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On Earth

ISSUE:  Spring 1994

The classic red Ford Falcon slides up to the curb and I remember that ancient cars are part of my brother’s romantic nature. For some reason, I am rooted to the cool, stone bench in front of the motel where I have been waiting for Patrick. Get up, I tell myself, he’s had a long drive from Idaho to Seattle and you had the luxury of flying. We will have lunch (it is his birthday next week), then go for a walk. We will also visit our father’s grave today, exactly six months after his death. There had been no funeral; Dad always said no one would bother to come.

Tucking Patrick’s birthday present under my arm, I wave foolishly. People on the street will see a rumpled, middle-aged woman with bad posture, but a lovely smile. My younger brother will see the family black sheep to whom he has always been incomprehensibly understanding and generous. He does recognize me, doesn’t he? Or perhaps he has passed by my motel several times already looking for a younger, slimmer, darker Meg?

Shedding the years, I walk with a spring toward the old gas guzzler. Patrick has always accepted my politics and my unlikely vocation as a community organizer (“It sounds like something out of Emma Goldman,” according to our sister Eleanor) so I can hardly raise the contradiction between his environmental concerns and his penchant for wasteful cars. Why am I griping about pollution at a time like this? Why am I such a bitch?

“You look good,” we both declare at once. Which means: You’re not dead yet. I recognize you. You could be a lot worse. Maybe this day won’t be as painful as I feared.

He does look great—tanned, fit, not a trace of grey in his curly blond hair. Clearly his job as a park ranger suits him; Patrick was destined for the great outdoors.

Again, I wish our older sister and baby brother could have come. But they had refused to talk to our father these last ten years. As middle children, Patrick and I doggedly tried to communicate with Dad, a horribly impatient man who died before we could say good-bye.

“Sorry I’m late,” Patrick says, kissing me on the cheek and steering the car back into traffic in one fluid motion.”Got lost in all these one way streets. Never could figure out why Dad moved to Seattle.”

“Yeah, I don’t know.” I am testing my voice. “But after he retired, he liked the edge of places—the Sierra Foothills, the Canadian border, the Gulf of Mexico. I guess the Pacific Coast fits.” And, I think, leave it to him to get a free grave site, thanks to his World War II army service, in a military cemetery way out here in Seattle.

“Guess I’m just a country boy,” Patrick smiles at the congested traffic.”Better at scaling rocks than maneuvring the urban discourse.”

“Maneuvring the urban discourse?”

“It’s what Cynthia calls driving in the city. I’ve been dating this girl named Cynthia. She’s a grad student in English. I’ll tell you about her over lunch.”

“I look forward to that.” Does my voice betray a mixture of delight and abandonment? I am glad my loner brother has found someone. But I am not sure I want her to be a grad student or named Cynthia.

“You had a place in mind?”

“Yes.” I pull myself together. We are about to have lunch. We are going to Dad’s grave.

“My friend Sally in Omaha,” I continue anxiously, “who’s actually from Seattle, suggested this nice, quiet, health food restaurant—you’re still a vegetarian?” I tell myself to relax. This is just my brother. I love Patrick. Patrick loves me.

“Yup.” He is studying the “No Left Turn” sign. Perhaps he really is a country boy, automatically starting off on a trip before he knows where we are going.

“Great vegetarian food, she said. And according to the motel manager, it’s up this street here—no, don’t turn right, go straight ahead—ten blocks and then hang a left on First. Yes, near the corner.”

Seattle is hot today, somewhere in the low nineties. Does it get hot here often? Why did Dad settle here? Why didn’t he come home to Nebraska after he retired? Why don’t I know this? Of course none of us have been very good at staying in touch. At least Patrick and I send Christmas notes, birthday cards, and usually manage to see each other every two or three years. I think I am glad I made this trip.

White paper tablecloths. Bread served with olive oil. European greens. Just Sally’s sort of place. Somehow, I believe Patrick is more the tofu-burger-on-a-bun sort. Still, he plows his way through the Dijon Market Salad and a Florentine Bean Casserole. I wait until the creme brule (no place for candles, alas) to give him the present.

“Nice.” He nods at the deep blue—to match his eyes, the prettiest in our family—wool sweater.

“Thought you must get cold at work. Outside so early in the morning. I can’t even imagine getting up that early. And I knew it would look terrific on you.” I am rattling on. I want to tell him I bought it at a cooperative of women fabric artists. But this sounds at once too worthy and too effete. The warmth of it is for him; the place of origin for myself.

