Slumber Interrupted


my great great grandfather

an updated poem from Memorial Day 2010

Blazing sun bakes a lichen crust
atop a stone so feverish
it is hearth without fire,
reaching down deep
into soil holding a box
that knows no warmth.

Autumn windstorms rage,
lightning crack and thunder clap,
trembling the filled-hole grounds
as dying leaves spin and swirl
through arced cascade among tidy rows
till settled and spent.

Then crisp hoarfrost clings
in glittering crystalline coverlet
gracefully fallen from graying sky,
soft cotton batting fluffs
to pillow gentle slumber

When vernal raindrops quench
the thirst of dry bones
suspended between
welkin expanse
and earth’s darkest pit,

these silent stones will shout out~

still no more, reticent no longer,
waking to resonant reveille,
ready to blossom forth
in the fullness of time
and everlasting promise.


my great grandmother

A Presence of Absence

photo by Gary Jarvis of Dutch Reformed Cemetery

“The sunlight now lay over the valley perfectly still. I went over to the graveyard beside the church and found them under the old cedars… I am finding it a little hard to say that I felt them resting there, but I did… I saw that, for me, this country would always be populated with presences and absences, presences of absences, the living and the dead. The world as it is would always be a reminder of the world that was, and of the world that is to come.”
Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow

Today, as always over the last weekend of May, we have a family reunion where most turn up missing.  A handful of the living come together for lunch and then a slew of the no-longer-living, some of whom have been caught napping for a century or more, are no-shows.

It is always on this day of cemetery visiting that I feel keenly the presence of their absence: the great greats I never knew, a great aunt who kept so many secrets, an alcoholic grandfather I barely remember, my grandmother whose inherent messiness I inherited, my parents who separated for ten years late in life, yet reunited long enough for their ashes to rest together for eternity.

It is good, as one of the still-for-now living, to approach these plots of grass with a wary weariness of the aging.  But for the grace of God, there will I be sooner than I wish to be.  There, thanks to the grace of God, will I one day be an absent presence for my children and hoped-for grandchildren to ponder.

The world as it is remembers the world that was.  The world to come calls us home in its time, where we all will be present and accounted for — our reunion celebration.

All in good time.


It is now my fifty eighth Memorial Day–what I wrote two years ago still is true: I see this as a day for weeping, so the rain coming from the sky is fitting.

Originally posted on Hankerings:

On my fifty sixth Memorial Day, I need to be reminded not to forget the sacrifices made by my fellow countrymen.  This is not a vacation day.  This is a day meant for the hard work of painful remembrance.  This is a day to slog through the mud of the battlefields, the searing heat of the deserts, the dripping humidity of the jungles, the icy snowbanks of wintertime battle fronts.

I do not want to forget what it means to get up each morning clothed in liberty, and fall asleep each night without fear.  We are meant to cry this day, to weep over the loss of life over the generations, the losses in battles that continue to this day.

The cost of staying free must not bankrupt our souls even as it taxes our resources.   Once we forget, if even one of us forgets, then the battle comes…

View original 45 more words

Do You Remember?

“Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo? It’ll be spring soon. And the orchards will be in blossom. And the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields… and eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?”
―  J.R.R. Tolkien

In our despairing moments, we recollect and hold on to memories most precious to us, recalling what makes each moment, indeed life itself,  special and worthwhile.  It can be something so seemingly simple that becomes the most cherished and retrievable–the aroma of cinnamon in a warm kitchen, the splash of colors in a carefully tended garden spot, the cooing of mourning doves as light begins to dawn, the velvety soft of a newborn foal’s fur, the embrace of welcoming arms.

Today, as our family once again heads to two cemeteries to honor our dead, it is those simple things we will recall and treasure, pass on in stories, and never leave buried in the ground.  The legacy of these memories lives and thrives in the next and then the next generation, to be told and retold, not to rest, eventually to be forgotten, under a marker.

Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo?  Do you remember?

Slumber Undisturbed

Blazing sun bakes a lichen crust
atop a stone so feverish to touch
it becomes hearth without fire
reaching hot fingers deep
into soil supporting a box
that knows no warmth.

When windstorms rage
lightning crack and thunder clap
trembles anew the hole filled ground
as dying leaves spin and swirl
through arcing cascade into
settled and spent.

Till crisp hoarfrost clings
in glittering crystalline coverlet
from gray sky that throws down
soft cotton batting gently
fluffed to protect a slumber
undisturbed and silent.

Soon vernal raindrops bring
promise of quenched thirst
for dry bones lying suspended
between the welkin sky
and earth’s deep pit
to blossom finally in fullness.

