When we leave Burlington, heading north on Highway 61, a familiar feeling begins to settle in my bones. Sinking deeper into the car seat, my hips seem to lean, curve and dip in a synchronous, swaying dance with the Iowa landscape—gently rolling hills, icy creek beds, patches of timber, and the dry, hollow, browns and grays of dead winter cornfields that reach out to meet the horizon. This is a path I know. Cellular memory, I think. The feeling becomes even more profound as we leave Mediapolis and travel the stretch of road to the turn at Highway 78 that goes to Morning Sun, and on, straight north, to Wapello.
It is January, and we are traveling to Wapello, my home town, to attend the funeral of my dad’s cousin, June. My husband, Marshal, is driving, and my dad, Warren, is sitting beside him. June, at 76, has passed on and Warren, only three years younger, is the ghost of his former self. Diabetes has taken all of his toes and part of one foot. His gift for conversation is gone, and he can’t remember much. His legs are like sticks, and he can barely walk. But our day is for Warren, who grew up with June and loved her, as we all did. Our day is for Grandpa Verne, too, my dad’s father, who died twenty years ago this October. June was the first born of his younger and favorite brother, Bill, who died of a heart attack as a young man, two years before I was born. Though I never knew Uncle Bill, he has always been present to me, loved by the ones I myself so deeply loved.
I have heard it said that Grandpa Verne was like a second father to June. Knowing what I know of both of them, this makes sense. Grandpa Verne and June were Wilsons—black-haired, freckled, sturdy Iowa folk who made their living with their hands. They laughed easily, smiled with true warmth, and knew that life could bring terrible trials but loved it anyway. “There are a lot worse things than being poor,” Grandpa Verne used to tell me when I was a kid, and his big bear-hug let a small girl know that being unloved would never be one of them. June was the same. Neither wasted their time on those weak, loose-armed, taping-you-on-the-shoulder type gestures that you might get from one the Blanchards, my grandma’s family. Verne and June would wrap their arms around you and give you the Wilson hug, a squeeze with some real force behind it. Even though we lost Grandpa a generation ago, I feel that he is here with us. Next to me is Emily, my eight-year-old daughter. The day is for her, too. I want to show her more about the pull of the past, the soul of our family and our deep ties to each other and the place we came from. And the day is for me. I am here to honor June and to feel those things, too.
Emily has met June but doesn’t really remember her. We have missed the last several family reunions, and the last time I saw June she gently, but with a tone part pleading, part disappointed, told me that I really should try to come to the next reunion. This wasn’t the first time she had said this, and on this day I feel regret. I used to go to the reunion every year. Then it always fell on a week that we were headed to Michigan. Last year, I was just too busy. That was August, and between September and now January, June, who was fighting leukemia, became progressively more ill. We knew she was sick, but we didn’t know how sick. My dad, who suffers from dementia and what seems like a blunted response to the world, is in shock. We all are.
As we pass Mediapolis, I think about Grandpa Cy, my mom’s dad, who used to say, “This is the richest farm land in the world. Black loam.” When I was young, we’d go on drives in the country, and he would point his long index finger out the car window at certain patches of ground and tell me which were the best and which were sandy. In later years, I started watching the road instead of the view because the Volare would tend to swerve in the direction of his more emphatic gestures and declarations. When I was seventeen, partly as an act of self-preservation, I started driving the car.
I think Grandpa Cy wanted me to remember those side roads, to be able to draw a map of Southeast Iowa’s agricultural terrain, but now, on the cusp of age fifty and sitting here in the back seat with my daughter, the map is all internal, marked by story. Here is Dead Man’s Curve, north of Mediapolis on Highway 61. Once when Grandpa Cy was a young man, he was in a wreck there. Two drunk men in the other car died. The story is bare fact; no one has calculated the long-term damage to a man whose car killed other men. Here is Highway 78 at Newport, the turn-off to Morning Sun. My brother still lives on top of Pork Chop Hill, so christened in the 1950s by Grandpa’s close friend Ralph Haight because Cy used to raise hogs up there. I picture in my mind’s eye the turn into Morning Sun and the drive across town to the small, white house where Grandpa Verne and Grandma Nellie lived on the northwest corner of town, the place I loved best in the world until it sold at auction in 1994 after they had both passed on.
As the truck rolls toward Wapello, Marshal asks me from the front seat about the hill coming up—is this Pork Chop Hill? No, this is Jamison Hill, I say. Now it’s been carved and trimmed down to create the new highway, but if I close my eyes hard enough I can still look there and see the past. Grandpa Cy and Grandma Marie farmed on the top of Jamison Hill during the Depression, after they had lost one baby to forceps and all of their money to the Depression. I picture a black-and-white scene: a man and a woman whose faces wear rough edges, their bodies ragged clothes. I picture their two small children, Jack and Janet, and the winter they lived on canned tomatoes and corn bread. I think about Grandpa Cy, who even in later, more prosperous years, warned his youngest daughter, my mom, that they needed to “keep the wolf from the door.”
