My mother’s father, a Congregationalist minister, was born in 1887, just four years after standard time was instituted. Before the railroads pushed for standardization (a boon to schedules), time was entirely local. A deacon at the church in your town or the next set his watch for noon when the sun was straight above, and then he rang the bell every day according to his watch, adjusting as necessary. Farmington time was ten or so minutes ahead of Bangor time, and both ahead of New York a half-hour or so. Before the railroads, no one went anywhere fast enough for the variations to make a difference; when you arrived someplace new, you just set your watch to the church spire. If you had a watch.
We’ve been in daylight savings mode a whole week, and I still can’t adjust. I’ve been staying up very late because of it, and sleeping late, too. This weekend morning I woke to a melee in my side yard, which we call the dog yard—I fenced it in years ago for Desi and Wally, and now Baila makes it her domain as they did. One stretch of the fence is along the road, close enough that the town plow piles a wonderful mountain over it, probably seven or eight feet high this year (eleven last year!), and the dog can just walk out. The fence becomes nothing more than a suggested boundary. But Baila’s a model prisoner, stands up on the height of the bank and barks at passersby, or has a word with the dog across the way, no thought of escaping.
But back to this morning: the dog across the way, a beagle named Toby, had got free, and in the manner of boy beagles in spring everywhere had decided to follow his nose and roam. After a long chase with his owner following him in a pickup truck, the dog had trotted over the snow berm and into our dog yard. I woke to Baila barking madly downstairs. Next thing I knew I was out in the yard in my slippers and bed hair, obviously just awake, 9:30. Toby’s master had got help from the neighbor on our other side, farmers both of them, one full-time. These are good men and good neighbors, maybe only a speck judgmental, and they’ve been up since 4:30, you can bank on it. They’re ready for lunch and I haven’t had breakfast yet. We chased Toby this way and we chased Toby that way, but Toby ran right back out of the dog yard over the snow and disappeared full speed up the street. His owner sighed and hopped back in his pickup truck—not the Saturday morning he’d planned. I just told him good luck.
Back in the house Elysia took one look at me and forgot her questions about Toby, simply burst out laughing. “Your hair! You look like the big Munchkin from the Lollypop League! It’s like wings!”
My Uncle Carl died this past Monday, aged 88. This is not so much a change of subject as an accurate reflection of what came into my head when the light of the munchkin laugh went out. Carl was my mother’s older brother. I worked on his farm in Beaver Crossing, Nebraska, when I was 23, out of college a couple of years, not entirely aimless (I was already writing), but giving all appearances of aimlessness, same ponytail that day to this. Uncle Carl struggled with Parkinson’s for some 12 years, slowly lost his speech. He was always a very, very slow talker, and in the end his speech slowed all the way down: he couldn’t talk at all, at least not with herculean effort, maybe a word here and a word there, one or two a month. Last time I saw him, six years ago at a gathering of the siblings, he was passing notes around, answering all questions in writing, smiling his laughter, all silent. As he and I nodded and smiled and gazed goodbye, he tried to say something, working his mouth. His (second) wife said, “Now, no.” But he kept trying, managed a sudden sentence, his will tricking his tongue: “I’m proud of you and your books.”
He'd known me best at a time when really no one imagined I’d get very far with my desultory dream. But I was a heck of a worker on his farm and on his neighbor’s farms (he owed them all favors), and we got along well, even if I wasn’t a model citizen.
So this morning I was thinking about Uncle Carl. And then, ineluctably, Uncle Bill, ten years his junior, who died just three weeks ago, aged 78, baby of their family. Eight siblings, the reverend’s kids, had grown up in Liberty, Missouri. Carl Jr. and Billy, as they were called, were both ministers, too. And both stopped talking at the end of their lives, which were, of course, verbal lives. When my Aunts Bessie (almost 90) and Patsy (80) went to see Bill in Montana last summer, he hadn’t talked for two years. They drove him up to Glacier Park, his beloved Rocky Mountains, three really very old people on their own in that rugged terrain, if you want a clue to the Burkhardt character. On the way back to Billings the women began to sing old camp songs they’d loved, and halfway through the first Bill began to sing. And he sang with them all the way home, hours and hours in full voice, sang and laughed with his sisters.