The Grass Covers All

“I am the grass; I cover all….Let me work.”  Carl Sandburg

It is our family’s custom on Memorial Day weekend to meet my two siblings and their families for lunch before going to decorate the graves of our parents and my father’s family at a cemetery an hour from our home.    This is a pleasant tradition for the living to gather together over a meal and spend a few hours catching up, reminiscing and sharing a laugh or two, before making our journey to honor the dead.

The actual decorating of the graves is rather an anticlimax.  Once at the cemetery, it is not seemly to be laughing and carrying on.  It is usually quite busy with people coming and going, placing flags, hauling planted pots and large bouquets, scouring off the moss and lichens from the gravestones and trimming the long grass missed by the mowers.  Despite the hubbub and activity, there is a silent solemnity in the people carrying out their duty to their kin.  Only the soft sound of the breeze moving the leaves in the trees interrupts the profound stillness of the dead and departed, lying blanketed under a coverlet of grass.

Our father’s family lie together in the older part of the cemetery, which is poised high on a hill overlooking Puget Sound, with the Olympic Mountains to the west, the Canadian Rockies to the north and the Cascade range to the east.   It must have been quite the wilderness cemetery in 1910 when my great great grandfather Herman was buried there as the first of the clan to be placed in the ground west of the Mississippi.   I don’t know any family lore about Herman, so his secrets remain safe and undisturbed under the grass.  Not so with the rest of the family buried there.  They are exposed by their known personality traits, their mistakes and their accomplishments, but most remarkably by their relationships with each other, now sharing the same blanket as they lie within feet of each other for eternity.

Lying next to Herman is my great-grandfather Henry, a steam boat captain first on the Mississippi River, and later in life, on the Yukon River during the Gold Rush.  He was gone from home for months at a time, living his own life of adventure on the frontier while his meek wife Margaret tried to raise their two children alone.   Her influence couldn’t tame their son, Leslie, my grandfather, who got fed up with school and left home at age sixteen to work in the remote logging camps of northwest Washington.  There he learned to cuss hard and drink heavily, coming to town on occasion to carouse and visit his horrified mother and sister Marion.  Marion, a proper and somber girl,  finished school and went on to a teachers’ college now transformed to the regional university where I now work.   She became a dedicated school teacher, living with her mother long after her father’s death, and remaining unmarried all her life.  (See Great Aunt Marion )

Leslie eventually married my grandmother Kittie, a much younger woman, just a teenager,  much to the chagrin and disapproval of his parents and sister.     Their first child, my Aunt Betty,  later died of lymphoma at age seven, leaving Kittie bereft.

Betty lies between her parents now,  with Leslie to her left (see Repentance)  and Kittie to her right (See Drops of Sun).  Next to Kittie lies Marion in a proximity that never was possible in life as they could not tolerate the sight of each other so avoided ever being in the same room together.   Somehow, each year I expect to see the ground between them in upheaval, but in fact the grass has done its work, smoothing and settling the turmoil that once existed, but does no longer.  They peacefully share the grass coverlet.

My parents lie together in the same urn garden plot a few hundred yards away, sharing a marker that at one point in their married, then unmarried, then married again lives would not have seemed possible.

The old conflicts become less compelling from the darkness of the grave.  Why was so much energy spent on them while treading on top of the grass when they become meaningless to those sleeping under it?

Shovel them under and let me work”

Sleep Well


For my father on Memorial Day

It was always a part of what we knew about you-
Serving three long years in the South Pacific,
Spoken of obliquely
If asked about, but never really answered.

We knew you were a battalion leader
Knew you spent many nights without sleep,
Unsure if you’d see the dawn
Only to dread what the next day would bring.

We knew you lost friends
And your innocence;
Found unaccustomed strength
For the mama’s boy who cried too easily.

Somehow life had prepared you for this:
Pulling your daddy out of bars when you were ten
Watching him beat your mama
And finally getting big enough to stand in the way.

Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian beaches
Blood soaked battles won.
Now restored and recreated
As vacation resorts.

We let you go without knowing
Your full story–even Mom didn’t know.
You could not share the depth
Of horror and the fear you felt.

It was not shame that kept you silent but
Simply no need to revisit the pain
Of recollection.
It was done; it was finished, you had done your duty.

So as we set flowers and flag
On your grave, now reunited with Mom
I regret so many questions unasked and unanswered
Of a sacrifice beyond imagining.

Sleep well, Dad, with Mom now by your side.
I rejoice you both now wake to a new dawn.