As we drive along, Marshal recalls his favorite story about June. On a bright, warm July day in 1994, we and what seemed like the whole town of Morning Sun assembled at an auction to sell off Grandpa Verne and Grandma Nellie’s worldly goods—old knives and tools, the kids’ Little Golden Books, Grandma’s step stool, the cupboard from the Iowa Ordinance Plant, an ancient plug-in Christmas tree with the bulbs attached. From the outer edges of the bidding circle, June and I looked up at the same moment and realized that we were both raising our hands for Grandma Blanchard’s tall wicker sewing box on bamboo legs. About thirty years earlier, Grandma had carried that basket from her mother’s house, and it sat for as long as I can remember between the two Lazy Boys in their long living room. I can picture now Grandma reaching in for needle and thread to darn socks or repair Grandpa’s work shirts. It wasn’t until the sewing box got to about ten dollars that June and I looked up and realized that we were bidding against each other. We both froze, and the ring went silent. I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was you passed between us as the auctioneer, one of the Delzell brothers, waited. I waved a “no” across my chest to let her know that I wouldn’t continue. “I just want it to go to someone in the family,” I said. June looked me in the eye, wanting to make sure, while Delzell grumbled aloud about how this wasn’t how bidding at an auction was supposed to work. But this was a Grandpa-Verne-style transaction all the way. I recall him shaking his head and saying that he never wanted his family to fight over his stuff. The Delzells, a local family auction-company and car-dealer dynasty, are the monied class of Morning Sun. The Wilsons are more just folks. The outcome of the auction tells this tale: the whole take is about $9,000, not including the house that also goes for a song. June wins the sewing box for twelve dollars. We are both happy and I think the matter is closed until she gives it me for a wedding present the following August. That was almost eighteen years ago. The wicker on that box is a little shredded, and the inside smells a little dampish. From time to time, I think about throwing it away, but I don’t.
When we get to the church, we begin the long process of helping my dad out of the truck and across the street. He is dressed up in jeans--usually he wears overalls or sweat pants--and a plaid short-sleeved shirt. His legs are bent, and he drags his feet, what’s left of them, while he walks. He reminds me of the nascent scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, all wobbly, like a breeze from a nearby cornfield could knock him off his feet. I walk behind or beside him with one arm at the ready, my body forming a kind of net, waiting for him to come down any minute. He seems so frail, and I wonder that he can be here at all. And yet, he is. And I can’t think of much that would have kept him away.
Once across the street, we are approached by a middle-aged man in a navy blue suit. His dark shock of hair is fringed in white, and he is wearing a gut that is as big as his smile. At first I have no idea who he is, but then it takes me about three seconds of looking into his face to realize it’s Gordon. June and Don raised four sons, and Gordon is the next-to-youngest, one or two years older than I. He used to be slack-jawed and skinny as a rail, a laughing guy who wore shaggy dark brown hair and a look of mild, lazy-eyed mockery, a “bad boy” who broke rules. We didn't hang around with the same people in high school, so I hardly knew him. Now that doesn’t matter. It’s the pull of the blood. He stretches out his arms to hug us and says, “Hello, Wilsons!” He is ebullient. We hug each other. When I reach across his neck and whisper that I am sorry for his loss, he says, “She’s in peace now,” and means it.
Inside the church, I am keeping one eye on my dad--who is crookedly ambling his way to sign the book--and one eye on the coffin, where I see June but am not yet ready to look. It is strange to see her there. June was always, always, full of life, busy, strong. She raised those four boys and, beginning in 1973, owned her own business, Wapello Fabrications, making those huge nylon jumping domes that children play in at the carnival. She is known about town as a successful business woman as well as for her friendliness, her smiles and her hugs. She is also a dedicated member of the local Methodist Church. During her funeral, we learn that in recent years when her back pain got so bad that she couldn’t sit down, she went to church every Sunday and stood to hear the service. I never once heard June talk about her religion, but she was a Christian--the Jesus kind. She was the type of woman who would give you one of those hugs, you know, like she meant it, then look into your eyes as she asked how you were, how you really were. Like instead of saying, “fine,” you could say, “I’ve been working on kicking my crack habit,” and she would hug you even harder, look even deeper into your eyes, and ask with love and concern how that was going.
The Wilsons—Grandpa Verne, his sisters, twins, Aunt Lorna and Norma, my brother Darren, my second cousins Nancy and Jacque— have never been ones to stand above other people’s hard truths. At the last funeral, Nancy and Jacque laughed about how they know it’s time to move to a new house again when their ovens need to be cleaned. It’s a joke, of course, but since everybody’s oven is dirty, we don’t have to pretend. That’s one of the best parts about this family. Eventually, I go look at June in the coffin, but I can’t really see her. That face was never still, those hands never folded. Death does not lie convincingly on her.
