Thursday, September 17, 2009

A toast of peaches

Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;

Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes

Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.

– William Shakespeare

The landowner got out of the truck and unhooked a battery almost hidden behind a clump of tall grass and got back in and drove a hundred yards to a spot that looked like every other spot and parked and got out again and slid the electric fence insulator down its metal post to the ground. For a moment he looked around, first at the fence and then toward a stand of trees the color of which was something between green and gold, though golden highlights were certainly visible, mostly in the thin elongated leaves of locusts and in the burnished reds and umbers and yellows of the prairie grasses. In the sky above the trees floated several separate kettles of vultures, each circling higher and higher before splitting off in a trickle to sail northward, a curious direction for fall migration and, perhaps, a sign of unusual things to come. Once the landowner had his directions fixed, he got in the truck and drove over the fence and we bounced through the pasture toward the unseen river. Sumacs and other woody forbs raked the undercarriage like long sharp fingernails.

There are certain things one expects to be inviolable and immutable. The air we breathe, for one. Clean water. A night sky washed with stars. The importance of honesty. Love in all its permutations. But perhaps the most sacrosanct of the acts by which we are defined is the remembrance of our dead, and the rituals we impose on the living.

Feet to the west, head toward the east and the rising sun, symbolism some say harkens back two millennia but actually dates even further to the sun-worshipping Egyptians and beyond to prehistoric man who placed his ancestors in fetal positions, head northward, face to the dawn. Atop these mounds cenotaphs or obelisks, temples or monuments, mausoleums or headstones, standing stones or even crude wooden crosses hammered into ground that was once ordinary but, by dint of its sudden assignment, now infused with holiness. And so we bury our dead, mark their final resting place, and make our pilgrimages.

Inviolacy, however, is never guaranteed.

For the passengers in the truck which even now maneuvered through a narrow gateway to drop into a lower pasture, that much was understood, though some yet struggled with the concept and the others, while not accepting its legitimacy, were at least objective in a manner that refused to assign blame. Implicit in this was a sullen acquiescence that some things cannot be undone. Charity had no part in it.

For Byron Renner and Ron Lane, newfound cousins embarked on a journey of discovery into their conjoined past, this was a pilgrimage to an ancestral gravesite and a deeper delving into family history. Renner’s path led back to Washington, D.C., while Lane’s was shorter, just across the border into lower Missouri. Through old maps, diaries and historical records, they had traced the Lane homestead to an area just east of Blue Rapids where the highlands begin a slow slide into the Big Blue watershed. And somewhere within a small patch of prairie the family cemetery once stood. Their mission was to locate it, if possible.

Perhaps the dead direct the steps of the living. For if in their exploratory questioning Renner and Lane were directed from one historical society to another, from museum curator to librarian until at last they were passed on to my wife who volunteered to take them afield, surely a more serendipitous progression would be impossible to imagine or even to construct. Their research through old microfiche tapes in Frankfort netted a minor treasure trove, a newspaper column written in 1931 by a man named Grant Ewing. Ewing wrote that his father’s orchard, planted in the spring of 1870, died from a drought and no peaches could be had anywhere in the county. A neighbor on his way to St. Joe in a covered wagon was asked to buy a few peaches to restart the orchard. The man was unable to find fresh peaches but a thorough search of alleys, streets and backyards garnered a quart of peach pits. These he shared with Ewing’s father and an old Illinois neighbor, W. H. Sabin. The first peaches were harvested in the fall of 1876. “Like heaven to us,” Ewing wrote.

Sabin was Lori’s great-great-grandfather. The peach hunter was none other than John Lane.

The truck came to a halt at the edge of the woods. We climbed out and slipped into the coolness of the shadows, wary of poison ivy and the vast webs of orb spiders, and followed the landowner another hundred yards to the edge of a clearing where fields of milo stretched away in the sun. He stopped and pointed to a small depression. Renner didn’t notice and walked on to peer past the opening and turned to see everybody watching him. Lane seemed solemn and lost in thought.

“What?” Renner asked. And then: “Is this it?”

The landowner nodded.

Renner froze in place. He glanced at the ground in a sweeping arc, his expression melting from shock to dawning realization, eyes troubled and clouded even as a small smile turned his lips. It was here that a farmer had toppled the headstones and plowed over the cemetery. A lock of hair drifted across his face. He pushed it back, thin silvered strands mindful of the slight breeze.

“Hello, grandpa,” he said.


The next day we met at Alcove Spring, the famous Oregon-California Trail site near Independence Crossing. Renner and Lane were leaving for home, but first we had brought lunch to share, which we spread on a large flat-topped boulder. Every journey, no matter how short, should begin on a full stomach.

When we were through eating, Lori reached into the wicker basket and brought out a jar of canned peaches. Doling out liberal helpings into four glass ramekins, she handed one to each of us.

“Peaches joined our families,” she said. “I propose a toast to our ancestors.”

“I’m sure these peaches came from the family orchard,” Lane said.

We ate in silence. The peaches tasted fresh and slightly sweet, and cool, too, a fitting toast to the living, a belated salute to the dead who may be gone, and lost, but not forgotten, no, never, never forgotten.

1 comment:

Carol said...

We cut up a peach last night and poured cream over it. We toast you and Lori and ancestors.