After my father’s memorial service in Grand Junction, Colo., this May, we gathered in the parking lot. It was morning, and already warmer than it would be later at the cemetery in the mountains near Telluride, and warmer than it would be all summer at my home in Homer, Alaska.
The church parking lot was full of my uncles and aunts and cousins. We were driving, caravan-style, to deliver his ashes to Wilson Mesa, just outside of Telluride in western Colorado. It was there that his grandmother was buried, where his family had homesteaded, where no one in my family could possibly afford to live now.
The heavy-hearted drive up and into the mountains was beautiful, which only made things worse, because I mourned not only my father’s death at 68, but also my absence from Colorado. Home was everywhere around me. The land pulled my heart to the ground with magnetic force whispering, “This is where you belong.” The angle of the sun, the way the high-elevation air, cool and warm at the same time, hits my lungs, all so familiar. “Why have you wandered so far?” the country demands.
I never have a good answer.
The snow had just recently melted away from the old, fenced-in graveyard. It is placed on a hillside to allow the dead a view of snow-topped mountains and a ranch where Marlboro cigarette commercials were once made. The place looks authentic, with weatherworn fence posts, a herd of cows, some horses and an old house.
I know why my dad chose this place to rest: It’s a picture of the Colorado he loved and knew, a reminder of his boyhood. The youngest of eight children, he’d catch 20 brook trout in an afternoon to bring home for dinner.
Forty of us made the two-hour drive, and when we were all assembled, dad’s oldest brother David, a long-time preacher, said a few words. But what he called a few words turned into a sermon about hell and how we were all headed there if we didn’t believe. I stared at the ground, at my sandaled feet burning pink in the direct sun, glancing sideways toward my adolescent children to make sure they were all right. They looked uncomfortable, like they wanted to flee.
For some reason, my uncle didn’t talk about my dad, about his kindness, his love of gardening, his pack mules. There was no mention of the joy he found in his grandchildren or in fresh valley peaches. His sermon gave us no comfort when we needed it most. Now the sadness grew for losing my father, for homesickness, for my children hearing this diatribe, for the ruin of a beautiful moment in a beautiful place. I listened in disbelief, and the sadness changed shape into a rich and potent anger, an emotion I didn’t want on this day reserved for mourning.
My stepmother poured his ashes out next to my great-grandmother’s head stone. Lavonia Belle Duckett was her name, and I’d heard about her hard life up on the mesa when food was running low and the snow was deep. She probably would have chosen an easier path had there been one. I wish I’d known her. I wanted to ask: Did the beauty of the place make up for the hardship?
A lot of us lingered—my sisters and their families, my brother and his new wife, my children, my husband, my stepmother. We stood by Lavonia’s grave on the hillside as the ashes settled.
I played a song on my fiddle—“Amazing Grace”—the same song I’d played a few days earlier over the phone for my father as he lay dying. The hymn transported me back to where I needed to be—to a place of sadness and beauty. It brought me back to the family who knew him best; his slow meandering ways, his tendency to fall asleep sometimes when you were talking to him, the way he held on to his regrets but always dreamed about his next move, and the way he always kept one foot lodged firmly in the past, clinging to a time when rural folks paid their friends and family unexpected visits, and lingered over homemade pie and coffee.
Teresa Sundmark is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She works in a library in Homer, Alaska.