ON THE WAY THERE Grandma gave me the silent treatment. I wouldn’t share a hotel room with her. And she hates to be alone.
We were driving across Illinois. In between moods Grandma and Dad would reminisce about sorghum breakfasts. I thought about how Dad grew up: the wood-burning stove, his parents’ divorce, the grandpa/father-figure who died when he was so little. He was only five or six.
We traveled further west and rejoiced when we hit the Missouri state line. Somehow, it felt like coming home. The towns had names like “Hannibal” and “Milan.” They were announced by green signs — “Milan: pop. 4,576.”
Dad was taking those rural roads a little fast. I wondered if he liked to joyride as a teenager. Somehow I doubted it. Grandma told me once that he would cry and go on if someone borrowed one of his books. Mom, tense and nervous, would emit rare clucking sounds when it was her turn to talk. She was preparing her “deep reservoir of kindness” — the thing dad says made him want to marry her.
We got there just in time for the viewing, and that’s when I learned that Kirksville, Missouri is cowboy hats, fried chicken, and old people, that when people sit and “visit,” they start stories like this: “He said to me, he said…” and the response begins with, “Well, I’ll tell ya…”
The men wore big cowboy hats and I knew I stood out. I have my mother’s face, curly, dark hair, and a crooked nose –- all of which signaled I wasn’t from around there. But everyone there was my cousin.
“Hi, I’m Anne,” I said to one girl.
“I know, I’m your cousin.”
The girl was 16, with blue eyes and blond hair, and I never would have guessed we were so closely related. But I didn’t know these people, not even a little bit. They are the other children of the divorce, the farmhouse matrimonial split that could have ended in murder or suicide. They grew up here, or in neighboring Iowa; they entered 4H cattle-showing contests to cope with adolescent dramas.
I grew up with punk rock and pro-choice rallies. As a kid, Dad moved around a lot. My Grandma was a teacher, and she took work all over the west to make ends meet. There were summers spent on the Missouri cattle ranch of her youth, where Dad grew bored of manual labor. He lived in Wyoming for a time. He went to college in California, then moved east, met my mom, and started a family.
I hadn’t been back to Missouri since I was 14. When I saw it all again, the farms, the sad, lonely towns, the conservative cousins, the Christian pop-rock, it hit me hard, like the site of a wound I’d spent most of my life trying to ignore. My uncle’s funeral was full of townspeople. He either sold cattle to everyone, or taught them at the local college, or studied in Bible group with them.
At the viewing people were happy, laughing. Remembering the good times. Times I never experienced, because I was so rarely there. It was a motley crew for sure, angular haircuts that looked wrong instead of edgy, and cowboy boots, and cut-offs. I couldn’t laugh. I couldn’t smile. I was on the cusp of something, that great emotional expanse, that sea-inside feeling. I needed to hide. From time to time I would retreat to the bathroom, or the makeshift funeral home kitchen.
When I came out again, I realized that the guys around my age were staring at me. I was crying. I was also wearing bright red Doc Martens. They weighed the choices: It’s rude to stare at strangers, but such a strange stranger she is. There were older couples, the man with a blue baseball cap on and a buttoned-up flannel shirt, the woman with a solid, grey sweater, made for resisting the cold — their faces warm with compassion when I told them who I was.
And maybe, across the generational and cultural chasms, they saw it, the reason for my profound sadness, the answer behind why I couldn’t stop crying: My dad never got to know his brother. And there he was, lying dead in front of us, while people told childhood stories my dad knew nothing about.
My Uncle didn’t go to school during the harvest.
My grandfather needed him to stay home and help out on the farm.
My grandmother never would have allowed that.
Her family was education-focused, almost to a fault.
But then, she wasn’t there.
During the funeral I sat next to my dad. His eyes are this light blue color, it almost seems impossible, given that he’s pushing 70. At the funeral his eyelids were rimmed with tears, except they weren’t tears, they were more like tiny wells with oceanic potential. And I saw that he was trying to keep it together, but something was flowing through him. Some immense grief he couldn’t control.
I asked him if he was sad to lose his brother.
“I lost him a long time ago,” he said.
At the funeral the pastor talked about how my uncle’s death was a “senseless tragedy.” So he spent the sermon philosophizing on this tragedy in his literalist view of God and the cosmos. “I know we talk about heaven a lot, how much we want to go there. But we never talk about what it really looks like.”
It is made of pearls and topaz, he said, full of mansions. When he was done, the people from the town, the friends, the distant relatives, left the rest of us alone in the chapel.
I watched my second cousin. She had just lost her grandpa. Her face contorted into the familiar signs of grief, and she let loose, as if to say, “finally.” I wept along with her, even though my uncle and I only spoke once a year, at Christmas. He would ask me how school was, and tell me about the farm.