Sitting on a small bench by her husband’s headstone, Zora was waiting.
Clyde spoke. “How was Ben today?”
Zora chuckled in short bursts, like she was hiccupping. “As usual, didn’t have much to say.”
Since Mary died, Clyde had not found anything funny, but this made him smile. “Not much different than when he was alive. Ben never was much for words.” Clyde’s solemn face returned like a hungry wolf to its prey. “All these tombstones, a permanent reminder of death. Are they meant to fill the void I feel when I can no longer talk to my brothers, my dad, my aunts and uncles?”
“There’s nothing stopping you from talking to them, Clyde. They will talk back, if you listen.”
“What are you talking about? They’re dead! They can’t have a conversation with me.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. Talk. You’ll hear answers. Their advice, wisdom, mistakes, and regrets were not buried with the body. They remain with you.” Zora stopped to pull a white embroidered handkerchief from her purse. “See this? My grandmother sewed it as a present for my wedding. Each time I use it, I hear her words. Love your husband, but don’t let him rule you. Love your kids, but don’t tie the apron strings too tight. Remember to keep the butter cold when you make biscuits.” Zora dabbed at a tear and then pointed to the family plot. “Go on, talk to your dad and your brothers. I’ll wait here for you.”
He stopped at the grave of Charles Young Baker, his father. What would his father say about this strange longing in Clyde’s heart? Maybe if his father had not died before Clyde married, he could have told him love is like a corn crop, planting is only the beginning; to make it grow you’ve got to cultivate it, till the ground, pull out any weeds threatening to strangle it.
Clyde could see his dad with his foot resting on the lower rung of the wooden fence surrounding their pasture. “That alfalfa sure looks green, but you can’t let the cows on it or cut it. It’s not yours. It’s John’s. Pining over something that’s not yours will get you nowhere.”
Next to his father’s grave, Clyde read Mary Anne on the headstone. They called his mother Polly, because there were too many Marys in the family. He could have talked to her about his marriage, but she was English, a proper lady, who did not openly discuss marital problems and certainly not anything to do with sex. She was not too fond of Mary. When Clyde told his mom he was marrying, she said, “At least she’s not Catholic.” Clyde knew his mom was a stoic wife. He could hear her talking to Mary. “A wife’s place is with her husband, regardless of what he does. Turn the other cheek, Mary. A woman is in no condition to fend for herself without a husband.”
None of Clyde’s brothers and sisters was alive. He struggled to remember conversations, words said to help him understand this longing, this regret. His father, his mother, his aunts, and uncles buried here had all emigrated from England, and he could see their eyes open wide with wrinkles of happiness when letters from home arrived. Clyde remembered a letter from his grandfather, Grevase, still in England, because his uncles cried as it was read aloud. I would have written sooner, but I have been ill and in bed for several days. Even as a small kid, Clyde knew these words could do nothing to soothe the longing for those left behind. They didn’t repair the rip in his uncles’ hearts. He wondered if those rips ever healed. Would his?
Clyde saw the grave markers for his uncles, William, Jarvis, and John. All had fought in the Civil War. Jarvis gave his life for the good of his adopted country, and that sacrifice is etched in his gray, fieldstone grave marker: An American citizen and soldier. A noble life devoted to honor and country.
Zora came up to Clyde and put her arm in his. “Time to go.”
A hint of a smile crept across Clyde’s face. “When we get to church, remind me to tell Martha that she needs to make her cherry pie extra sweet when it’s time for her to bake it for my funeral. My youngest, Millie, has a sweet tooth. I know she will complain if it’s not sweet enough.”
Zora tilted her head slightly and looked at Clyde over the top of her wire-rimmed glasses. “What made you think of that?”
“Cherry pie was Dad’s favorite dessert. He also liked it sweet.”
The two began walking. Zora waved her free arm to all the farmland surrounding the cemetery. “Look in any direction, and see the work of your aunts, uncles, and father. This land has thrived on the sweat of their bodies. Listen and you might hear the distant moo of a Holstein waiting to be milked by the dry, chapped hands of your aunt Eliza, perhaps her husband, William, starting up the thrashing machine, maybe it’s uncle Henry crying over the death of Martha, his first wife, or the wind rustling the green wheat.”
Clyde knew Zora was right. She spoke of the legacy of his family, but would he, Clyde, only be remembered for his failed marriage, his mediocre politics?
As he walked with Zora away from the graves of his family, Clyde knew there was more to the void left by the death of Mary, his family; it was the great void of God that he feared and yet longed for. They stopped at his pink marble headstone. His name, Clyde Ethel Baker, was waiting a final date. And he waited, hoping that death would be more than another void.