A Very Good Trip

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.”

14 thoughts on “A Very Good Trip

  1. Just beautiful! You rekindled so many emotions for me. I heard your Dad so many times in the pulpit. Just a kind, gentle soul. I remember your mother with such dignity. I was at the Cemetary before the pandemic to lay a “rose” on your cousins grave. She was in my first wedding. Thank you again for taking me there today.

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  2. Very moving, Paula. I guess I have to echo the words of your father, “I don’t understand it, but I’m willing to try.” You and I walked many roads together. And you have walked a hard road since the sadness of our parting of ways, certainly the path less taken. I remember you once told me that when we crossed paths it seemed like all was right with the world. I was really taken aback. That was one of the kindest things anyone has ever said to me. When our worlds separated, our paths parted. Not intentionally, mind you, that has occurred with many of my friends I would see two or three times a year as my calendar dictated. Now my traveling days have slowed and many of those friends, growing old alongside me, are memories. Memories I cherish, just as I cherish the hours you and I spent sitting in airports, hotel conference rooms, churches, airplanes, dinner with my family, and Lord knows where else! The first half of your father’s words come to me often, but I didn’t know how to complete the sentence. When I read this post I knew that the second half of his statement were the words I was looking for. I hope our paths cross again soon. It would be good walk alongside an old friend.

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  3. Wow, what a mixture of emotions. Thank you what you did, what you experienced, and for sharing it with the rest of us.

    __________________________ Holly S Hoxeng 5981 Chivalry Drive Colorado Springs CO 80923 303-877-5373 (c) 719-574-0176 (h)

    On Tue, Jul 6, 2021 at 10:18 AM Paula Stone Williams wrote:

    > Paula S Williams posted: ” 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 wa” >

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  4. Like you, my mother was harder to live with than my father. After she passed my father came to live with me and I am glad he did. I visited their grave this year, the first time in a decade or more (I live a ways away). Glad you made their graves right.

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  5. I hope you found closure in your spur of the moment trip. My Mike is buried at the top of the ‘little circle’ but, oddly I never go. I could not find any connection there early on, and even though I think about him every day I still don’t make that very short trip down Landsdowne to visit. Maybe if i did, I would have bumped into you…and I would have loved that.

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  6. Paula, thank you for another ‘gift’ of your prose, your emotions, your honesty and your authenticity. I have followed you since your transition and of course have know you longer and the many, many people we know in common. You have taught me much as I continue to search for all the ways God wants me to love others, accept others and be more authentic in my faith. Thank you again.

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  7. tears.

    Thank you.

    On Tue, Jul 6, 2021 at 10:17 AM Paula Stone Williams wrote:

    > Paula S Williams posted: ” 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 wa” >

    Like

  8. Thank you Paula for the most poignant words you’ve written so far (IMHO). You moved me to
    tears with your recollections of your father and your fixing of your parents’ graves. Thank you.

    Like

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