A sign on the door says "DeWitt State Bank will close for the day at 1 p.m. for a funeral."
* * *
I'm not a farmer. My parents weren't farmers. Even my grandparents weren't farmers. But there's an old kind of rural living that my ancestors did and when I go back for a visit or, this time, a funeral, I know the language and I know how to act.
When you go back, you are defined not by who you are, but who came before you -- when someone asks who you are, you respond by telling them who's child or grandchild you are first, and your name second. You do the rural wave, lifting two fingers off the steering wheel to acknowledge the only other car on an almost abandoned highway. You know to yield to farm trucks. You ask about the planting.
* * *
I am told for the first time that I look like my grandmother, which is a surprise. John, it is generally agreed, is not one of us whatsoever.
* * *
Is it possible to know your grandparent as an adult? When we are younger, we know them as a presence and a benefactor; after they die, we learn about them through stories. "Did we ever tell you about when your grandmother hitchhiked out to San Francisco and worked at a bar to make enough money to come back?" Matt's parents asked him once. "Remind us to tell you about that sometime."
At the luncheon after my grandfather's funeral, people come to me and tell me how he helped them through one or many hard times. The stories do not surprise me and I am pleased to hear them; I would never had heard the stories from him. But there is loss in these stories, too -- there is a blind spot in knowing your grandparents, and as people fill the spots in, I realize how little I did know him.
* * *
As we drive through central Nebraska, I find myself telling the kids the same stories I heard as a kid: this is where your grandpa, my father, went sledding when he was your age. This is where your grandma, my mother, lived until she was your age. My children like to know where they are in our family, where they fit in. I imagine that when they are older it will be the lake and basalt and white pines that pulls them back from wherever they go, but I also want them to stand in the center of a prairie and feel the importance of a circular horizon surrounding them. I am pleased when we drive past a field of cattle and Maia says, "I LIKE the way farm country smells!"
I tell them the things I know, which isn't much but was told to me as I rode in the backseat and a football game played on the a.m. radio. I know that cottonwoods on the horizon mean a creek bottom or a homestead, either of which can save you when you're lost. I know why the road always curves at the county line. I know how many times a siren blows in a work day, and what each one means. I might laugh at it, but I know that the four kinds of deviled eggs and eight kinds of bars at a funeral luncheon at the American Legion are expressions of sympathy and comfort.
For all the homogeneous culture across the country, I think it's important for the kids to see signs such as "Leaving brand inspection area" and to feel that there are places that are different in ways they might not understand.
* * *
At the gravesite the pastor gives thanks for a beautiful day and place, the creation around us. We are five steps from a freshly manured field on a March day where almost all the snow has melted and nothing has sprouted. By summer, corn leaves will shade the grave.