After the service, we travel to the burial in Oakville, twelve miles away. It’s a cold day, but it’s sunny. There’s been discussion about what to do about my dad during the service at the gravesite, and I am nervous, trying to run through the possibilities in my head. Will he be able to walk to the grave? As always, there’s a tension between what I expect he will want to do and what I think he can and should do. For me, there’s the added complication that he’s my dad, and he’s never been too keen on the idea of me acting like a parent. My step-mom Bev has advised that he should stay in the truck, but I anticipate that he won’t go for that. Not when it’s June. No way. So I’m trying to think ahead. As our truck climbs the tree-lined bluff, the vegetation brown-gray and brittle as we reach the sharp turn at the top, I realize that I’ve been here before, many times. Grandpa Verne and Grandma Nellie used to take Darren and me on an annual trip to at least four cemeteries on “Decoration Day.” Grandma used to cut peonies out of her garden and wrap them in two layers-- first, a damp paper towel and, then, aluminum foil. Nobody ever pointed out that those flowers would be wilted by the next day. Nobody even thought it. The flowers expressed the ordinary person’s remembrance of the dead. The ritual was all.
This cemetery is called “Edwards,” a name I don’t recall, but, again, my hips lean into the curve of the road and feel the lift of the truck as we lurch onto the top of the hill towards a white-fence entrance. For the life of me, though, I can’t think whose grave, or graves, we came here to decorate. Most of our family is buried around Wapello and Morning Sun, not Oakville. Suddenly, I remember Annette Charbonneau, a girl from Grandma’s second grade class at Oakville Elementary. When she was fourteen, a freshman, she died in a car accident during high school open lunch. Could it be that we came here every year for Annette’s grave? I can’t remember, but this feels like truth to me. I think of a small cardboard box of sea shells that Grandma kept until she died; Annette brought them to her after her family took a trip to a warmer and sunnier climate. Grandma used a permanent marker to neatly record Annette’s name and, as was her custom, a short narrative about the gift of the shells and the death. After Grandma died, I hung on to the box and the shells for her. When I ask out loud, “I wonder whose graves we visited here with Grandma and Grandpa?” my dad answers from the front seat, “Maybe June would know.” He has forgotten that June is dead, but she is on his mind.
My mind jerks me back to the problem at hand. Marshal is pulling in to park the truck by the white fence at the entrance, but the blue tent where the mourners are gathering is a long way away. I see a couple of vehicles parked inside, so I ask him to head that way, to get as close to the tent as possible. After all the forethought, the precautions, the doubts about him being able to be there for the graveside service, I want to make it happen for him. We park as close as possible and start ambling forward. The space under the tent is already packed with people; Cordell Hagele, the funeral director, who has presided over the funeral arrangements for practically every deceased person I know—three of my grandparents; my mom’s sister, Aunt Janet ; two of Grandma Nellie’s brothers, Marion and Bob, who outlived her by more than a decade. In my early forties, I came here to hear one of my favorite high school teachers, Gary Pickering, give the eulogy for my childhood friend and classmate, Steve Poe, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack. A few years after that, I came here for the funeral of Mr. Pickering, who died in much the same way.
Cordell is waving us into the tent, but my dad is still far behind. Everyone is waiting. All the seats in the small row under the small shelter are taken up with immediate family, as is the custom. I sidle up next to another funeral home officiant and say that I am concerned that my dad won’t be able to stand for the service, even if it is short. He and I are thinking together. He asks if maybe he can put down the back end of the hearse for him to sit on. Would that freak him out? No, I say, but I am worried. The hearse is some distance from the tent and it just seems wrong. He won’t be with the group, and he won’t be able to hear. My dad is shuffling along, with my brother Darren on one elbow and Marshal on the other. As he gets closer to the tent, I continue to mull over the potential hearse-as-seat, seemingly the only option at this point.
Suddenly, Gordon, who is seated on the edge of that front row under the tent, pops out of his chair and steps toward my dad. “I saved a seat for you, Warren!” he says, in that joyful, welcoming, ebullient way of his. Suddenly all the anxiety falls away when I realize that Gordon the trouble-maker, the rule-breaker, the second cousin I barely know, is breaking the rule that says Only Immediate Family Sit in Those Chairs. It seems like a grand gesture. I am moved to tears. I look over and see tears in Darren’s eyes, too. I hug Gordon and whisper, “Thank you.” He laughs and whispers back, “Well, it would have been kind of mean if I hadn’t, wouldn’t it?” To me, the act of giving up his seat at the side of his mother’s grave seems like a magnificent sacrifice, but when I look into his eyes, I see that to him it’s nothing—it’s a friendly gesture. Wilson-style. There is so much kindness in him, like there was in his mom. She would have done the same, I think.
About the author:
Jacqueline Wilson-Jordan is a native of rural Southeast Iowa, near the Mississippi River. She has taught composition and literature for over twenty years, and currently coordinates and teaches Basic Writing at Western Illinois University. She has previously published on the American Short Story--Edith Wharton, Joyce Carol Oates, Nathaniel Hawthorne and others. She enjoys spending time with her family, playing and singing folk music, and raising three rescue dogs.