and around me others still breathe, still have facial muscles that broadcast thoughts, still
have warm blood in their veins.
We buried my Uncle Marshall on Thursday. He’d been a farmer. For a while, he was a milk hauler too, back when dairymen poured their milk into cans and haulers drove it to the central dairy on dark, cold roads the snowplows hadn’t cleared yet.
Marshall was a collector, too, of a lot of things—his attic was stuffed to the gills with picture frames and schoolbooks left over from one-room schoolhouse days and dried-out cans of paint and moth-eaten wool suits and old letters hand-written with fountain pens. His favorite collectible was old cars, which he’d fix up and take out for a drive when the weather was fine. At the funeral, somebody said, “I’ll never forget that old blue car—when you saw that parked on Main Street, you knew Marshall was in town.”
The visitation and funeral and interment were held at an old Lutheran church that sits on a windy hill overlooking fields of corn stubble leftover from last year’s harvest. Nobody’s been out plowing yet; it’s still too cold to plant. It rained cold the morning of the funeral. The trees weren’t leafed out yet, and the grass wanted to turn green but was still mostly brown, and the steady rain could only soak down so far because the frost from the long winter still hunkers 18 inches deep and isn’t about to melt when it’s only April.
Inside the church vestibule, feet stomped off raindrops. Coats dripped on the floor. The church smelled of old books, old dust, old people. Up from the basement drifted the smells of the meal the church ladies in the basement were rustling up for after the funeral, which likely would include hot dish and dessert and coffee.
To the left of the front door, in the vestibule, Marshall’s coffin was tucked under some windows so folks could come in, shed their coats, have a look, and go on in to visit. Closer to the nave, two easels held two arrangements of photographs. One arrangement featured Marshall’s nephews and their families; the other featured his life on the farm with his wife of 64 years, my father’s sister, Shirley. They had no children.
As at any funeral or wedding, I didn’t know everybody. I’d never had occasion to meet Marshall’s farmer neighbors—and even if I had, farmers tend to be a circumspect lot on account of there being an awful lot of natural fools in the world with whom they prefer not to associate. (Not saying I’m a fool—just saying they and I wouldn’t have met for coffee on a regular basis.) Uncle Marshall’s farmer neighbors at the funeral were gray and neatly barbered and slow-moving, and most of them had quit farming about the same time Marshall did. Full-tilt farming is a young man’s game. The other people who came to pay their last respects were relatives I generally see only at weddings and funerals.
Inside the nave, the hard wooden pews sat dark and shiny with age and use. The chancel in front featured an eight-foot-tall painting of Jesus surrounded by an ornately carved wooden frame the same dark brown as the pews. On the floor of the nave stood a baptismal font, also made of old, dark wood; the pulpit on the right was made of the same stuff. Candles wearing little brass caps sat on stands. The pastor wore white robes and a day’s worth of stubble on his chin.
While the pastor puttered around in front before the service started, I talked to an uncle who raises sheep. They’ve already started lambing. During lambing season, my uncle keeps watch over the pregnant sheep during the day. He gets up several times a night to check on them in case they start giving birth and can’t deliver. This year, so far, he’s delivered two sets of triplets. This uncle bought land from Marshall.
Another uncle became a widower just a few months back when his wife died of Parkinson’s disease. Over more than 20 years, the Parkinson’s wore her away to a point where her husband fed her three times a day as though she were an infant. Now that she’s gone, he travels to see their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The rest of the time, he lives alone on a big place in the country and cuts wood for winter. The aunt with Parkinson’s was Marshall’s sister-in-law.
Marshall’s funeral service was cobbled together out of the standard Lutheran funeral service, tidbits the family passed along to the pastor, and Easter references still relevant and handy since Easter was just a couple of weeks ago. The pastor told stories not entirely trued up with fact, which Marshall might have pooh-poohed. But we just smiled and nodded and let it go. You know how it is at a funeral.
After the service, we collected outside at a grave dug about 40 feet from the front door of the church. The hard rain had stopped, but the sky still spat little droplets that dewed up beehive hairdos and pattered on umbrellas and soaked Sunday windbreakers. Mud squished up around everybody’s shoes. Marshall had served in Germany at the end of World War Two, so the VFW provided a bugler and a rifle party to give him a three-volley salute. The same three-volley salute and mournful “Taps" sounded at my own father’s funeral sixteen years ago:
Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well, safely rest
God is nigh.
The sergeant knelt at my aunt’s feet and presented her with a folded flag. A lump swelled in my throat.
Not because Marshall was gone. The man had been in terrible health. He’d suffered. And, truth be told, he and I were not close. Probably like you, I scrabble after every spare minute I can get because there’s never enough time, is there, to work, to run a household, to rear a family, to visit people removed from the frantic Here and Now. I’m not a Lutheran, like he was. I never farmed, like he did. No, Uncle Marshall and I didn’t have the How of our lives in common. But we did have the Who.
See, the people Marshall and I come from are farmers. They came to America from the old country for a better life. They watched a lifetime of sunrises in a land their fathers never saw. They prayed that rain would bless fields harrowed and planted by the sweat of their brows. They came here, Marshall’s ancestors and mine, as young people with hope in their hearts too big for the old country and in need of a land big enough to hold all that hope. They staked their claims, and they dug in, and they stitched their dreams to the dreams of others. They built communities of corn fields and red barns and little villages and country churches and roads to the city.
They mourned lost babies and thanked God for healthy ones. They survived one Depression because you can always eat potatoes. They sent their sons to fight a world war in the trenches. They survived another Depression by making clothes out of flour sacks; Marshall’s wife wore those dresses. The ones who survived that first world war sent their own sons to fight a second one. Those who did not fall in it came home to live out the rest of their lives until, at last, like Marshall, they passed on to whatever comes After This.
After the graveside service, we trooped inside to the church basement where we lined up for hot dish and buttered bread and dessert and dill pickles and coffee. (Told you.) While we ate and visited, somebody stayed outside and took down the tent over Marshall’s grave. A big steam shovel filled in the hole in the ground. By the time everybody was on his or her second cup of coffee, the steam shovel was tamping down the mud. Ashes to ashes.
Someday it will be me lying in a coffin, quiet as dust, still as paint on the walls, while above and around me others still breathe, still have facial muscles that broadcast thoughts, still have warm blood in their veins. Someday I will have to stay upstairs while the ones who still have eyes to see and ears to hear and legs to carry them trundle to the basement to fork down tuna casserole and chocolate cake. They will have to shush the little kids, who’ve sat all the way through a service, but by the end of it have untucked their shirttails and are now running around like puppies. Eighty years ago, somebody brought little Marshall to a funeral where the exact same thing happened.
I don’t entirely mind funerals, even though they force us to let go of people we wanted to keep and force our feelings to the surface where everybody can see them. Because a funeral is a signpost.
A funeral tells me where I am on my own journey. A funeral reminds me that someday I’m going to be the painted mannequin left upstairs who doesn’t get any cake, so I’d best make my life—make each day—count, while I still can.
Rest in peace, Uncle Marshall.