“Grief is itself a medicine.” ~~William Cowper (1731-1800)
I went to visit my dad over the weekend. It’s been almost five months since my mom died and Saturday morning we went to the cemetery. It was an overcast Ozark day, one my mother would have called “dreary.” Too many days in a row like that and I start to get sort of squirrely, but today I found the starkness of the country landscape beautiful. It seemed like a good day to go to a grave.
My mom is buried four or five miles back on an old country road, in Clubb Cemetery, outside of Zalma, MO. The road is a dusty, red dirt affair, full of remnants of the red clay that is in and around the area. You have to drive slowly so even though it’s not far in miles it takes about half hour to get there. I find the drive beautiful, the landscape dotted with old barns, some abandoned white churches with steeples still intact, wide open fields and woods. My dad was born and raised in an old house on one of those hills, near a place called Pond Creek. He attended a one-room school house and they didn’t have electricity in that part of the world until the mid-1950’s, when he was about ten years old. His dad never lived in a place that had running water and my dad didn’t have it until he was nearly twenty, when he came to St. Louis to find work. His mom died when he was a teenager and he and his dad farmed and hunted the surrounding land for years.
My dad is an old country boy, a decent and kind man, a southern gentleman at heart. Even after all the years he lived in the city, he always thought of this place as home. I am in my forties now and live in the heart of the city. While I love the convenience the urban life affords me, I find as I get older I crave the solace of the country. My soul resonates deeply with the land here. I suspect this is at least partly because life is slower and the pace kinder here, not so connected to the rat race. The older I get, the more I realize that being in the rat race mostly just turns people into rats. I got off the mainstream hamster wheel years ago, but have yet to find a way to reconcile my living being made in the city with my soul being made in the country. In the meantime I go back and forth a lot and have a big garden to play in, sort of an Urban Homestead. It will have to do for now.
Lost in this thought, I was surprised when we arrived so suddenly. Clubb Cemetery is small, about the size of an average city lot. It’s not much bigger than my front yard, surrounded on all sides by hardwood forest. The woods are dense here, full of oaks as hard as the stones and boulders surrounding them. Sometimes I think it looks like a bowling alley for drunken giants, with fallen trees scattered like pins everywhere, rocks strewn all around them like a child hurling his toys down a hill in a fit of glee to see how far they can roll. It’s a gorgeous place, a quiet final resting place for people long gone, headstones dating back to the early 1800’s. There are old Civil War grave markers there, although no one knows who lies beneath them, the details of their lives long gone but the stories not forgotten. The Missouri Department of Conservation has taken over the land but my dad’s family still maintains the cemetery, cutting the grass and tending the graves with care and respect. Every Memorial Day the family comes and they clean the cemetery, straighten up what needs to be taken care of and have a prayer and a picnic under the pavilion near the edge of the woods.
My dad’s grandmother was a Clubb and on the way over he tells stories of his growing up, stories about these people now resting in this garden of stones, stories of people I had heard about but had no true connection to until my own mother was laid among them. I sit on the back of the headstone where his brother Glenn lies and stare at my mother’s grave marker, feeling a multitude of feelings, memories and thoughts washing over me in waves. My father is not comfortable with much display of emotion, so I do not cry when I am there with him. I just sort of sit in The Big Empty of grief and listen to him talk.
They haven’t come out yet to chisel in the death date and this is beginning to irritate him. He talks about needing to spread grass seed in the spring, because the heavy equipment tore up the earth in digging the grave. These are not the manicured lawns you may be used to seeing if you live in a city or visit a large, professionally tended cemetery. This is a small place in the middle of nowhere, surrounded in every direction by dense woods. The way the funeral procession brought her over was almost five miles in the other direction, but still down that same red dirt road, dust blowing all over the hearse and cars behind it, ground as hard as the rocks in it after a long, dry summer. I’m sure it took a lot to dig the grave and a lot was disturbed in the process.
My dad frets about the grass, channels his emotions into “doing,” a very instrumental griever. He was a good caregiver for her in her final years and I think he is beginning to sort of live his own life again. This gives me a sense of relief; I was not quite ready to begin taking care of him too, as selfish as that may seem. I think about all of these things while he picks up sticks and small rocks and flings them into the roadside ditch. His cousin and her son came over the morning my mom died and cleaned up the place, used a weed eater to make even the ditch and roadside look nice. I love the country way of doing things, an interdependence here that makes it seem like family and community still really mean something. The sense of it is tangible in small acts of kindness and respect, things I find tremendously reassuring in the midst of what at times seems like a world gone mad. My mother would have been pleased.
