(Readers note: Pat Blashill is on holiday, so the Blog Drone 2000XdW has been posting a few of his old journal entries for him. This is one about his father, Donald James Blashill....)
May 25, 2004
It was the most brilliant, sky-blue day I have ever seen in South Dakota. As we drove to Wallace, the landscape became one of lunar lakes and old farms. I was sitting in the front seat with Tracy, and as the barns we were passing pulled memories out of us, we talked about the one thing I remembered most about the farm our grandmother Inga shared with our uncle Oscar: the narrow, too-steep staircase to the second floor. Somehow, even as a kid, it didn’t seem right to me—it was too tight and vertiginous. Now Tracy guessed that it felt that way because Oscar (or was it his father, Ole Lund?) had built their farmhouse himself, and so did not follow any housing codes about stair height or the rise between steps.
Inga and Oscar’s farm was out here somewhere, and my brother and I would have loved to see what my father, even though he never lived there, had called the “homeplace.” But neither Tracy nor I really believed we had the time that day.
The service at the church in Wallace was, as Tracy put it diplomatically, a little too “churchy.” Dad never believed in God or Jesus—I think he thought religion was a con. His wife Maria sat next to us in the front pew, and I was afraid to think that she, deep in her grief, was being made more unhappy by the preacher’s talk of resurrection and the flower that blooms from the mortal body. As it turns out, she later sobbed that she believes all that stuff, she just was finding it hard to believe that day. But it was what it was. My aunt and uncle had arranged for it, and the service no doubt gave them some comfort. My own beliefs about religion are a more vague-less angry echo of my fathers’ skepticism. I started crying anyway.
Afterwards, I needed to get out. I took Adinah out the back door and she toddled happily through the grass behind the church as I held her tiny brown hand.
She found a small, smooth stone that she liked, and I put it in my pocket to keep for her. As I was kneeling beside all the parked cars with my daughter, my great uncle Hank Riggenholt walked up the sidewalk. Hank just turned ninety, and I only recognized him because I’d heard that he’d fallen down recently and had two black eyes (the back story: he was walking out of the restaurant where he gets his lunch sometimes and he tripped and fell face first onto the pavement. He broke a small bone in his nose, scratched up his glasses too, but he was so hungry, he sat up, afraid that he’d crushed his lunch, then opened it up and ate it before he went to the doctor).
So Hank hunches up to me and asks to meet “Donnie’s” wife. I take him over to Maria, who’s only slightly weeping at the moment. Hank shakes her hand, and then he says,
“You know, Donnie always sent me grapefruit.”
Maria, well aware of how much this bent-over farmer of the northern plains always loved getting those big pink fruits from the sunlands, began to sob again. A few more fat tears squeezed out of my eyes, and I clutched Adinah closer to me. Hank, having nothing better to say, and feeling damn awkward, receded.
We all climbed in our cars, and drove to the old Norwegian church that was one of my father’s favorite places. It’s an extremely simple and somehow awesome building—although maybe it seemed so formidable, even eerie to me because as we turned up the dirt road and the white wooden spire came into view, Telemarken loomed less like a real place and more like a figure re-emerging from the grainy composite of dreams and old photographs some of us call memory.
We didn’t go inside: the church is only ever open for services on Memorial Day weekend. Instead, the preacher, my cousin Sherry and her kids, my cousins Lynn, Barry and Danny, my aunt Helen and her Ronny, my uncle and his Evelyn, Maria and her brother Arturo, Tracy, my wife, my daughter and I all walked out into the middle of the cemetery surrounding the church. As I glanced around at the black granite headstones (RIGGENHOLT, LUND, FJELSTAD, BLASHILL) I realized I knew a large share of the people who are buried there. The clouds above were thin, pretty curves, like clouds in a painting. Pheasants were calling to each other all around us.
Someone had dug a perfect twelve by twelve inch hole next to my fathers’ parents graves, and after he recited some familiar verse that no one was listening to, the preacher told Maria she was supposed to put my father right there in that neat little hole. For the first and only time that weekend, Maria expressed an opinion: she said no. Her Don, my dad, their Donnie—he wouldn’t have wanted to be dumped into a perfect hole.
So, after her weeping subsided a little, and she caught her breath, Maria opened that little brown case that she had been clutching to her chest for the last two hours, opened the plastic bag inside, and took out a handful of the light grey ashes that were once my father. She threw them carefully across the ground behind James and Inga Blashill’s graves. Then she took another handful of ashes, moved away a bit and threw it out into the air and over the dirt of Telemarken. I was standing downwind, and some of my fathers’ ashes drifted into my eyes, my nose, my clothes. Maria wandered out through the cemetery, flinging the ashes across the grass and the graves; Arturo followed behind her, holding the box of my fathers remains. A lot of us were crying again—Anette grimaced as if she couldn’t stand to see me in this kind of pain—but Adinah was just wandering around, climbing on top of headstones. I gathered her up and showed her how to blow the fuzz off of a dandelion. And when Maria had finished, I hugged her. She was still sobbing, and through my own tears, I choked the words, “That was so beautiful, Maria.”
After awhile, everyone filtered back into their cars and left. Tracy, Anette, Adinah and I stayed back to visit a couple more graves. I hovered at the headstone of my great grandmother Tomine: Dad had always said that Tomine, who had come to America as an arranged bride for our great grandfather, Ole, was so unhappy that she watered her rose garden with her own tears. I picked a little yellow flower from the grass that grows over Tomine now, then we got in the rental car and drove back to our hotel in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.