Tuesday, October 11, 2016


Photo by Dyan Millsaps Shirley. All rights reserved. 

In July, Karen, my aunt and godmother, died.

The cemetery in July is blindingly hot and bright, with sunshine reflecting off white curtains of swift wind-driven clouds, and off Missouri farm hillsides so rustling and vibrant with growth they sigh and gleam like the flanks of living animals.

The day we laid her to rest was just like that. The heat and light were brutal, especially when grief-- the collective grief of husband and daughters and grandchildren, sisters and cousins, friends and townspeople-- made us all wan and weak in the face of our loss.

Even so I could not think, if such a cruel thing had to be endured, that it could happen at any other time of the year. Karen was a farmer and the wife of a farmer. She loved the land and all good green growing things. She was at her happiest then, it always seemed, and it was then that she was in her element. In that sense it was a blessing we were able to say our goodbyes to her with that high and handsome land all around, in the fullness of the summer season.

She had two daughters and eight nieces and nephews, and she had a heart big enough to mother us all. She spent so much of her life in July and other months too, welcoming us up the gravel driveway to the farm, cooking and baking for us, sending us to the hen house, helping us find the new kittens, picking hay out of our hair, making us wash our dirty bare feet at the back door hose, scolding us, patting our backs, making dresses for our dances and quilts for our beds. It was only right that we all made it back for her one more time, and we did. I wish we'd done it more often in recent years, but we made the big mistake of growing up, and the intricacies of our own adult lives carried us down that gravel road, but not back. I suppose this is what grief is mostly made up of. Regret.

She had the elegant shoulders of a slender 1930s movie star, but she wore plaid short-sleeved shirts and jeans and sneakers and perpetually carried enamel pans, full of vegetables for dinner that night or cherries for canning or kitchen scraps for the hogs. Her garden was eternally enormous, and with every passing year more and more flowers--cleome and cosmos and sunflowers--budged in with the asparagus and tomatoes and beans. It grew a little wilder too, with the neat rows of the past run a little ragged and butterflies, barn swallows, and martins skimming the air. It wasn't a competition in her mind, though. Earthy potatoes and full-blown roses both held equal glory in her worldview.

Because Aunt Karen never passed up a moment to notice. Beauty. Creation. Good things. She pointed out bluebird nests, or strawberry blossoms, or wildflowers under the oak trees in the pasture, or a new baby calf, or the dark gloss of healthy midsummer corn. "Just look at that. Look at that. Isn't that pretty?" Being with her was a near constant invitation to notice the fine things contained in the everyday. It didn't ever occur to me that my whole life she was gently teaching me the most important lesson of all. Not that tired concept of "gratitude", which speaks so much of obligation; but the vocabulary of an open heart, words that we could all use more of in our increasingly cynical world. Wonder. Fascination. Joy.

I have always loved gardening--thanks, of course, to her-- and now it has become my solace in grieving her. I feel near her there, digging in the dirt. I thought of her days after her death, when my dirty fingers patted neatly-petaled globes of zinnias. I thought of her weeks later, when I filled up the bird bath. I thought of her in August, when I was stooped head and shoulders into the tomato patch, filling the giant stainless steel mixing bowl with them. I think of her every time a hummingbird flits too close, bravery inversely proportional to emerald size. Now bees and butterflies swarm the asters in October, and still I'm thinking of her.

But thinking of my aunt only carries me so far. Even the stories I could tell others, and I could tell plenty, will bear fainter and fainter witness as the years pass from this sad July. In the end, I think the only way to really honor the aunt I miss so much is to absorb parts of her, sink the good I knew of her into the marrow of my bones, so that those things I loved about her become an actual part of me. And for her, to honor her, I'm going to touch the shoulder of the person next to me when I see a pink sunset, a fat bumblebee, a sparkly stream, and invite them the way Aunt Karen did, to see with an open heart. Just look. Look at that.