The drive back is always easier than the drive over, the weight of the anticipation of seeing her fresh grave and the rush of feelings is always strong for me. We pass the open fields again, remnants of old homesteads still evident by the stone chimneys seemingly rising up out of nowhere, by the random pump handle along the side of the road. No doubt water would still flow if you needed it, and I’m sure at times people do. Deer and wild turkey abound here, as do deer and turkey hunters. Cords of wood line the sides of the homes, for it is all they have to heat their houses in the winter.
The sky is stark, and I am mesmerized by it today for some reason. It’s like an Ansel Adams picture come to life, still black and white, the trees as gray as the sky beyond them. The occasional white branches of sycamores or the green of the pines and the cedars stand out against the cloud cover, making it seem almost surreal. The sumac is tall this year, fodder for deer and other game, a glorious deep burgundy color with oval pods hovering tall above the thinner stems beneath them. Soybeans and corn are staple commodity crops here and in recent years they have begun to grow rice as well. Rice is a pretty crop, not one people think of as growing in southeast Missouri, but it grows in abundance here and is gorgeous to behold. Some of the farmers have put in winter wheat and it is coming on, blanketing the otherwise barren landscape with swaths of emerald green, like an Irish angel sent to give some life to the otherwise quiet fields.
We passed a curious sight on the way back and my father actually stopped the truck. Sidebar—for the uninitiated, there are only a few modes of transportation here, trucks and what you may think of as a car. Here, however, they are not called cars. For the most part, anything not called a truck or tractor is called a vehicle, and it is pronounced “vee-hick-ill.” Do not confuse this or you will be confused when attempting to ride with someone.
So back to the topic at hand. My dad actually stopped the truck and said, “Now, look at that.”
I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, so naturally I said, “What?”
“That,” he said, pointing to an open field. A ratty old trailer was perched on stilts, high above a cornfield, near the edge of the woods.
“What’s that?” I asked again.
“Well, I imagine it’s his idea of a deer stand.”
“What’d he do it like that for?” I asked, innocently enough.
“Well personally, I think he’s ate up with the dumb-ass. I mean, look at that.”
Now. Two things. First, my father is 68 years old and has hunted and fished his whole life, in his younger years as much as for survival as for sport. He has probably forgotten more about deer stands and deer hunting than I will ever know. Or hope to, for that matter. So I do not have the clinical training to ascertain if a ratty old trailer perched on stilts is a fitting deer stand or not. But apparently not.
But as for the second part of this equation, I have worked in and around clinical mental health for years, hold a masters degree in a related field and make my living doing such things. This is an area in which I feel qualified, or at least I pretend to be. I can, therefore, assure you with no hesitation whatsoever that my father has a rare diagnostic ability when it comes to spotting anyone afflicted with the dreaded malady known as Being Ate Up With The Dumb-Ass. If we had been in mixed company or around some of the churchier folks among us, mostly Baptists, he would have dumbed down his clinical assessment and said something like, “Well personally, I think the boy’s cheese done slid off his cracker.”
But it was just the two of us, so I got the full clinical evaluation and diagnosis. If you have ever lived or worked with someone suffering from the dreaded malady known as Being Ate Up With The Dumb Ass (as you surely have), you know this is an affliction for which there no known cure. Furthermore, the more you try to cure it, the worse it gets. So in general it’s best to just leave it alone and let nature take its course, as it surely will. Because the Universe is a kind, generous and largely harmonious place, I find that most people in this state of affairs are blissfully unaware of their condition and if no one tells them about it, they’ll never know. Which often seems like the kindest way to handle it.
So we drove on, more relaxed than on the way over, pointing out the sumac and the cattle laying down, which indicates further “falling weather,” as it is called here. It was cold, cloudy and we had just been to my mother’s grave. I’ve been there many times since she died, but for the first time I felt relaxed afterward, in awe of nature and the turning of the seasons. I laughed with my father on the way home from my mom’s grave. Grief is its own medicine, and it was a beautiful day.
Hope yours is too!