“Great. It’s just great. Perfect weight. Really.” He blows me a kiss across the booth.

Obviously he hates the sweater.

“Thanks Sis.” He reaches over to squeeze my hand.

I wish we had gone to a place that served cake. I’ll have to take the candles back to Omaha.

“Cynthia,” he tells me as we walk to the car, “worked as a summer intern at the park last year. She’s not your regular kind of academic at all. She’s interested in the relationship between geology and language.”

“Geology and language?”

“Yeah, how setting affects idiom. Volcanoes and interjections, you know,”

I nod. Of course, I have been mulling over the relationship between topsoil erosion and contractions just last week. When I am with my family, I realize just how unkind I am.

“So that’s why she was doing the internship. Now that she’s back in school, we see each other every two weeks.”

“How long is the drive?”

“Couple of hours in good weather.”

“Do you ever have good weather in Idaho?” I ask crankily.

“Sometimes.” He winks. He actually winks. Jesus.

I worry about my younger brother battling snowy mountain passes for a night with his post-tectonic scholar. Of course Patrick has never really warmed to Ira (I’m not so sure I’m so warm about my husband any more), so I just nod.”Well, drive carefully.”

“Hey.” A loud male voice behind me.

“Wait up, there. Hey.”

A large blond man is running, booming toward us. I remind myself that Seattle is a big city.”This doorway, here,” I say to my brother who is even more of a hick than I am.”Let’s duck in here.”

“No,” Patrick looks at me as if I were crazy. “It’s the waiter from the cafe.”

I see he is waving my brother’s present, the silver bow dangling down the length of his muscularly defined arm.

“Oh.” I wonder if Patrick has too many sweaters. Maybe Cynthia knits.

As he puts the box in the trunk, he says, “Great color. Thanks Meg.”

Patrick is driving again, before we have determined a direction.”Now, we’re meeting the priest at 2: 30.That gives us an hour to get there and take a walk. You know any parks?”

“No, I should have asked Sally, but. . . .”

“Well, we could walk in the cemetery. I mean it’s a huge military cemetery. At least we know we’d be on time that way. But then, maybe it sounds a little macabre.”

“No, no, not at all. Let’s do that. And thanks for arranging for the priest.”

“Well. . . I thought Dad would like that. And you. I mean you got married in the church. You still go, don’t you?”

“No, not for years. Not since the abortion. And you?”

“Never touch the stuff.”

We both laugh nervously.

“But I know Dad would like it. So I went to the library and looked up some passages in a Bible.”

“You had to go to a library for a Bible!”

“Well, Cynthia had a reference edition, but I found all those footnotes made me dizzy.”

“So you picked out some readings?” I feel sad about how little we know each other.

“Yeah. And this priest—Father Jameson—said he’d say a few words. I think it will be pretty short.”

“Fine,” I say. “Thanks for all your work.”

He shrugs and peers against the sun at the road ahead. I thought it rained in Seattle. Truly, I wish it were raining.

The cemetery stretches for miles, perhaps continents, of freshly mown grass. The green is dotted with slabs of white granite. Eventually we find the office and get a map to Dad’s grave. Then I ask the woman to direct us to some World War I headstones. She looks me over carefully, before drawing a parabola with her turquoise pen. I want to tell her I need a little distance, a little perspective, before the family reunion. As we explore the graying headstones, I recite battles from that large, faded red high school text: Marne, Ypres, Tannenberg, Gallipoli, Somme. Patrick recalls that I was always good at history.

Maurice West, 1898—1918. Harold Streeter, 1896—1917. These men died as Dad was being conceived and born. The graves in this part of the cemetery are widely spaced, the views grand. As if the caretakers couldn’t picture a future after the carnage of the Great War. As if they had no idea how fast the rest of the plots would go. As if they didn’t imagine that one day humans would be stacked so closely together.

“I’m up for a promotion,” Patrick is saying. “Usually the Park Service transfers you—up means out. But there’s this job at home, and I think I have a good chance.”

Home. Why should I be so affected by my brother’s claim of Idaho as home? If Dad chose the Pacific Coast and Eleanor moved to Boston and Brian to New Mexico, surely Patrick could have Idaho. Momma and I are the only ones who stayed in Nebraska, and she died of loneliness waiting for Dad to come back. Maybe this is my problem. Maybe I should go out and find a home.

