In the Country
In the country, the night sky is different. Deeper and darker. The stars revel in their own brilliance and seem to chase one another from horizon to horizon. It is an unblemished sky. Something pure and profound. The way it was intended to be.
We had buried my grandfather in the afternoon in a cemetery tucked between hardwoods and pines. Generations of my family rest there and when my grandfather died it signaled not only an end to his life, but an end to the life and experiences I had known out in this quiet and rolling land. He was ninety years old when he passed and he still lived alone. Had only a couple of years earlier given up riding the tractor but he had not given up driving the countryside in his Toyota pickup with his arm propped in the rolled down window. My grandmother had passed a few years earlier and I know that he was lonely but this place held him and loved him. The house he had built. The surrounding acreage where he had raised cows and taken us for rides on the back of a horse that he borrowed from some man up the road. The spot in the yard where he would stand at night and smoke his last cigarette before going inside and crawling into bed because he had to get up before dawn the next day and lead his crew to job sites in McComb or Tylertown or Brookhaven or Natchez. Though he lived alone in the last years of his life he was as much adjoined with and fashioned by a place as I think a man could possibly be. And he must have felt that.
We returned to my grandparents’ house after the funeral and burial and the day fell away. It was so different, so quickly. The kitchen where my grandmother made biscuits and gravy and fried chicken was grease and smoke free. The chair where my grandfather sat and watched whatever ballgame was on was left to itself. The photographs on the wall stared back at us. The drawer in the kitchen where he always kept bubble gum for me and my sisters now empty.
For a long time my grandfather could not understand why neither my mother (his only child) and father nor me or either of my sisters would come out into the country and live like he lived. Build a house. Work a day job. Farm in the evenings. Go to church on Sunday. Know what you are going to do and where you are going to be damn near every day of your life. It was difficult for him to realize that our worlds were different. We had to go where there was a job. We had to find a place to live and find people to like and to love. While we all loved his place and were very much a part of their home in the country, it wasn’t a place where any of us could make a life.
When night fell I walked out of the house and into the backyard. A rusted metal barn sat down the hill where his tractors and lawnmower took shelter. Down across a shallow valley, which once provided pasture and a pond for his cows, rows of pine trees stood like straight and dark soldiers. The night was still. Peaceful. And though I don’t think he ever really understood my adult life, I think that in that space and solitude I understood his.
I looked up at the sky. So infinite. So littered with light. So out of our reach but not beyond our curiosity. So beautiful. I lay down on the ground and I heard my oldest daughter come out of the house. She was five or six then. She came over and lay down next to me and rested her head on my shoulder. And we looked at the starlit sky together. I felt the sorrow of the long life that had left us and I felt the hope and innocence of my child next to me as we lay still and in admiration. We talked some. Not much. Mostly I held my breath and tried to keep from crying. Because I knew she would have asked me what was wrong and I knew that I would not know how to answer.