LITTLE BOXES

© 2006 Ken Knowlton

     
 

The farm had been sold several years previously, and here we were, back for a reunion: us three kids, a couple spouses and a few of our children. We had come from Utah and New Hampshire and places between. We were welcomed into the old farmhouse, and enjoyed and suffered our nostalgic pangs, public and private. We walked a field or two and met up at the southwest corner of the front woods. It was this spot from which the very idea of our life on the farm began.

Our folks had graduated from the Ag School at Cornell, and Pa had gone on to teach agriculture. But after two years, he developed a restless urge to farm, not talk about it. He and Mom looked around, and on their first visit to check out this place they camped right here, and slept under these very trees, sixty-five years smaller, of course.

I passed the shovel to Marie and said Your turn. She shoveled a bit, then Fred. We dug next to these rocks, it was supposed to be right here. Yes, we hit something, and there it was, gray plastic, shoebox-size. We dug around it, raised it up, and imagined Pa saying Gosh, that feels good, after lying on my left side for six years.

We put Pa back, on his other side, and placed the tangible remains of Mom in the matching box we had brought with us. Near, but not right up against Pa a person's gotta have a little space, you know. It was solemn but not morbid, at times light but not giddy. Very impromptu, since no particular religion or tradition had provided a script. We didn't talk about where they were now, or when we might join them, or about God and His plans for all of us who can possibly know, in any sense, about such things, much less verbalize? But we do know well, from our folks' example, how people ought to treat each other. And about, well, just look around you: about the seasons of planting and harvesting, about birds and other creatures, and all other things, however they arose, that make life possible and hard and fun.

One can't help having such thoughts and feelings when looking out from here, over the front fifteen cultivated acres where, for so many years, the sun shined, rain pelted, and snow drifted; where we ran the tractor up, down and crosswise ten thousand times, plowing, cultivating and planting sweet corn, glads, cabbage and clover; where we mowed, raked and baled; picked, sorted and packaged. If each of us leaves an invisible thread, to be retraced countless times in the coming eternity, what extraordinary tangles lie in that field and throughout the house and the farm buildings and land across the road. I imagine following my thread and feeling glad, sad, or differently from the time before, about its turning left or right. If a butterfly's wingflap can steer a future hurricane, then each angle or curve of my thread chose my whole subsequent future. What other path might it have taken? Does it matter?

I'm sorry that, years earlier at Pa's service, I had not spoken and thus can't very well construct even what I might have said. Perhaps I followed in the track of Pa's own quietness about personal feelings. Here's an odd conundrum: on the one hand, I explain that he grew up youngest of three boys and felt small, lost and unsure of himself among older siblings who knew their way around. On the other hand, I grew up the oldest of three siblings, hesitantly leading the way into unfamiliar and threatening territory. One can rationalize anything.

At Ma's service back in Utah, I did speak, and wrote down my thoughts soon afterward. On looking it over now, I think that, because of the finality of the event for the pair of them, I got a bit of Pa into my eulogy. This is part of what I said, ostensibly about Mom:

            "... She loved, and hated, sun and sky, rain and snow, and the wind.
            Above all she loved the soil and the plants that grew from it.
            She was a farmer, a flower arranger, a gardener.
            She drove a tractor. And a truck. She even drove a car.
            She played tennis, superbly, and croquet (not so hotsy-totsy);
            And she played chess and a dozen other games.
            She danced, performed and recited.
            She was a painter of landscapes, a woodworker and a craftsperson.
            She was a student, a teacher. A questioner, an explainer.
            She was an organizer, critic, politician, advocate, debater.
            She was a wife and a Mother. She cooked, she clothed.
            She was a caretaker, a nurse, an example.
            Her life was

                        Full of dishes and fishes
                        and mountains of wishes,
                        She foretold and extolled
                        and sometimes cajoled,
                        She thought and she taught
                        and more than once fought,
                        And she also said, and did, lots of other things
                        whether they rhymed or not.

            She loved and she cared.
            She sympathized and she empathized, all in her own unique way."

So here we were, taking turns shovel-tucking them in. They had taken, from this very corner of these woods, a journey long, far, and wide; they're now back to stay. Maybe not, who knows?

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