Five hundred years ago the Catholic and Anglican churches could only just occupy the same continent. Today, in the town of Hancock, where both my mother and my paternal grandmother spent their childhoods, St. Peter’s Catholic Church stands side by side with St. Thomas Episcopal Church. The buildings are separated by a space small enough to accurately demonstrate with your thumb and index finger, and the two churches share a large cemetery behind them. From condemning each other’s clergy and congregation to Hell to sharing consecrated ground, in just a handful of centuries.
Pap (that’s my paternal grandfather) is buried in this cemetery, his plot being more on the Episcopal side than the Catholic one, if that’s even a distinction I ought to be making. Dad, Mom, Danny, Granny and I piled into Dad’s Explorer and drove up to Hancock to lay wreathes by the grave marker of Pap, and by the headstone of Granny’s recent ancestors, several of whom are buried there as well. This February will be five years since he died. His stone still looks brand new. Next to it, completed but for the date of death, is Granny’s. How must it feel to visit your husband’s burial site, and see the stone that will one day mark yours right beside? I think I may want to be cremated. Why condemn my family and friends to visit the grass over my corpse for the rest of their lives? Burn me, grind me up, and scatter me to the wind.
We never discussed it outright, but I think Pap had a morbid fear of death. I can relate, but it’s something I’ve gradually come to terms with, whereas I don’t think Pap ever did. At least not all the way. He seemed afraid in the hospital near the end — and I mean really afraid, visibly anxious about his life being over. I’m not sure what he was afraid of. Nonexistence? That’s a big one with me. He told Granny, when the topic of casket shopping had been raised at some prior point, to make sure that she bought a model that sealed airtight — to keep the worms out, I assume. This strikes me as a pretty irrational fear, especially when considered next to the big one I just mentioned. I’m more worried about what happens, or doesn’t happen, to me in the afterlife. If the worms want my corpse, they can have it. I’m not a believer in any forthcoming bodily resurrections. I didn’t think Pap was, either.
Since we were in the neighborhood, we drove the ten miles or so from Hancock up into Fulton County, Pennsylvania, to lay a wreath on the grave of my Grandma Lashley, Mom’s mom, who died around the same time Pap did. The headstone has been the subject of much head-shaking and eye-rolling since it was first placed. Pap Lashley (Mom’s dad) is a born-again preacher who accepted the salvation of Christ way back in 1966, but apparently declined the Lord’s help in reforming his many vices and faults of character. The headstone has a banner carved across the top of its face that declares Pap Lashley to be (“have been,” by the time he’s under there) a hunter of souls and a fisher of men. There is his full name and date of birth, with Grandma’s name and birthdate graciously placed beside, and below that, in lieu of “Died” or some other announcement of the death date, the phrase “Moved into New Mansion,” followed by an empty space to be filled in with the date of Pap Lashley’s death. Grandma, who has been dead and buried for a good many Christmases now, still has no date of death recorded on her side of the stone.
I asked Mom about this today, after I had laid the wreath on Grandma’s half of the plot. “He thinks she never died,” Mom answered.
“Then where is she?” I asked.
“You know how his mind works.”
Well, maybe, maybe not. The last time I spoke to Pap Lashley, the subject of Grandma’s incomplete headstone inscription didn’t come up. If I ever speak with him again, I might ask him just whose corpse it is beneath the grass and dirt in front of that big ol’ LASHLEY headstone, since Grandma isn’t dead. Or maybe I should ask him why she didn’t warrant a grand declaration of the day she moved into her new mansion in the clouds. But I think I know the answer to that one. Her mansion is to be his mansion. She’s up there right now, getting it ready for him, dusting and keeping the bed made, ensuring the liquor cabinet is well-stocked. It’s probably the first new set of furniture she’s ever owned. She’ll get to continue on as his obedient and fearful wife, for all eternity. Praise the Lord!
. . .
After the final wreath-laying, the five of us took a drive through the country, eventually circling back around through Mercersburg and returning home to Clear Spring. I was hungry and getting a headache from the glass of eggnog I’d drunk on an empty stomach before we left. I started to wonder where the hell we were going and how the hell long it was going to be before I got something to eat. A few minutes went by, then Dad turned to Danny, who was next to him in the front passenger seat, and said, “Deer season’s still in up here, isn’t it?”
Now we have it. Out looking for deer. This is the sort of guy my Dad is, and something I dearly love him for. He’s fifty-two, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, a hard worker who has busted his ass to feed and clothe and educate his wife and sons for most of his life; and when he thinks there’s a chance to catch a glimpse of a buck, he might as well be ten years old.
For miles and miles and miles we drove, everyone looking out the windows, scanning the woods and farmlands for antlers or flashes of white tail. We saw a great many cows. We passed by a farm with a little stream winding through it, with ducks and geese paddling along on top. But no deer. “They’re all laying down somewhere trying to keep warm,” Granny said.
“Or they’re all dead,” said Danny.
“I thought for sure we’d see some deer out here,” Dad said, continuing to scan as he drove. “That’s just sad.”
I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting them as I’ve grown older, but I still can’t stand up to the old man when it comes to looking for deer. He needs glasses to read the paper now, but he can still spot a deer through a quarter-mile of woods from a truck doing fifty miles an hour. It was quite a handy skill fifteen, twenty years ago when he worked winters as a guide at Woodmont, and always carried a rifle in a rack behind the seat of his truck, in case he spotted a doe he thought would go well on our supper table, or ground up into sausage, or dried and smoked into jerky. He doesn’t hunt anymore. I haven’t hunted since Woodmont became state property in 1995. We both have more or less the same reason: we no longer see the point.
As it turns out, it wasn’t me or Dad who spotted them — it was Mom. She tapped on her window and shouted that she saw three of them. We all looked. In a small clearing beyond a row of trees, three doe stood with their noses to the ground, sorting through the yellow grass for a few bites of green. “There they are,” Mom and I said at the same time, as though they’d been expected, as though we’d been driving all this way to find these particular deer.
Pap would have been pleased. It was from him that Dad inherited his yen for deer-watching. “I knew we’d find us a few more if we just kept looking long enough,” he would have said. “There’s always a few more.”
May it always be so.