“More pay, I guess?”

“Yeah. And more chance, you know, to plan. Sometimes I feel like I’m in the military, the way I follow these irrational orders. Now I’ll get to make them.”

“Yes,” I laugh. Eleanor would be a happier person if she had a tenth of Patrick’s self-deprecatory humor.”Sometimes I think I should apply for a different job.”

“How’s the work? Any new projects this year?”

See what I mean by kind? Eleanor would ask, “What’s your latest crusade?” Dad would demand, “Still fighting on the side of the north?”

“A housing rights group,” I nod. “Times are tight for soft-money projects given all the government cutbacks. But it could be worse.”

“Momma always said that,” Patrick smiles wistfully.

In unison we recite, “There’s never a bad that couldn’t be a worse.”

We walk quietly, side by side. The day smells green. Two robins fly across my line of vision. I savor the strange, rare pleasure of my brother’s companionship.

“Well, I guess we should go find Father Jameson,” he frets.

“It was nice of you to get the priest,” I say. Again.

“Don’t know why I thought you were still practicing.” He is puzzled.

I smile. “See, on the phone, when you suggested a priest, I figured you had gone back. I guess we don’t know each other all that well.” This is out of my mouth before I have a chance to regret it.

“We all do our best,” he says. Another of Momma’s maxims, but laced with an irony Momma wouldn’t have recognized, let alone appreciated.

Ashamed for forcing this intimacy, always the loudmouth among my more cautious siblings, I study the cemetery map carefully.”Over there,” I point to a section on the left. “We’re here—in C1.And he’s in K4.” He. Our father. Dad. The priest.

He is a tall, balding, paunchy man in a wrinkled black suit and a yellowing roman collar. Patrick knew what he was doing. Dad wouldn’t have wanted a trendy cleric in a Central American poncho. The priest waves to us, then checks his watch. Patrick walks forward, hand extended.

“Father Jameson?”

“Yes. And you’re Patrick Moody?”

“Yes, Father. And this is my sister, Meg.”

“Whew, I’m glad I have the right grave.” The priest shakes my hand.”It’s hot today, isn’t it?”

Our surrogate father is too human with his sweaty palms and painfully marroon socks.

“Yes, well, this is it,” Patrick kicks freshly mown grass off the small stone slab.

I wonder how long Dad’s marker will stay visible in this enormous cemetery, the grave untended because his children are scattered in Massachusetts and New Mexico and Idaho and Nebraska. Kneeling down for a closer look, I read, “Daniel Moody, 1917—1991, Served in the US Army, 1941—1945.” It says nothing about his 40 years of driving trucks around the country. Nothing about Momma. About us. Just Dad and the US Army, 1941—1945.Before any of his children were born; maybe in exchange for a free grave, the army reserves the right to edit your life.

“Patrick, Meg, shall we begin?”

Giddy nervousness looms; I feel as if we are getting married.

“Yes,” Patrick nods with appropriate seriousness.

The priest keeps his eyes on my brother. “I’ve marked the passages you selected, Patrick, from John. From Matthew. Ecclesiastes.”

Words ascend from the frail pages in Father Jameson’s hardy voice. I am sorry that Patrick had to go to the library. Maybe I should send him a Bible for Christmas. On the other hand, he might misconstrue that and drag a priest to my funeral.

Drops on the grave. Dark circles on the dusty white granite. Finally, it is raining in Seattle. Above, the sky is a brilliant, cloudless blue.

The priest’s resonant tone would be perfect for singing High Mass. Do they still have High Mass? Concentrate, I tell myself. This is your father’s memorial.

The sun is relentless. Reality closes in. He has died. Left again. Without saying good-bye.

Patrick’s eyelids are lowered. “Amen,” he responds attentively at the end of the Hail Mary.

“Now, perhaps,” the priest is saying, “you would like to share some memories of your father.”

We are silent. I am stunned. Appalled. Even in death, my father is making me choose between loyalty and honesty.

He tries again. “A story from your childhood. A reflection on his life.”

Time passes: seconds, decades.

Patrick tries, “He worked very hard. He was still driving trucks until just three years ago. He. . . .”

What can I say? He left my mother with four children and no child support. He beat my baby brother regularly. He only contacted me when he was low on cash. He supported George Wallace for President. He ate too much; drank himself sick every weekend. This is not appropriate. I hope Patrick has a long list in his repetoire of kindness.

