When I was a boy, my mother and my grandparents took us to Six Flags over Texas. On the way, we stopped at the feed store in Texarkana, Texas owned by my Great Aunt Blanche and my Great Uncle Bill.
I believe that was my first time in a feed store. It's also one of my first memories, I suppose. There were all sorts of feeds and seeds and ropes and things. I think this was the first time I met my great aunt and great uncle.
Uncle Bill and Aunt Blanche allowed my brother and I to each choose a straw cowboy hat. Upstairs at my parents' home, there are "Olen Mills" photos of my brother and I. In mine, I have the last vestiges of childhood blonde hair, a huge smile, and the hat pulled off my face as if I were in a western cowboy singer movie. I wore that straw hat for years.
Uncle Bill died years ago. I do not remember what he looked like, nor anything he did, other than run a feed store and give me a hat. I've seen my Aunt Blanche a few times over the years. She came to stay with my grandfather for a time, when he was alive. She came to my sister's most recent wedding. I remember her as friendly, and quiet, and with a mildly tart sense of humour, seldom shown.
She died last week after being in a coma for months.
I cannot say we were close. I cannot name her children, nor her grandchildren, or say anything but the most general things about her life. I am not as good as I ought to be about Christmas cards and sympathy notes and telephoning long lost cousins. We had a family reunion a few years ago in Texarkana, in which I marveled how the generation of cousins now in their twenties ranged from would-be rock stars to would-be professional sports figures to would-be ministers of the Gospels.I believe my Aunt Blanche was there, but she was more a presence than a roman candle, when I knew her.
Her hands looked all of ninety five, crossed over her. Her face looked a bit younger, perhaps. She seemed very familiar and real to me. She seemed far away. She was a part of my life, and she was not a part of my life, and she is now gone.
Someday I want to go to Strong, Arkansas, and see where my grandfathers' people lived. I want to go to the place in the desert where their father tried, unsuccessfully, to recover from TB. I want to find the tape I have of my grandfather doing a lay preacher talk at some rural church. He said his mother was a Cain, and that he believes in the words of that song, "give me that old time religion--it's good enough for me".
The man at the Texarkana funeral home, right on that street that turns from Arkansas Street to Texas Street when it crosses State Line Boulevard, had a nice brown suit on. He had that quiet, friendly, strong voice I believe they teach in mortuary school. Her casket was metal. I stopped to look deeply for a moment, then I signed the book with our names. I printed, because nobody can read my cursive anymore. We were the only ones there. There were a few other names in the book. The formal "visiting", where her immediate family with receive visitors, is later today. The funeral is tomorrow. I am in court tomorrow, and cannot go. The nice young man had me wheel the car in back, where the hearses go, so that I could pick up my wife without her getting rained upon. He did not seem "put out" that we were dressed for a road trip home rather than a funeral.
My Aunt Blanche died. My Great Uncle Singleton died. My grandfather died. Thus ends a generation. Her hands grasped one another tightly, but I think she was ready to let go.
As we drove through northeast Texas, we saw black eyed susans in bloom everywhere. The rain fell steadily. One of her grandchildren lives in Los Angeles, and plays music. He uses "Cain" as his stage surname. I believe his band broke up. I should buy their CDs. I believe the feed store close down years ago. I am going to buy a straw hat.
In those Russian novels, the characters come and go. It's hard to keep them all straight. My life is like that, sometimes. But, as in Russian novels, sometimes the smallest reconnection moves me. Then I am alive, and the moments keep passing.