Thursday, July 26, 2012

Deep Country

Deep country.

This is where I've been in the last five days, watching (and serving) a family saying goodbye to a man who lived all his life on this land.  There were moments during those days where I felt displaced to be among them. I am not, nor will I ever be, one of them.  Though I've walked the fields, sat in combines churning stalks of wheat, watching the kernels pour like a shower of gold in to the hold. I've listened to the cadence of their voices, been awed by their knowledge of their fields, asked a plethora of questions about crops and, "How do you really know when THIS, not any other, is the first day of harvest?" But I merely visit this world.

A shirt-tail relative, I suppose. A sister to the wife of a farmer. A sister to one of the sons whose father died last week.

Five-hundred strong turned out to honor this man who'd farmed and raised cattle, who'd traded horses with a knowledge and passion so abiding that he was still driving his horse-hauling truck the day he died. For the 30 years I've been a visitor to that farm his trade-horses have milled about in the pastures across from the yellow-painted wide-porched 110 year-old farmhouse where he spent his entire life.
The week he died (the day he died!) the rural community that is a hallmark of the land filled the house with food--ubiquitous potato salads, meat (they are all carnivore, of course!), and pies--oh, the pies.  And then they'd sit a bit. Sit with his wife of almost sixty years, just passing the time. Rallying because it's part of what neighbors do. They sit together and bring food. Send cards by the dozen (every day!), make phone-calls, offer to help (and mean it)--then do the tasks they're actually asked to do. Those who make their homes here expect to do. They'd rather do. It's better--far better--than sitting at home, doing nothing.

And they turn out in droves to say goodbye.  The little brick church was stretched like a rubber-band to its breaking point Tuesday.  BB, my girls and I got there plenty we thought. But we were crammed into a pew at the back of the balcony. A tap on my shoulder came from one of my sister's closest neighbors, a woman with whom I've had conversations at so many functions we're almost friends. She told me about a product used to clean her sink, said she's been waiting for months to tell me about it, since two years ago we had a rather lengthy conversation about sinks. Memories of such things linger in deep country.  The woman beside me went to high school with my sister and brother-in-law. All through the service, she asked me who was who as one member of the family then the next stood up to talk.

About two minutes into the service, after the family filed in trailed by the priest, my niece went forward to read scripture. Though her knees were shaking and her heart was hurting, she read in a clear and certain voice. She made the words of life and death comprehensible to that company, opened ears that might have been left dulled with the complex construction of phrases.  And after the priest spoke of the man and an important interaction and cattle and simple faith, my nephew stood and gave the most difficult speech he's ever given.  My nephew is not one to shy away from public speaking. I've heard him speak to the most difficult audience known to mankind--teenagers at an FFA convention who'd rather be off doing than sitting in a seat listening to ANYONE!  But this 'speech' locked up his throat and gave him pause. Later he wrote on his facebook wall that it's not the size of an audience but the content that makes a speech hard. That farmer boy-turned-man did his family proud speaking of his grandfather's life. Brought smiles and laughter to the crowd one moment, nods of the heads and tears to the eyes the next.

At the very end of the service, my brother-in-law stood and said, "There's some food down at the gun club and we'd be glad to have you go on over and start eating. We're going up to the cemetery for a few minutes then we'll be down to join you."  Deep country, indeed, in those words.

It was a fine send-off, with a fine country dinner afterwards at the gun club where the man's well-used saddle greeted the guests. This is my favorite picture of that saddle--of my brother-in-law and his grandson, who took to that saddle prophetically, like there's a cowboy call on his life before he's nine-months-old.

But maybe my favorite part of the send-off came after all of this when the family went home to that yellow farmhouse. We were privileged to join them on that wide porch in the late afternoon sun for pie and beer and more conversation about a whole manner of things.

 On the front lawn children played baseball, batting at a home-plate made of a set of cowboy boots. My nephew (the man in the black cowboy hat) and his cousin took turns pitching simple under-hand throws while holding their beer in hand. Parents held the outfield duties. 

The rest of us watched or not in the shade of the porch, enjoying the cool of the breeze. My niece set up a blanket to feed the baby on the grass, using my daughter as the high chair. Little JR loves his food these days. He's exactly what a baby should be.

Down at the pastures, the big draft horses simply wandered in the evening sun. They're enjoying summer. Their work is winter work, hauling a hay wagon to feed cattle through the cold and grass-less winter months. Life for them hasn't been turned around by the events of this week. They'll still go about their business next winter because there's continuity here; there has been for generations now. 

The party ended. Food was divide up among the families, chairs were folded up. People yelled goodbye as they loaded up kids into their cars and headed home. The goodbye had been said. The farmers took the day off, but in the morning they'd be back at work. Their dad wouldn't have had it any other way. He'd have been grumbling to think it. Not on his account; not on any, I suppose. 
But the day, to this guest, had been sweet. It could have been Tuesday, but it could have been fifty or a hundred years ago. That's how it is in deep country when time stops for a moment for folks to say goodbye.