My father passed away in May of 2020, the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic. I had visited him the previous January, just a few months before he passed, and knew it wouldn’t be long. Because of the pandemic we were not able to hold a funeral, nor was I able to travel to Kentucky for his burial. Finding closure was difficult.
Last week, on the spur of the moment, I decided to fly to Kentucky for two days. I did not tell my brother I was coming, nor my cousin, both of whom would have come along had I asked. I did not tell any of my few remaining friends in town that I was there. I needed to make the trip alone.
I always enjoyed a good relationship with my father. Even after I transitioned and my mother demanded that he disown me, Dad and I stayed in touch. When I was finally allowed to visit, Dad was the one who said before I departed, “Paula, I don’t understand this, but I am willing to try.” What more could I have asked?
My father was a good and gentle man who took delight in me, and I knew it. His love sustained me through difficult times with my mother. I hated not being able to be with him when he passed. The trip back was for me, and for Dad.
I usually fly into Cincinnati, Lexington, Huntington, or Charleston when I go back to Grayson, but there is a serious rental car shortage in America, and Louisville was the only place I could find a car. I landed around 5:00 and drove the two and a half hours through Bluegrass country into the hills and hollows of Carter County, the place I’ve always called home. Though I only lived there from the ages of 15 to 22, it was the place of grounding for our family. Mom graduated from high school in Grayson and both of my parents attended the college in town. Not only are my parents buried there, but my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousin are also buried there, nine relatives in all. My grandmother’s home was at the edge of the cemetery. We used to picnic there while Grandma Stone sang songs and dished out blackberry cobbler and generally took delight in her grandchildren
I arrived at 8:30 in the evening, before the sun set. I drove through the campus of the college where I received my bachelor’s degree, then drove down Landsdowne Avenue to the cemetery, parking about 30 yards from where my parents are buried.
When I got to the graves, there was a problem. My parents had their headstone and footstones in place before they died. The footstones were about 18 x 12 x 4 inches and were recessed into the ground. When they dug the graves, they unearthed both footstones and dumped them to the side, where they remained until I arrived. Mom’s footstone says, “Teacher,” and Dad’s says, “Ordained Minister, 1946.” You could not tell on whose graves the footstones belonged. Mom’s was closer to Dad’s grave and Dad’s was between their plot and the next graves over.
I immediately thought of how upset my mother would have been. Not only were the footstones out of place, but no sod had been placed on the dirt above their graves. Only dry Kentucky clay covered both graves. I got down on my knees and started tugging at the footstones. They wouldn’t budge. I positioned myself on the upper side of the plot and dug into Mom’s footstone with all of my might. After several minutes of struggle, I wedged my hand beneath the far side of the stone and began pulling it toward me. I slowly got the footstone on its side, then lifted it to stand on end. I walked the stone to its proper place at the foot of her grave and put it in place.
Dad’s footstone was more difficult to move. I tugged and pulled and cried. I needed to get it in place. I had to get it to its proper place. It could not wait. It had to be done before nightfall. I finally wedged three fingers beneath it, right where the word “Minister” was carved into the granite and pulled it onto its side. Then with a burst of energy I got it on its end and started walking it to the foot of his grave, crying the whole time. I had walked my father’s legacy back to its proper place and I could leave for the night. Once I got to the motel I went for a nighttime run, savoring the moist Kentucky air, remembering the lazy evenings of my youth.
The next morning, I headed to the local Wal-Mart and bought a small rake, trowel, and grass seed. Then I drove back to the cemetery. On my knees I began digging several inches into the hard Kentucky clay, leveling out the dirt and preparing the soil for seed. I planted the seed, gently raked the clay and tamped it down, and prayed that the forecast that said rain was on the way was accurate.
I gently sat down on the gravestone of my grandparents, just a few feet above my parents’ graves. A lawn maintenance worker came by on his riding mower. I gave him the implements I had used, and told him I had mowed the cemetery with a hand mower when I was in college. I earned $1.60 an hour. I began mowing each Monday and finished on Friday, only to begin again the following Monday. I told him my grandfather had mowed the cemetery before me. I showed him his grave. When I mowed the cemetery during the summer of 1972, my grandfather was the only family member buried there. I used to eat my lunch beneath a nearby oak. The oak has now returned to the earth, nourishing a new generation of trees that live their entire lives in just one place.
Stones moved, grass sown, and soil raked, I began wandering around the graveyard. There were over a hundred people I knew buried there – the man who sold me my first new car – the grave of my high school friend’s parents, two of the kindest people I have ever known. I saw the grave of the news director at the radio station where I worked. He knew everything that had ever happened in our little town. At the foot of his grave was the grave of his son, lost to Covid-19.
There is no other cemetery on earth in which I know as many residents, all nestled there on a hillside across the lane from the college campus, next to the land where my grandmother kept the most beautiful garden. Because it seemed the right thing to do, I began quoting aloud Mary Oliver’s poem, Wild Geese.
You do not have to be good
You do not have to crawl on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert repenting
You only have to let the soft warm animal of your body
Love what it loves
Tell me about despair
Yours and I will tell you mine
Meanwhile the world goes on
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of rain
Are moving across the landscapes
Over the prairies and the deep trees
The mountains and the rivers
Meanwhile the wild geese high in the clean blue air
Are heading home again
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely
The world offers itself to your imagination
Calls to you like the wild geese
Harsh and exciting, over and over
Announcing your place in the family of things
I was amongst people who had found their place in the family of things. On account of their religion, most of them thought they did have to be good and walk on their knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. They hoped God would let them in through the back door. These were good people. I doubt they were prepared for the wonderful welcome they received.
After driving around town, I headed back to Louisville. I did not cry until I returned to Denver and stopped at the home of one of my dearest friends. As soon as I felt her touch, the tears flowed freely. There is warmth and safety in the touch of someone who loves you. I cried and she held me and asked, “Was the trip good?” “Yes, very good,” I replied. “Very good.”