When you consider that my last weekend was spent traveling to, attending and leaving from a memorial service, the topic of joy may seem rather obtuse. Still, I have been considering if joy might be a part of sadness.
I accompanied my mother down to the coast on Friday and attended the memorial on Saturday morning. Part of the planning for this occasion was for my mother’s extended family – people I grew up seeing annually – to have yet another reunion, despite the dwindling members of her generation. I hoped that part of the day would bring a certain restful feeling – one of encircling the whole once again.
One of my second cousins – a man barely 18 months older than I – died in August, alone and tragically, from a cruel and fast moving infection. It had been years since I last saw him. He was only 54. He was a good man, the kind some on the east coast would call, “a real prince.” An incredible surfer, a skilled mechanic who doctored ailing light rail cars, a musician, a fisherman, and a person possessed of a fine, fine mind. He was decent, kind and engaged in a life he loved. I think when he died he knew that he had lived fully. He had done what he most wanted, what most delighted him. I am thinking that a life possessed of delight is a form of joy.
Danny is the middle child of one of my mother’s first cousins. I make no bones about the fact that I adore her. She is witty, eccentric, companionable, and like all three of her children, whip smart. I cannot express how much it annoys me that she is aging! There are few people I like as much. And, I found it heartbreaking to know that she had lost a child. But, above all, I believe in her resilience. And, while I believe in it, I know there are times when resilience cannot carry us any further. And so I pray for her to be well.
There are distinct memories in the company of this family. We had great fun in the fisherman’s shack-cum-beach-house (ha! ha!) that had belonged to Danny’s grandfather. My family joined theirs for vacations years ago. Crabbing, looking for shells, hot dogs on the beach in the dark by firelight. All of this was slow time.
The drive from home to the coast is about three to four hours, depending. We took mostly the state highways, which took us through the towns I had ridden through as a child on my way to my grandparents’ house. My mother wanted to go through her hometown, although not past her childhood home, which is quite run down. There are big doings around this tiny county seat. The oil companies have come to drill – or to frack – as they call it. We found it worrisome, but that’s a discussion for a different forum.
Some of the best things I saw – even though one or two were bittersweet – were “of the land.” We passed through a ghost town – a place that had once been a little farming community with the name Zorn. Years ago I met a guy who was born there. He talked about how it didn’t really exist anymore and we laughed. I didn’t laugh this time, but I remembered how I counted down the towns as we closed in on my mother’s hometown, closer and closer. One town we passed through has a statue of a huge pecan. I call it “The Big Pecan.” It’s still there. Recently they made it even bigger! It still makes me laugh and smile. I just love that silly old statue.
The land spreads out flatter and flatter as we descend from hills to coast. The hills smooth back and flood plains change as we approach sea level. How can I explain in a bit of storytelling the feelings of memory in the bone that make me feel a sense of ease when I travel this way? It is one of my greatest joys – to recall the binding of land and family, to know deep inside the stories of love and poverty, of frugality and eccentricity, and of laughter and memory.
In town – my mother’s – the county courthouse had a tattered look about it and it is clear that a long time ago some particularly brilliant someone had decided to stucco over the brick and sandstone façade, to wall off doorways and remove big heavy doors. But, the state had planted a large wooden sign in front and said it was the next of the historic county courthouses to be restored. This was a special moment for me – a moment which felt a lot like that definition of joy. I love historical buildings and this one has particular meaning for me. I walked around the perimeter of the building. Perhaps the funniest moment came when I saw a paper sign in the window that said, “Due to ceiling falling, please access all offices outside to new annex building.” I laughed and laughed. I was glad the courthouse was still there – so many other things were long gone.
We talked about the past. My mother recalled her aunts and uncles as very social people, full of laughter and fun. These were my grandfather’s people, the ones I have loved so fiercely through all the years of my life. Their commitment to one another and their families was not just a matter of love, but also of necessity. An agrarian life is a hard life. When it is set next to an economic depression that decimated so many farms and families 70 to 80 years ago, the fact that their descendants still live there today, many doing the same things, is an amazing thing…a spiritual thing.
If I were honest, I probably wouldn’t choose that life. Nor would I be a fisherman or a surfer, like Danny. But I love what I encounter when I come back to these places. In trips like these – despite the sadness that made this one necessary – I travel and remember the feeling of belonging in this place, in this state, to this family at this time. And luckily, because it is a feeling that is deeply bound and knitted into me; it cannot be taken.
If joy is slow food, then this road that I have traveled so many times has created joy that is indeed a savored thing. And this makes me feel I can find my way for a while. That the memory of all that has been, of the land and the stories can create a joyful noise in my heart.