I am drawn to it with some haunting emotion. I never lived there but it’s in my blood, a genetic tug I can’t escape. When I go to the panhandle of Texas my soul feels…..grounded.
I just spent a week in Lubbock attending the memorial for my Uncle Burck. A family death involves ritual. It is a time not only to grieve but to return to a place and the people that are a part of the one we lost. Our tribe is small, but we gathered to pay tribute. And to remember. As I’ve written, my Uncle marched to his own beat. The same applied to how he felt about his own death. He did not want a lot of hoopla, and he wanted to be cremated. He is the first person in our close family to choose cremation, so we were not experienced with how that changes the ritual.
Ritual – a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.
I grew up visiting my grandparents in Sudan, Texas. Sudan was a dusty stop on Highway 84, just a few miles from the New Mexico State line. The old adage “don’t blink or you’ll miss it” applied. As kids we loved the change of pace from our city life. Certainly more rural, but also geographically different from our norm, the panhandle is flat, really flat. Like, you can see to the horizon flat. And bare. There are very few natural trees. As you make the drive from Lubbock you see farms with lots of trees around the homes. These have been planted as wind breaks, because another consistent feature of this area is the wind. Which leads to dust storms, a not-so-fun phenomenon that leaves your eyes and skin stinging and your nose itching. (Dust storms also make it very difficult to keep a house clean. Ask any women strong enough to live on the high plains of Texas….dust is a constant battle.)
I have so many memories of our childhood visits, but some that really stand out involve funerals. From a young age we were taken to the funerals of our elderly family members. The funeral ritual encompassed several days. We would travel as a family to other parts of Texas or to New Mexico. There was always lots of food involved, meeting distant family we never knew, wearing hot church clothes. And a viewing at a funeral home. If I was bothered by seeing a dead body I don’t really have a recollection of that. It was just part of the cycle of life. And of course, it always ended with a graveside service after the church funeral. I can remember riding in a procession following a hearse carrying our deceased love one. Sitting under a green (why always green?) canopy with artificial green grass carpeting on the ground. A huge casket covered in flowers balanced over a deep hole in the ground. These cemeteries were always dry and dusty, desolate…..grim. Until we buried my grandmother.
The cemetery in Sudan is an oasis, carved out of the cotton fields just outside of town. Trees have been planted to provide some shady areas. It is watered regularly to keep the hardy grass somewhat green. It isn’t large, maybe a couple acres. Probably because I was an adult by the time my grandmother died, my strongest emotion that day was peace. This place was absolutely peaceful. It did not feel grim at all. I could stand at her grave and turn 360 degrees and look as far as the eye could see, with only an old windmill or barn to break the view. The wind was gently ruffling through the trees, but otherwise it was perfectly quiet. It felt…..right. My grandfather was buried there five years later, and we have visited their graves as often as possible given time and distance, but every visit has always brought me back to that feeling of peace. And it was here that my Uncle Burck wanted his ashes scattered, over the graves of his parents.
So we made the familiar trek the day after a small memorial service in Lubbock. We had already spent a private family time with my Uncle prior to his cremation. His son, Zachary, planned a lovely service to honor his unique father, and it was attended by his and his father’s friends, and our dear family from New Mexico. On Sunday Zachary and his wife Jennifer, my mother, brother, my son and I, made the 50 mile drive to Sudan in two cars. We were loaded down with flowers, and my Uncle’s ashes. We were casually dressed in shorts and sunglasses on a hot July day. We helped my mother from the car to the gravesite of my grandparents to spend a quiet moment of reflection. As we walked to the backside of their large tombstone we were startled, and delighted, to see…..a baby bunny!
Nestled in the shade of the stone was a tiny bunny, no bigger than the palm of my hand. We immediately set about fretting over this bunny. Is he alive?! Yes! Did it need water? A bottle cap full was provided. Should we touch him? No! How ironic of all the tombstones in this cemetery that this baby bunny was sheltered by my grandparents. It was some kind of sign. Whatever reservations we had about this very unsettling change in ritual was soothed by this precious little creature. So after saying a prayer together we watched as Zach spread his father’s ashes over my grandparents’ graves, without disturbing the bunny. To say it was surreal was an understatement. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, literally, as the plains breezes lifted my Uncle to the heavens.
We placed all the beautiful flowers over the ashes and said our goodbyes. As we gazed across the land we could now see giant, modern day windmills turning slowly. Time marches on but my Uncle Burck was back to his roots, to the town that nurtured him, to the parents who loved him through all the hard places in his life. He was again a part of the land that grounded him. He was free and at peace, ritual be damned. And we knew that the big, soft heart inside his tortured body was grinning at that baby bunny, a tiny furry angel, nibbling on his funeral flowers.