It seemed like another lifetime, tinted with a faint sepia tone like an old faded photograph, impossibly distant, but not so distant that its details failed to surface as we replicated each somber step of the journey.
Ours was a slow and stately procession, or would have been if not for the road’s adherence to the contours of the land and the Jeffersonian grid that doubled the length of our passage to that of a crow’s flight. Headlights burning, dust churning, we snaked down sunbaked backroads toward the Winkler cemetery in northern Riley County, the powdery dust so thick at times that the leading vehicles faded into invisibility with only a glint of reflected sunlight to mark their veiled and unseen presences. The sun burned like liquid fire as we huddled at the gravesite while beneath the sheltering canopy the immediate family stewed in a sweltering humidity that soaked shirts and flattened hairdos. I can still feel the bony shoulder of Lori’s grandmother as I stood behind her, see the terse face of Lori’s father as he struggled for control and the faces of strangers and old friends and relatives as they circled us looking on as if we were the ones on display and foreign to their eyes. The ceaseless wind howled from the south, billowing women’s skirts, rocking cars, lashing the oaks and mulberries, kicking up a spume of dust in the fallow field to the north. Overhead the canopy snapped and bucked and tore at its reins like a wild stallion.
We were brought together from far-flung regions to meet at this lonely place and say our final goodbyes to Lori’s grandfather, Bruno. To temporarily conjoin in a semblance of family cohesion. It was a rural setting, at once alien and unfamiliar but achingly beautiful, and all the while I studied the farms we passed, calculating their geographical setting in relation to potential tornadoes and prevailing winds, relief from the afternoon sun and proximity to the innumerable creeks and gullies. I wondered whether we could someday fit into this land as natives by blood relationship and history rather than by birthright, if such a thing was possible. And like anything else there was so little time to reflect upon it while caught up in the procession, the scripted rotes and the chaotic gatherings shadowed by a cloud of tension and grief.
It was early summer, 1999. What I remember most was staring at a distant ridgeline with an unquenchable yearning to live there. We had talked about it for over two decades, always with the stipulation that we’d escape the city while her grandparents were still alive to be with them in their declining years. And here we were: one down and the other in failing health, our plans as yet unborn. Too late.
Death has a way of reminding us of our shortcomings.
We met again last week under similar circumstances. Those, I should say, who remained. A decade plus two had engraved lines, bleached hair and robbed mobility, but for the most part we were strangers no more. I might not have been able to put names to all the faces, but I had a good idea which branch of Lori’s family tree they descended from.
What surprised me was how our roles had changed. Rather than being counted among those flooding in—problems to be surmounted—we were the problem solvers. We arranged lodging and pallbearers, choreographed various funeral details (as well as the inevitable, if not comical, snafus), proofed obituaries and prepared meals. Much of it fell on me by dint of association and to alleviate the pressure on my wife. Friends dropped by with enough food to feed an army. The outpouring of sympathy was staggering.
On the morning of the funeral I lapsed into an inescapable sense of déjà vu. The procession left the same red-roofed country church to zigzag down the same bewildering maze of gravel roads, the dust white and powdery and smothering, fires scorching the prairies on all sides and the ascendant sun bloodred from the smoke. Our little knot clustered around a steel-gray casket, heads bowed against a wind that snapped and cracked the canopy, thrummed through the guy wires and whisked away the words of the preacher as if they were not meant to be uttered. Above the distant ridgeline a pair of vultures kited on heated updrafts and rose and fell as they passed from thermal to thermal. An eastern meadowlark whistled, its cheery see-you-see-yeer too upbeat for the occasion and yet oddly reassuring.
My eyes were once again drawn to the greening valley and the bare tentacled arms of the oaks mantling the small clear stream below the cemetery. Everything looked the same but wasn’t. Much had changed, not the least being the loss of the last of our respective grandmothers, now consigned to this fair land. But the consignment worked both ways. For even as Ilda was lowering into the fertile ground Lori and I became part of it, native in heart if not in a birthright spanning a century and a half. We weren’t successors, we were inheritors, and this time we weren’t too late.