“And you, Meg?” That rich, incantatory voice. My turn to enter the confessional. I panic, desperate to say something positive. I want to have a loving, responsible father. I want a headstone for the grave. I want the rest of the family here. Looking up, I notice the priest is shifting, uncomfortable in the heat. Patrick waits expectantly. But I cannot lie. What is to be honored about my father can only be honored by truth.

“He had a tough life,” I say, instructing the strange priest, reminding Patrick and myself.”His father died when he was 15, and his mother was in and out of mental institutions. He never made much money, never seemed to get what he wanted, needed.”

Patrick and the priest are leaning forward, straining to hear.

Suddenly I add, “I always admired his irascibility.” My voice gains volume.”Maybe I inherited some of it. I mean I’m a crank. I mean I’m grateful for that.”

Truth. This is enough. Traffic noise from the highway roars in to fill the spaces between us.

Patrick avoids my eyes.

Father Jameson is clearing his throat. “Before we close, is there anything else?”

Before we close, what is he talking about? We just got here. Is this all there is after a whole life? This tiny slab obscured by overeager grass, an eerily cheerful priest and two drooping members of a family. Dad was right about not wanting a funeral. We shouldn’t have come.

“I guess so,” Patrick answers. “Unless you wanted to say something else, Meg.”

“Yes, I’d like to say the ‘Our Father. ‘”

Patrick tries to conceal his surprise. The priest bows his head. Together we recite the childhood prayer.

The three of us are walking to the parking lot. “Give yourselves time to grieve,” Father Jameson is saying.”Feelings will come up. Let yourselves experience them.”

We are both silent, embarrassed by the usefulness of his self-help rhetoric, sad the memorial is over.

He tries again. “You live in Idaho?”

“Yes,” Patrick says. “In the eastern part of the state.”

“Great skiing,” Father Jameson proclaims. “I used to ski there in the late seventies, when I was in college.”

I notice for the first time that the priest is younger than Patrick and I.By maybe ten years. I want to know his given name. I want to call him “George” or “Charlie” instead of “Father.”

“Downhill or cross-country?” Patrick, who was never a skiier, asks courteously.

“Both. More downhill. I love the exhilaration of the slopes. On July days like this, I dream of being in Chile or New Zealand, where it’s cold and snowy now.”

We have arrived at the Ford Falcon. Father Jameson owns the silver Honda hatchback three cars away.

We stand awkwardly, silently. Patrick pulls a bent white envelope from his pocket.”Thank you, Father.”

“Take care.” Once again he is an ageless cleric. “God bless you. Be kind to yourselves.”

“Happy skiing,” Patrick smiles.

The traffic is heavier now. Patrick strains to follow the local automotive choreography. I think about the fact that neither of us has remembered to bring flowers. That we haven’t talked about the way Dad died, alone in the hospital, refusing to let any of us know he was sick. We are an accidental family, each of us surviving the accident with different scars. My eyes fill and, fearful of this grief, I grow angry. How foolish to wait all these years for people to come home. I am lucky Patrick and I are still talking, still fond of each other even if we don’t know religious affiliations and clothing preferences.

There is something between us. A kind of grace.

“So what time is your flight?”

We are almost at the motel. I compose my voice. “Eight a.m. There was nothing before tomorrow.”

“Wish we could have dinner.” Patrick pulls over to the curb.”But I told Cynthia I’d be back tonight. I’ll just about make it, leaving now.” He regards the traffic dubiously.

“Don’t worry,” I say. “I’ve got a lot of reading to do. I guess

I didn’t tell you I’m taking a course this summer. Astronomy.”

“That’s nice.” He is distracted, clearly anxious to get on the road.

“I’d like to help with the priest’s gift. How much did you give him?”

“No, that’s all right. It was my idea. You don’t even go to church.”

“Neither do you. Come on.” I pull out my checkbook.

“Ok. I guess. I gave him $100,”

I write a check. “Thanks for doing all this.”

“Sure,” he shrugs. “I’m not sure it’s what he would have liked. He was always so hard to figure out, you know?”

“I know.” I hesitate, not wanting to crowd him. “But I’m glad we did it. I’m glad to see you.”

“Yeah.” He is caught between pleasure and embarrassment.

“Next time you’re out West, save some time to visit me in Idaho. It’s a beautiful state.”

“Great skiing,” I offer.

Laughing, we both grow looser.

He kisses my cheek.

“Next time,” I say.


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