sank its wheels deep into the graveyard mud and had to be pushed and pulled to higher ground.
When the rain stopped, nothing would do Mama but to walk out there on the ridge, through all that mud and misty wind, and her with her bad hip, and climb down that hillside so she could see, so she could know. Oh, Lord we were a mess. The mud could have taken us under, dragged us clear to the bottoms, and buried our bodies along with our souls, right then and there, and I don’t guess anyone could have found a trace of us, at least not until the creek returned to its banks.
I was so mad at everything, at Mama, and at Daddy, and even at this old hilly land itself–this land that we had loved and taken care of and called our own since the beginning of time. My eyes ached from crying.
“Stop it,” Mama said. “Stop crying!”
I knew that I had to do what she said.
That’s where we were when Charlie found us. Charlie lived on the farm that joins ours, and he’d raised Mama and Daddy’s tobacco ever since he was old enough. I’d known him all of my life.
“What are you two doing out here?” His voice scolded us. His voice loved us.
I turned Mama over to him, glad for his strength. Slowly, carefully, I followed them back up the hill to the barn where some of the tobacco was still hanging, waiting to be stripped and sold. The rain had brought the dried tobacco in case, as the men said, made it damp and supple, easy to handle, ready for Charlie to strip the leaves from the stalks. That is why he had come, to check on the tobacco, he said. When we finally got to the barn I was oddly grateful for the familiar odor of the dried crop. It overwhelmed my senses, as it always did, shutting out everything else but the cold dampness of the barn. It hung like dust in my nostrils, an old smell, strong, irritating, but sustaining. Oh, Daddy, where are you, I almost cried out, but Charlie was there, so I only hugged myself, and stomped my feet for warmth.
In spite of myself, I found myself looking out the open barn door we had just entered, towards the old walnut tree that stands beyond the barn. My grandfather and I used to sit there, on a big rock that’s half way buried in the ground, and crack walnuts when I was little. I remembered exactly how the farm had looked to me then. We would sit there together, and look out over the hillside into the broad, Eagle Creek bottoms that seemed to stretch out below as far as I could see. I remembered wanting to walk and walk until I reached Eagle Creek and its row of white, bony sycamore trees that reached from one far side of the bottom on the left, to the other far side on the right. I wanted to walk from where I was, from under the walnut tree on top of the world, to the other side of the world, where the sky met the earth. And we would sit there, Gran and I, and he would tell me the stories about the old people who had come before us on this land, even the Indians, who had left only their arrowheads in our tobacco fields to tell their tales.
Gran died long ago, but on that day, I could remember him as though he had just walked out the door last week–like my Daddy had. Suddenly, I realized that Daddy must have run the tractor wheels over the big rock by the walnut tree before the tractor veered down the hill toward the bottoms.
When we were rested, we went on, our steps slow and heavy through the barnyard ruts, and from there into Mama’s pretty yard all gone to mush now, and past the rose garden, mounded and wrapped for the winter. Finally, we reached the steps to the screened porch. We pulled off our muddiness there, and sought the warmth of the kitchen. Numbly, we pretended to eat ham sandwiches, but mostly we drank the hot, creamy coffee and picked at the caramel icing on a near gone jam cake that careened on the cake stand. We remarked again at the kindness of those who had brought in so much food, knowing that we could not cope, knowing that we would not eat without their help.
They had, in fact, carried us from the moment of Mama’s first cry for help. They had appeared instantly from all directions, and held us in their arms, and made the calls, and put us to bed.
The men sat silently on the hillside for hours by Daddy’s broken body, waiting first for the EMT’s, then the coroner, then the machines, big enough, strong enough, to pull his body out from under the muddy hill. When we tried to thank them their eyes looked away.
“It might have been me,” first one man said, and then another.
“It could have been me.”
“Might have been me.”
“Could have been . . .”
Before the awful night was over, a hundred or more must have come, from every corner of our lives. The men went out into the night, to the barn, then to the hill, trying to follow the tracks, trying to understand. The women crushed quietly into the house and made coffee and sandwiches.
“It might have been mine” first one woman said, and then another.
“It could have been mine.”
“Might have been mine.”
“Could have been . . .”
Now the house was empty; even Charlie had returned to the barn. Mama and I sat on at the table alone, saying nothing, but aware of the television playing in the empty room next to us. War was finally exploding in the Middle East. Yes, we knew that, but what was there to say about it? Armageddon filled my heart, and I was annoyed with the poet for being wrong. The world does too end with a bang. I would have preferred a whimper.
Finally, we began the ritual we had hit upon in our grief. We found a strange comfort in the endless re-examination of the horror.
Mama said again, “He was so happy that morning, kidding and cutting up just like he always did. The last thing I said to him was, ‘I’ll be back in time to watch the UK basketball game with you on TV. And then I drove to the beauty shop. Who would think he’d be dead when I got home?”
I asked again, “Do you think he knew what was happening? Could he have had a small stroke? Why was he on that hill?”
And Mama said, as she always did, “Yes, he must have had a little stroke. He must have been disoriented. Because there was no reason in the world for him to be on that hill with the tractor.”
And then we would re-trace the path the tractor must have taken from the far barn, going slowly towards the near barn, then veering irrationally around the walnut tree away from the barns on the ridge, and driving in a straight line down the hill towards the bottoms. Could he have looked away at a calf, perhaps, and looking up saw that he was headed towards the tree? In his surprise, could he have steered right, towards the hillside, instead of left, towards the lane, and then gone into an irreversible slide?
No, no, surely he had not made such a mistake. Surely he was disoriented from a little stroke, surely disorientation had caused him to turn right instead of left. We had done this about a thousand times by now, but in the re-telling, we sometimes happened upon a different nuance, a fresh speculation.
“Do you think he suffered much,” this from me, again and again.
“Oh, no. It had to be quick. It’s obvious he was steering that tractor until it turned over. I know your Daddy; when the tractor started to slide, he would have been confident he could steer it to the bottoms. And when it turned over, well, it would have been quick. He couldn’t have suffered. No,” this answer from Mama, over and over.
Finally, from me, “What are we going to do with the farm now, Mama?”
Silence from Mama, and then, “Our roots are buried here. I was born here, your grandfather, his grandfather–”
“But Mama, how are we going to manage the farm, the cattle and hay, the tobacco?”
“I’m going to ask Charlie to carry on. If he will,” Mama answered.
“We’re not selling?”
“No,” Mama replied. There was finality in her voice.
Slowly Mama walked to the kitchen sink with its window that looks out over the hillside and the bottoms. When she spoke again, there was a tone in her voice that I had not heard before.
“Did I ever tell you that my cousin Halcomb was cremated? Uncle Ed’s son? He was the only person I ever knew to be cremated. They brought his ashes back here, scattered them on the hill. That was the year after the old house burned. I made an angel food cake for them. ”
She leaned in closer to the window and stared into the January grayness. “I wonder if your daddy ran into Halcomb when he died?”
©COPYRIGHT GEORGIA GREEN STAMPER
Excerpt from You Can Go Anywhere (Wind 2008)