It used to be that we, my mom’s family, would gather to spend the long summers at the farm in Little Falls. If you came the Bowlus way, if you knew the Bowlus way, you’d take a right after crossing the the bridge at Swan river, a bridge so short that in one breath you were across, and you’d turn onto the long sandy road, winding past the alfalfa sweetening in the fields. And before the car was shut off, Grandma was coming out the door in her loose, cotton housedress and Grandpa was coming in from the garden, the rows of days caked on the knees of his work pants. If you were one of the last ones to arrive, more people poured out of that tiny house, aunts and uncles and cousins.
We don’t go there anymore. The house with its one bedroom, one bathroom, kitchen, living room, and porch, has been razed. So has the garage. The flower garden that overflowed its foundation is overgrown with prairie grass. The peonies still come up but leave too soon. The tiger lilies by the bank of the Mississippi, they stay. And the smokehouse is still there.
Now, every couple of years for a few days, we go to St. John’s in Collegeville. This is where my uncle, Rene, lives.
We are here because Brian and Geraldine, and Luca are over from London. We sleep in the dorms on hard mattresses, Fred Flintstone beds, Brian calls them. We swim in the lake. We smell the roses wild in the fields. We sit around, always a circle, and talk. We listen. We laugh. Grandma would have called this visiting.
On Sunday, our last day, we walk to the cemetery. Joe and Sharon, tired already in anticipation of heading back to Illinois, drive.
There, Grandma and Grandpa lie side by side in their twin beds. Pat and Bud rest in the mausoleum, a wall of tiny apartments. Joe and Sharon, Mary, Bill, Sheila and David, have already reserved their residences in this building.
And as we leave, some raindrops fall. I hadn’t even noticed the sky. The boys, Ian, Pook, and Luca, take their measure of comfort in Joe and Sharon’s car. Then the rain comes faster. I huddle with Rene and my aunt, Mary, around a bush. Sharp and sudden, the wind shifts, blowing hard as if it wants to sweep us up, and the rain wails against us. Then all is soft, like a good poem.
I have been shuffled to the other side of the bush. I am not getting wet. I am not feeling the wind. I notice the bush is a lilac. Rene and Mary shelter me completely. It’s been so long since I’ve been the protected rather than the protector that it feels strange. But I don’t fight it. I fall into it.
The rains stops and we emerge. My brother, Brian, is standing in the middle of the cemetery road, composed, unfazed, as if he’d disappeared and reappeared at will. My sister-in-law, Geraldine, is across the field by an oak tree. She waves. She smiles. She’s Irish. And my brother, Mike, has made it to the main road by the lake. Maybe the wind did sweep him up.
As we walk back, we’re all smiling from the rain and from the lingering refuge of Rene’s sermon this morning.
He began with Rilke’s I Am the Rest Between Two Notes.
…which are somehow always in discord
…And the song goes on, beautiful.
What we wrestle with and against, choice or fate, life or death, all this he talked about, as a poet’s heart will. And I remember last night at the restaurant, the one on the Sauk river, the one with all the ducks and geese, Ian and I watched a woman through the window. She was young and she carried a princess purse. Her shirt was fuchsia and her underwear were turquoise. I know that because she couldn’t keep her pants up. Sorrow was how she walked and sat and stood. Later, when we went outside and I didn’t have any quarters to buy corn to feed the ducks, I gave the boys pennies instead, to toss into the river and make a wish.
Ian said to me, “Mama, do you know what I wished for?”
“I wished for that lady to have a happy life.”
And the song goes on, beautiful.