Here is a little poem I wrote during a long drive in an RV with my parents, my siblings, and my brother’s family. We were on our way to a funeral. The poem was my way of working through what I felt, which at the time might best be named wistfulness – a word bearing repeating in these lines. Working my way through all I felt – well, that’s taken quite a while longer.
Beyond the Lost Bridge
A man walks through the room as through life,
A gun slinging cowboy from yesterday’s West,
Daring anyone to come too close,
Stoically seated on life’s porch,
Allowing, willing, life to pass – unnoticed,
Whispering sweet pipe tobacco encircling.
Burned bridges stand ashen,
Distant in the moonlight of the journey.
Man’s legacy shattered, scattered by the wind,
By time, by long unbound family ties.
Hard life. Hard breath. Hard man at last
Casts wistful mind
On the unsaid, the undone,
The bridges burned
By many fires of a stubborn will.
Hard death. Hard breath. Legacy found.
Joined to memorialize a journey completed.
Wistful, wandering thoughts racing,
Echoing the loss of a chance,
Reflecting the loss of a bridge.
This is, of course, how I felt, how I wanted him to feel in that time. It’s taken time and some surprising conversations with another who knew him far longer and far better for me to realize that I don’t at all know how he felt in life, let alone death.
I never knew where I stood with him. I never knew him at all. The visuals in this poem are the only things I feel sure were real. Even those are a young girl’s remembering and classifying: John Wayne with a pipe on a porch on a hill in Kentucky.
Over the years, I never spent more than a few weeks in Kentucky, and even fewer that I recall. Sometimes my heart pines for that place the way it pines for all of childhood.
One time, when I had a law office in a company, I thought I had gone mad. I could smell pipe tobacco. It transported me to that porch, to that place, to my people. It turned out to be vanilla rooibos tea – and I still swear it smells like vanilla pipe tobacco.
I do not wish for more time with him, however awful that may read. I wish for more understanding of him. I wish I had known him in a way I wish he would have allowed. I wish that I understood why he was who he was and how that trickled through the family. I wish that I had had the tools to interact with him in a meaningful way – I was, after all, an adult when he died.
On the top of a higher hill in Kentucky, we buried him. Many of us walked the steep incline, and I think we had it better than those in a vehicle. The day was hot. The dirt was piled high and dark, so unlike the red clay of my home. It was a job for the menfolk – filling the grave with dirt after the niceties were complete. But I would not leave. I needed to bury him. I needed to know that I took part in his grave, even if I had no part in his life.
He was not particularly mean to me. He certainly never abused me. His relationships with others are for them to parse (or not); I know only a tiny fraction.
Sometimes there are gaps in relationships and we don’t know how to process the gap so we see it like the negative space of shadow and think it must be bad. What rests in the gap between me and my grandfather is not bad but blank.
For, lo, these many years, I believed I would need to confront his memory and forgive him. As it happens, forgiveness isn’t what I needed at all. Sometimes there are gaps in relationships and we don’t know how to process the gap so we see it like the negative space of shadow and think it must be bad. What rests in the gap between me and my grandfather is not bad but blank. And there is as much opportunity for me to fill it as there is for me to fill that gap between myself and other, even ancient, ancestors. He is my ancestor. I can and should relate to him that way: curiously, occasionally, healthfully.
It allows me to hear new stories of him with new ears. The only thing I know now is that he was a man with more complexity than I credited him. So I’ll not imprint on others’ memories of him. I’ll not contradict stories of his love or his life. I am forever grateful he had both, love and life. And that must suffice.