In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked away in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.
Going west on Highway 2, Mom turns onto the gravel lane that leads to the split-level house that sits on the acreage where Francine lives. Lately, Mom is spending lots of time with Francine. Most times, Pamela joins them. Sometimes, as is the case today, I come along.
The ladies of the United Methodist Church of Corydon, Iowa are committed to delivering 15 quilts to the Bidwell Riverside Center by month’s end. Mildred, as Mildred is wont to do, directs the effort. In typical Mildred fashion, she has 35 quilters and 6 alternates, each assigned to one of 15 teams. With each team sewing one quilt.
Mom and Francine are on the same team. The tone-on-tone quilt they are sewing, as Mildred reminds them every day, is behind schedule. Eager to silence Mildred, Mom and Francine plan to get their quilt back on track this afternoon. I tagged along so I can spend the afternoon at the reservoir directly south of Francine’s place.
I help Mom and Pamela unload the sewing supplies and quilt from the car. Inside the house, I fidget while she and Francine discuss blocks, batting, borders, and bindings. When they spread out their quilt and start threading needles, I can barely contain myself. At the moment they start talking about Mildred, my fidgeting gets the better of me. I say, “Mom, may I please go—now?”
Having accepted, and reciprocated, Mom’s “I love you,” I make a dutiful son’s “promise to be safe” then head to the back door. Where, as I attempt to make my grand escape, Julie, Francine’s niece from Ontario, captures me. In one breath she says, “What’re you doing? Where are you going? Can I come along? Let’s go!” So we do.
Walking down the lane with Julie, I realize that anyone seeing us would have reason to chuckle. Here is Julie, in blue plaid denim shorts, red-and white blouse, and ringlets struggling to keep up with my lankiness, cutoff jeans, and buzz cut. Back at the house, Julie’s Aunt Francine and Mom are peeking out a window. I see them and they are not chuckling. Instead, their smiles say, “Mission accomplished.”
Across the highway, a trail runs parallel to the eastern edge of the reservoir. Walking along it, I proudly point to the tadpoles in a backwater pool. Further on, when we encounter a muskrat swimming along the shoreline, I explain to Julie that its narrow eyes, sloped ears, and webbed rear feet make it maneuverable and fast. When the trail, turning southeasterly, goes into the woods, I show her a hawk, perched on limb that is waiting for his lunch.
As we walk, Julie takes cautious steps. She does her best not to get dirty. All eyes and ears, she humors me when I hold forth on various plants and animals. Never once does she ask where am I taking her. If she had, I would say, “To my fort.”
At the edge of the woods, rests the Corydon cemetery. Near its far end, in the woods, is my fort. Following the trail through the woods will get us there but takes longer than does cutting through the cemetery. So although the cemetery makes me feel creepy, eager to show Julie my fort, I opt for the cemetery route.
Stepping into the cemetery, I walk faster knowing that if Julie were not with me I would, as I usually do, run, not walk past the stones and monuments. Walking fast I look to my right and then my left sides. Whoa, Julie where are you? I look back. There, Julie stands, solemnly looking at a stone—Glen “Bill” Hayhurst 1870-1949 and Eva Marie Hayhurst 1873-1959.
I walk back to Julie. Stand by her for a minute. Then, say, “What’re you thinking?”
Touching the stone, Julie says, “Who is here? What’s their story?” As she runs her index finger across the inscription, I tell Julie what I know about Mrs. Hayhurst. Dad visited her when she was ill, and had her service when she died. That she was a church lady, Mildred gave the eulogy at her funeral, and Aunt Francine and Mom served dinner afterwards.
Julie goes from stone to stone. She stops at one. Touches it. Reverently runs her finger across the name inscribed on it. As she does, I see she silently speaks the name Then stops at another stone, and another. I am puzzled. Sensing this, she says, “Lest they be forgotten, I’m giving life to the memory of each person here.” Bewildered, I wonder what the heck this means?
When Julie stops at Mary Alice Robertson 1939-1952, Beloved Daughter. I think about my sister Pamela. She will be 13, Mary Alice’s age, this coming October. Pamela’s seizures are coming more often. Each shakes her fragile existence.
Heading on to the fort, thoughts about life, death, fragility, nature, and Pamela pulsate through my head. Once there, I proudly show off my fort—a three-sided lean-to structure, fire-pit, and perimeter fence replete with booby-traps and snares. I invite Julie to sit by the pit. I offer her half of my somewhat smooshed snickers bar and a swig of water from the canteen. As Julie, take itty-bitty bites of her half of the bar, she says, “So, Mark Edward, what happens when people die?”
With every bit of my half of the candy bar in my mouth, I struggle to swallow. Unable to answer, I shuffle my feet. A few tense moments later, eyes looking downward, I say, “Excuse me.” Then go sit at the gigantic base of a nearby elm tree. I think of the dead people I know—Grandma Weston, Mrs. Baines, Dr. Lindsey, and my neighbor Mrs. Baker. I recall my dog Mitzi, killed by a truck. And, of course I think about Pamela, as I so often do, around whom death seems to hover. Tears well up in my eyes, once flowing, they do not want to stop.
I am not sure how long I sit here deep in thought before I realize that Julie is sitting beside me, her arm intertwined with mine, her chin resting on my shoulder. After sitting this way for quite some time, Julie breaks the silence. She says, “I’m sorry about all of this. Are you ok?” To which I softly reply, “Yep.” Julie, unconvinced, says, “Hey, Mark Edward, why don’t you take me swimming tomorrow?”
With this my yep becomes a YEP, and she, little Julie, pulls me up by my arm, then says, “We need to go home.” And, looking me straight in the eyes, she shoves me against the giant elm—hard—and starts running toward her Aunt Francine’s place. I race after her.
On this trip to Heartland memories of a young friend, our walk in the woods, and the time we spend in the Corydon cemetery greet me. It reminds me how I share my active, carefree, and natural side with her. And she shares her sensitive, sympathetic, and empathic side with me. We help each other go deeper—into nature and ourselves. Individually we are different, together complete. Much as the blocks, batting, borders, and bindings come together in the quilt Mom and Francine are making.
As I revisit this memory, I understand that Julie’s wonderings in the cemetery force me to go deep inside myself to a raw place I have never been. What I touch there helps me become more complete. That completeness, as I later learn, is what helps me handle the challenge that awaits Pamela and I. It is the thread that holds the quilt of my life together.
Note: This is the 17th post in the Heartland Series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.