I spent most of the summer of 1968 with Uncle Bill, and then a month or so the following summer, when I was fourteen and fifteen, turning sixteen. He was such a sweet and gentle man in so many ways. Tall, too. And in those years it was tough to be a minister inclined to speak out in opposition to the war in Vietnam (he felt Christ would have done the same). He took me up into the Helena Hills to explore abandoned gold mines, taught me to fly fish on a bamboo rod with silk line (he had the most delicate touch), took me on a two-week backpacking adventure in the Bob Marshall Wilderness with his church group (we made sweat lodges, fished for grayling and trout). The only time I ever saw him angry was on that hiking trip, after I put a hole in his air mattress using it to cross a glacial pond.
In Helena, he introduced me to many kids my age, and made sure I was well entertained. He sat up late when I stayed out late, but never said a word—just, "I was reading anyway." His church was fun, with rock bands and lots of events. He took me with him to visit new widows and old parishioners and funeral homes. And we dug his beloved Land Rover out of unbelievably deep mud near a mine somewhere in the Helena Forest, a two-day proposition that involved basically building a road out of lodgepole pine logs, with emergency camping included, very chilly night, my uncle a guy who kept two axes and a shovel and a tarp and extra food in the car, just in case.
His death really knocked me off the tracks for a few weeks.
Carl’s death, oddly, seems to have knocked me back on.
And of course both deaths remind me that my mother died two years ago April 16, Easter Sunday. (A middle brother, Bobby, died of polio when he was five, and I think this event made my mother sad her whole life). And those three that Aunt Connie, their big sister Connie died just a year ago, another minister).
I’ve been thinking how hard these four new deaths must be for the remaining siblings. You don’t say to someone’s older sister, “Well, he had a good long life.” Your little brother is always your little brother. The oldest sibling, Aunt Anna Jane (double-A-Jay we used to call her) is 94 and very robust, living in a nursing home. Bessie lives on her own, independent and cheerful as can be. Patsy is just packing her house now, moving on to the next thing. Of course I think of my own four siblings, the fact that brother by sister at dates undetermined we will all go, too. One will be first. One will be last. (Unless, I guess, we all go over the same waterfall on a tubing adventure during our yearly gathering over in New Hampshire.)
Such, such were my thoughts as I went off on my daily ski this morning…. plenty of snow, still, the snowpack being a cumulative work, at least here in Farmington, where the temperature hasn’t risen above freezing for more than a day or so since Thanksgiving. Whatever snow fell in November is still down there, each subsequent storm having layered it over and compressed it and changed its physical properties from fluff to hardpack to crystals to collapsing vaults. The sun on these late warm days melts the surface, leaves it wet to harden overnight. The other day the skiing back in the woods was like ice-skating, uphill and down. Treacherous, slapstick, certainly fun, noisy, too, every creature fleeing before the strange sound of my scraping along, nesting pair of pileated woodpeckers darting away through the mid-story, flock of wild turkeys panicked underneath, Dog Baila racing ahead of me gleefully, the snowpack as hard as any pavement, when just a week ago she’d been forced to follow me, would disappear in the fluff if she tried to run ahead. About 98 inches so far this year, according to the Franklin Journal, not a record by half. It’s all compacted and re-formed, but in the open yard it’s still over a foot deep; under the balsams, our picnic table is just re-emerging, so about 30 inches there. In the woods the snow’s much deeper, up to the handles of my ski poles, four feet or so, which made it hard to get up when I fell, several spectacular dumps on the ice-slick trail.
Fox prints on top of my ski tracks, playful mink marks on the stream ice, deep ruts where the neighbor’s cows traversed the field months ago, turkey takeoffs recorded as follows: footprints then wingbeats, the tip of every feather illustrated. Turkey landings include a body print, heavy birds dropping in to forage under the apple trees.
Today though, it’s 42 degrees, and the surface of the snowpack has melted soft an inch or so, something for my skis to grab onto. Chickadees accompany me, the boy birds singing their two notes back in the trees, practicing, I guess, for mating time. Bald eagle overhead doing who knows what and why, probably just a quick reconnaissance, an hour’s flight in from the ocean islands on strong winds, faster than I could drive it. I give a plaintive long whistle and the big bird doubles back, circles over me, cocks its head to look, rising on sharp winter thermals. Pine siskins flitter in an excitable flock in the popples. And Baila running ahead, always ahead, cheerful, galloping loops on the firm snowpack. And time, too, time itself, always running ahead, running outwards, running upwards, a spiral on thermals I can’t begin to measure or understand, the smallest possible me, down here on the ground if you care to look, skiing right into eternity.