Wheatfield Near Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Photograph by Robert Clements

Thursday, June 23, 2011

When Life Hands You Lemmon

The largest Petrified Wood Park in the world is in Lemmon, South Dakota.
May was.  Well, it was.  My family was shaken to its core with the sudden death of a beloved Uncle.  I flew back East to attend his funeral and to give a eulogy on behalf of the cousins who were lucky enough to grow up with him.  He was special.   Really, you hear that, but he was truly unique within a rough-and-tumble Irish/French family.  He stood apart, both a gentle man and a gentleman.  I don't believe we understand yet that he's gone, but we will as time marches the feck on, glancing back to say, "Oh, did I drop something?" then shrugging and moving along in the insouciant way it does.  My uncle left me and his eldest daughter the ability to find four-leaf clovers at a glance.  I've found several since his death, but I stop at each clump I see to check it out, to see if I can still do it without him in this world.  Grieving someone is a random act of remembering this and that about them and falling apart with sorrow over those little moments.  It's also realizing at some point that that person truly meant it and isn't coming back.  I know one of my cousins reads my blog, and I'm sorry, honey, if I've made you cry.  We are all so tough, and so tender.  The pastor of his church came up to me after the service and we talked about what a wonderful person he was.  I said to him, and I believe this, that I'm not sure where he came from, but they wanted him back.  And they're lucky to have him.  Better take care of him or there will be hell to pay from the Callan clan, and it won't be pretty.

And again.  May was. Two acquaintances and a dog friend left this mortal coil, back in Maine.  It's so odd to be this far away when things irreparably change.  Do they really happen, if I'm not there?  Oh, yes they do. It's difficult to move into a new life when the old one pulls at my heartstrings and my memories, in the ways that May did, yet time on the prairie is moving along. 

The elements out here are so very vivid and so in one's face, that somehow they supersede time with their brilliance and their insistence that one pays attention.  Fawns are dropping, calves are turning square and bulky, the rubbery legs on colts make me cry, they're so beautiful, and the sky is cupping the blue palm of its big working hand over everything beneath it.  And it's so green!  All that rain has made the usually brown and sere hills positively verdant.  It's such a joy to drive along nestled between that emerald.  It reminds me of that time in Ireland when I rented a tiny car and drove to Donegal.  That time when I stopped along a stretch of road on cliffs that led to a beach with a backdrop of foggy mountains.  As I stood there, a seagull coasted up on wind currents and we were eye to eye for a moment.  I look for signs when I travel, or spend my little drive-abouts in search of a direction.  This seagull signaled some sort of sea change.  When I returned from Ireland, I set my course in another direction.  And that is the way I've gone since then.

I received royalties for Rubinrotes Herz, Eisblaue See in May, amidst everything else.  I was, frankly, shocked and kind of delighted.  So shocked and delighted that I bought a Hyundai Santa Fe.  The Santa Fe (licensed Florine) and I are getting used to one another.  The other night she brought me through a prairie thunderstorm with little fuss and no skids.  I am selling the little 1992 Nissan Sentra that brought me out here last fall, despite everyone's dire predictions that she would break down.  She's been getting me around just fine, but I want to feel a little taller and a little more air-bagged in case something happens when I drive east, although it would be almost a straight line if it weren't for those big lakes in the middle of the country.  It's pretty boring and awfully safe to drive 80 and 90.

Me, Rua, and Florine the 1992 Nissan Sentra - Bob's shadow. 
But here, again, the Nissan is regurgitating memories.  It belonged to my mother, who drove it for years after she got her license when she was 69, after my father's failing eyesight caused him to hang up his car keys.  My brother, Mikey, who has been gone for lo these 17 years, helped her to pick it out.  She drove it until she suffered a stroke while driving it - how did she know something was off - "Well, I couldn't control the speed," she says.  So, the little Nissan went to my brother, Mickey, who gave it to one of my nieces, who drove it up to Baxter State Park for a season.  Tonight, I will vacuum out the remnants of pine needles and Maine dirt, plus prairie sod and mud from the dog.  I'll transfer what makes sense and trash the rest.  I have taken the St. Christopher's medallion my mother carried in the car, and I'll probably take the booster cushion she sat on, too.  Dog toys, a dirty towel, and that's all she wrote.  Someone will drive her away and I hope she has a wonderful life.  Now, my South Dakota vehicle will move me forward, when I'm not in reverse.

She moved me forward to the northern town of Lemmon the other day.  Why?  I don't know, I wanted to visit a town named Lemmon.  (There is also a town named Tea, but I haven't gotten the urge, yet.)  I drove 170 plus miles along a wide western highway, almost deserted at times, with the loneliness and wonder that vast landscapes can dredge from one's soul on either side.  Sometimes, there were cows and occasional deer and antelope.  It was prairie windy, butte solid, with a touch of the prehistoric whirling through my brain between songs on the radio.  I took Rua, and we made one pit stop along the road in Hettinger, where the last great buffalo hunt took place, and where Custer passed through, or passed gas, or something.  Not a fan.  Can you tell?

So, we drove into Lemmon, and headed directly for its claim to fame.  Lemmon has the largest petrified wood park in the world.  Over the years, formations made of wood and native stones and minerals have been built and formed into castles, walls, pyramids, plinths, and other stuff that's both fascinating and weird.  The imagination is a wonderful thing.  The things we think up to do to leave a mark on the world is truly mind boggling.  So it was in Lemmon.  I sat on a wrought-iron bench - the only thing in the park that wasn't cemented together into a shape - and ate lunch, little dog by my side, watching June spin its second Friday through its damp fingers, watching time pass, watching time captured in this little park.  Then I took my dog, who wasn't supposed to be in the park but was, anyway, climbed into the new car, purchased by something I made up which has evidently left a mark in Germany, and drove along the bottom of North Dakota before dropping onto the top of South Dakota and heading back down to Belle Fourche, where time has its own meaning.

I'm driving East in July, with the little dog.  I'll spend ten days with my family, and then Bob will join me and we'll visit friends and loved ones.  My nephew is getting married on July 30th and it promises to be a good time.  We'll all be a little more fragile, and a little sweeter than we were when we were last together.  We'll memorize faces and moments to hang on to, and then Bob and I and the dog will drive back West before the motorcycle rally in August.  I hope that he'll reach over the console and cup his big hand over my own hand, often, because I love the shelter that feeling brings, and I love the warmth in that simple gesture.  And maybe, just maybe, time will petrify for just a bit and we can all breathe easier because we know we can love, and that we're loved, and that time, despite its relentless, thoughtless trudge, has no freakin' say about that. Because, well, love just is. 

Bob and me, after climbing Bear Butte, in South Dakota.