This was not entirely a surprise. Aunt Eunice (my dad's aunt on his mother's side) was 97 and a few months back had broken a hip. She had been poorly (as they say down home) ever since. And now she was gone.
The funeral was two days later, down in Greenup, down in my dad's homeland. I was able to join Dad and my youngest brother, Mark, for the trip down.
I am so grateful I could.
"Quality time," and by that I mean not hemmed in by other demands, quiet enough to concentrate on one another time, with Dad or Mark is hard to come by. Mark has a busy life, I have a busy life, Dad, for being 79, has a busy life. So just the three hour drive down Route 23 was a gift. We talked, we shared memories, we were quiet together.
It was raining lightly in Greenup when we parked at the funeral home. We all three more or less hop-skipped the puddles in the driveway and entered the building.
Walking in, I was facing a wall of family. "The cousins"—Dad's cousins, really, but folk we always called our cousins too—were there in full force, some in the lobby, some in the big room. Cousin Sharon, Eunice's daughter, came over and hugged me. Cousin Judy, Helen's daughter, knew me because I walked in with Dad.
Then I saw my cousin Sandra Kay, "Sandy" now. We pointed at one another across the lobby, then met and hugged hard. "I miss you so much," I blurted out.
Sandra Kay is older than me by a few years. We saw a lot of each other growing up, as my family would often travel to Greenup to see my great-grandmother, who lived in a little three room dollhouse on the edge of the property owned by Sandra Kay's parents (Aunt Helen and her husband). Back then, Sandra Kay lorded her age and maturity over me every chance she got.
Now those years are not so big a gulf. In fact, now those years are not a gulf at all, hence our hard hugs.
For the entire two hours of the calling hours, there was a lot of catching up to do with a lot of family. I bent down to talk to Uncle Burl, the baby of a large family that is down to him now that his sister Eunice is gone. Burl was always my favorite, a tall, handsome man with a honey smooth voice and a knack for storytelling. Now Uncle Burl is bent by age and Parkinson's, and his voice, always so strong, is so soft you have to bend close to hear him. His illness causes him to carefully thread together his sentences, so it was a slow conversation. But flashes of his smile would play across his face, and he told me and Mark, who'd also stooped down to talk, a story about his father, our great-grandfather, that I had not heard before.
After the funeral service, about half of us drove out Route 2 to the Gullett family cemetery. It is not unusual in Kentucky for the old-time families to have small cemeteries, usually started well back in the 1800s, atop this or that hill. I had not been up to the Gullett cemetery before but it was like the Nelson one a few hills away: to get to the top meant a long walk up a steep dirt road.
The cemetery was small and somewhat overgrown. Uncle Burl used to maintain it, but doing so has been beyond his capacity for some time. Still, we had no trouble walking around looking at headstones. My great-grandmother Gullett is there, as is her husband, my great-grandfather, who died three years before I was even born.
After the graveside service, Cousin Jimmy, Eunice's son, called out to the rest of us. "This is the last burial that will be up here." He pledged to continue to maintain it. His voice broke as he said added, "for as, well, for as long as I am able."
There are family ties and there are family ties. As we drove out of the valley back to Route 23, Mark said that he always felt he was at home when he was in Greenup. I responded, surprised, "You do? Me too!" It is the one place we both feel centered, even though neither of us live there. For me, it is the one place in the world where I can look around at a gathering, or even in a store, and see people with my facial features. Like Mark, I am "at home," in some deeply fundamental way, when I enter this valley.
At the funeral home, cousin Janet, Eunice's oldest daughter, introduced her oldest daughter to Dad, reminding him he'd probably last seen her when he was spending weekends in Kentucky looking for work. Dad used to come down to Kentucky and look for work? I pounced on that comment and asked him over supper on the way home. Turns out that after he was out of the Army, jobs were hard to come by in Ohio and he had a wife and children to support. So he would drive down to Greenup on the weekends, sleep on a couch at Janet's house, and make the rounds of the railroad shops and yards looking for a job. He must not have found one, because he and Mom still live in Delaware almost six decades later. Still, it made me wonder how I would have turned out, who I would have become, had I grown up in this valley I still feel pulled to after all these years.
When I got home that night, I noticed there was a fine clay dust from the cemetery road on the hem of my slacks. Try though I might, I could not brush it off by hand.