I slide into the driver’s seat and crank the ignition, leaving right on time for a change. I don’t want to be late today. It’s the day we will lay to rest a cousin who died too soon and without his freedom. Freedom lost several years ago to the lure of drug money. I’m not looking forward to another funeral on the heels of Sissy’s death. The memories of that loss still burning so hotly into my heart and the sympathy I feel for my aunt and uncle’s new burden of loss puts me in a funky mood. Funky and sentimental, but surprisingly, not terribly sad. I take a deep breath and start the task that looms ahead.
The drive gives me the rare opportunity to travel about forty five minutes through the countryside where I grew up. My path takes me through my hometown and into the back roads of southern Illinois. The roads of my youth. The roads that meander through farms and woods, past small communities that have more dogs than people. Towns whose names spring from the bible. Where the only travelers are the folks who live there. This is the land that sired my parents and grandparents. It is the land that sustains me and from which I draw my strength.
I don’t get in a hurry. A funeral day from work is a little like a snow day. It’s a legitimate reason for a break in the normal routine, a free pass for pushing deadlines aside. There is no need to rush, and it’s an opportunity to savor the season which is unusually warm and still dotted with the shades of brilliant autumn. Within fifteen minutes of leaving work, I am on a two lane highway headed north, with the window rolled down and the smell of leaves tickling my nose. It is a pretty day, a fitting day to bury someone who loved the outdoors. I drive with the comfort of knowing that despite all of the craziness in this world, not much changes around home. In fact, any changes that do occur happen so slowly you are taken by surprise when you finally realize something is different.
In my hometown of 7,500 people, the sign in front of the auto parts place notes the recent loss of the owner. The tavern at the edge of town bears the same name it has for years, and a police car cruises the main drag looking for an occasional speeder. The two lane pulls me into the countryside where the hum under my wheels seems as familiar as the houses along the road. My mind clicks off the houses where my school bus used to stop twice a day and spots the place where my childhood friend once fell from a horse. The songs on my iPod seem hand picked for the trip, even though it is randomly shuffling along, and when it shuffles into Neil Young’s Beautiful Bluebird, I can’t help but smile because it seems so fitting for the moment.
Two verses later, I pass the old feed store where daddy spent many an hour swapping lies and cards. It used to come alive at lunchtime with farmers savoring ring bologna sandwiches and sweaty cold Coca-colas, but today it sits empty, finally closed for good. A spray painted sign on the porch advertises an upcoming indoor yard sale, and I am offended by its intrusion on a sacred memory. I keep driving, looking for familiar landmarks. I am now deep into the country.
My entrance into the tiny town that hosts my large family today makes me smile at its familiarity. White clapboard houses that have looked the same since I was a child line the main drag, interrupted only by a diner, the Methodist church and the barber shop where my brother got his first haircut. I still remember watching snips of his hair fall into the floor under the watchful eye of a man who had long lost count of the young victms of his overzealous shears. Next door, I look for the doors that once housed the pool hall where daddy got an education in everything grandma didn’t want him to know, and I am pleased that the screen doors are still there, even if they are hanging on by a thread.
I am almost to the funeral home, but I’m not ready for the drive to end, and the clock tells me time is on my side, so I make a right turn onto a road I’ve never traveled. It takes me past an old box factory that stands shakily on its foundation, covered in vines and unrecognizable growth. The old railroad depot is just across the street. The windows are broken, and the roof is falling in. It hasn’t been used in years, and I know it will remain untouched until it’s gone, because like the farm store, some things around here are just sacred and are allowed to disappear on their own schedule out of respect for the role they once held in this community. I make a note to take a picture of it on my way back. I’m in wetlands territory now, where the ducks and geese will stop on their way south, where standing water sometimes creeps over the road, and rushing water sometimes takes you by surprise. I stop in the middle of the road to savor the old railroad bridge and yield to the urge to preserve the moment.
As I stand under the canopy of trees in the middle of the road, there is no traffic to worry about, only the sounds of water and birds. My head is a kaleidoscope of childhood memories, some of which include the family that is gathered in the funeral home a couple of miles away. I let the memories wash over me until I feel clean. Renewed and ready to move on. I climb in the car and head toward the funeral home, softly singing a chorus.
See how she flies
Looks like she's always goin' home
If heaven had a window
Where the sun came shinin' through
Like a beautiful bluebird
I'd come flyin' back to you
Parking in the grassy lot a few minutes later, I see many cousins, aunts and uncles who have traveled these same roads. I reach for the door handle but pause to think about what the people gathered there mean to me. What this area means to me. I say a quick prayer of thanks for my sturdy roots.
It is the land of my youth. It sustains me and gives me strength, and for that, I am grateful.