The Ranch Hand’s Diary:
A Time to Weep and a Time to Laugh
One time my grandfather gave me a quarter and said, "Keep this with you and you'll never be broke." I kept it for a while and then I must have spent it on something—a bus ticket, a bottle of water, a postcard, a stamp. But I was never broke. Not when it came to things that mattered. For I am lucky to have a wealth of friends, a family I like, and an interesting life. Even when the days are financially tough, I remember the value of living over the stress of toiling in vain. Most of the time. Even so, the morning of my granddaddy's memorial service, as I'm getting ready I stop and uncap a jar full of coins—Granddaddy's jar, his coins—and take out a quarter. It's the only inheritance I want. I already have a jar full of memories, a drawer full of stories, and the passed on legacy of singing silly songs just the way he did.
Because our summer work has given us enough quarters to fly home, Jesse and I leave the animals, the gardens, and the mountains behind and go to remember, honor, and to say, "Rest peacefully, Granddaddy. We love you." We leave Wyoming as the sun rises, turning the sky pink and purple and soft blue. We arrive in Texas when the sun is high and the temperature hovering between 106 and 107 degrees.
The next day, about thirty of us gather at the graveside. Two uniformed Navy men stand guard by the casket. A flag covers the top. Over to the side, another white uniformed Navy man stands ramrod straight with his bugle under his arm. We gather in the shade, visiting with seldom seen family and friends using whispered voices as we wait for the service to start.
When the muted, melancholy tones of Taps begin, I tear up. The lady standing next to me cries openly. Her grandson, who my grandfather taught to fish, weeps. For some reason I keep thinking of what an angel said to the disciples when they came to the tomb looking for Jesus, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?" The song plays on. My dad reaches over and takes my grandmother's hand. My uncle, sitting on her other side, holds her other one.
When it's time, the Navy men fold the flag. The man on the right kneels down in front of my grandmother and holding out the triangle of blue says, "On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Navy, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service."
After the pastor has said a few words, some of us leave to go to the church. The rest of us stay to watch the casket being lowered into the ground. "What's in that box?" My four-year-old niece Shea asks my brother, her papa.
"That's where Granddaddy is going to rest for a long, long time," he tells her, kneeling down at her level, one arm wrapped around her.
"For a long, long time?" Shea asks, her voice holding that tremulous, uncertain sadness that only a child can intone. Ben lowers his voice and I can't catch the rest of their conversation.
After the casket is lowered, my dad sifts a handful of dirt over the top. My cousins, my siblings, and I do the same. I wish I had a flower or a quarter to add. All I can think is, Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But that's too often used, too grim, and I change the words as I soften a clump of hard dirt between my fingertips and let the grains fall. "Blessings, rest peacefully," I whisper. I love you, hovers in the air. Shea wants to be a part of this as well. She and Ben go hand-in-hand and both add to the covering already there. I wonder if Shea will remember this moment later in her life.
My grandfather never liked to be the center of attention unless he was telling stories of Eniwetok, those early Navy days when he and my grandmother were first married, the days of his youth when he walked around with a salt shaker in his pocket in the event that he came across any fresh tomatoes to eat, fishing stories, or of the times when he and his friends snuck into the cold ice block warehouse and stole slivers of ice to help cool them down in those hot, southern, summer days. As I sit next to my sister who sits next to my brother who sits next to my sister on the pew in the church my grandparents attended together for fifty-seven years, I wonder if my grandfather would like this service with him as the center of attention. My dad and my mom's cousin Clay sing The Sacrifice Lamb. Ben, three of my cousins, and I sing Amazing Grace. My dad, Kyley, Jesse, and Phinehas give touching remembrances; stories and tributes. True eulogies.
I imagine Granddaddy sitting in the pew next to my grandmother, holding her hand. And I can almost see the twinkle that would be in his eye as the stories of his jokes are told, as his favorite songs are sung, as his most loved Bible verses are read. I think he would like this service. I think he would even like being the center of attention.
Behind me, my niece reaches over the back of the pew to poke my shoulder. She grins at the faces I turn and make at her. It's like the verse my cousin Kyley had just read from the Bible that had stayed close to hand near my grandfather's comfy chair. There's a time for everything under the sun. "A time to weep and a time to laugh." There's time for both today.
As a family we mourn and we rejoice. We remember Granddaddy as we catch up with the family and the friends we haven’t seen in a long time. And, only a handful of miles away in my backpack a quarter settles into the pocket I’ve placed it in and sits there to keep me rich for as long as my memories last.