Thursday, August 18, 2011

Up The Hill

The black jeep roared into life and began its treacherous journey up the step, muddy road that led to our family cemetery at the top of the hill. I could see Uncle Jim's bald head near the back window, and beside him sat my weeping mother, her hands over her eyes. I couldn't make out any of the other people from this distance, though I knew they were all relatives, riding up the hill for my grandmother's funeral. I watched the jeep for several seconds, until it turned a corner and disappeared behind a clump of pines.

"Come on, boy," my grandfather said, placing his broad, weathered hand on my shoulder. "Let's go up and say goodbye to your grandma." I grabbed his hand and we began the long climb to the cemetery. We had gone only a few yards along the narrow, muddy road when I began my usual stream of questions.

"Why didn't we ride up, Grandpa?" I asked, staring up into his wrinkled face.

"It didn't seem proper," he answered. He paused for a moment, leaning against an old elm tree. I could tell he was tired because he was breathing hard. "Ever since I was a little boy, we carried our people up this mountain. Somehow it don't seem right to take somebody up in a truck. They ought to be carried, the way most everybody up there was carried, by the people who cared the most. It seems to me that's the least you can do for a person who's gone."

We started walking again, our feet crunching through the thick covering of dead leaves and sinking into the mud beneath them. It became steeper here, just above the old elm tree, and I had to struggle to keep moving. I wondered how grandpa could walk so fast as old as he was. Maybe he was just used to it.

"I've walked this old road many times," Grandpa said, as if he'd read my thought, "and it never gets any easier." We paused for a few minutes. He pulled a ragged yellow handkerchief from his coat pocket and wiped his forehead. "You know how we used to take people up?" he asked, cramming the handkerchief back into his pocket.

"No," I lied, "how did you take people up?"

"We had to carry them casket and all clear to the top. It took eight, sometimes ten men to carry somebody up this mule trail, and it was even worse in those days. We didn't have none of this ridin' up in trucks and such. We used our own strength to carry our loved ones home.

He sounded as though he were finished, so I started walking, using the branch I had snapped from the elm as a walking stick. We were almost at the top now, and I could see the black jeep sitting on the hillside, its knobby tires deep in the mud. I could see the grandfather oak standing by the gate, guarding the entrance to the cemetery. I could see my darkly clad family standing in a circle, praying softly. And I could see the shiny black casket sitting on the ground. Suddenly, everyone began singing, filling the cold air with an eerie, mournful sound that caused my knees to tremble and my skin to crawl.

"Did you carry up a lot of people, Grandpa?" I asked, needing the reassurance of my voice to drown out the fear.

"I sure did," he said. He wiped his forehead again, only this time he used the back of his hand. "I helped carry up my papa, right after I got married. It was a day almost like today, only colder. I remember we slipped in the mud and almost let him slide over the hill. My two uncles brought Momma up that day, chair and all, because she was sick and couldn't walk on her own. A few months later I helped carry up Momma, only this time she didn't need the chair. I helped carry up your grandma's mother, two uncles, and a few good friends." His voice sounded funny now, and I realized he was crying. I walked on ahead and stood beside the grandfather oak, watching as they lowered grandma into the cold, damp ground. Everyone was crying, and I think maybe I cried a little too. Then it was over and time to go home.

As I walked back down, I started thinking about Grandpa. He had carried people up this hill lots of times. It must have hurt as he watched his friends and family die and be carried up the hill. I wondered if he thought about the day when he would be carried up and if he was afraid. Then I thought about myself, a grown man, carrying Momma up the hill like that. And I saw myself.

I ran all the way down, my eyes filled with tears and my clothes covered with mud. I caught up with Grandpa, grabbed his hand, and let him brush away my tears.

I'll hold your hand, Grandpa, I thought, until it's your turn to go. Then, if I'm lucky, somebody will hold my hand until it's my turn. And I want them to carry me up. None of this riding up in trucks and such.


  1. I didn't post this as an example of fine prose, but as an example of how long some of the same themes have worked at me. I wrote this for my first English composition class at Morehead State U in the fall of 1982. My teacher was Judy Rogers. I had spent an enormous amount of energy trying to make sure I could leave Blackberry Creek and go to college, and the first thing I did once I had left was look back and try to make sense out of the place.

    The story is not strictly speaking true. My grandmother was alive and well and would outlive my grandfather by several years. The story actually references the funeral and burial of my great grandmother, Octavia Farley Hatfield, who lived with my grandparents until her death and who was buried at the old family cemetery at the top of the hill across from where we lived.

    I think that, emotionally speaking, the main impulse behind this piece was a feeling of guilt. The story is about staying put, about living and dying in the shadows of the same hills. It's about ritual and tradition, things that never change, and it's about the importance of loyalty to the past. None of which, at the time, were things I was ready to embrace, though I obviously felt a little uneasy about my unfaithfulness to my place and to my family. I was, after all, freshly-moved away from home, starting college, with absolutely no intention of ever moving back, of ever being a part of that community or that way of life again. I understood, on some emotional level, the seriousness of that break, and I wrote this story, I think, as a means of keeping faith with something, at least artistically, that I could not keep faith with in real life.

  2. I'll add one more thought. My grandfather, Woodrow Smith, died about 10 years after this. By that time, I was in school in Bloomington, Indiana, and spent very little time at home. We came back when he went into the hospital (lung cancer) and by the time I got home, he was not conscious. He never woke up and died a day or two later. My last real contact with him was this - I stood beside his bed and held his hand. I squeezed his hand to let him know I was there. I really do believe that he squeezed back.