What Is A Place?
The New Hope Baptist Church is a place that I often think about. I went to church there a few times as a child but the most memorable experience I had there is the bittersweet recollection of laying my Great-Grandfather to rest in the church cemetery. The church itself is isolated out in the hills on a very old winding road that runs next to the Missouri River. It was February 20th, 2010 and the air was a bit chilly but the sun still shone brightly on the small cemetery that solemn day. As I stood under the tree that my Grandfather would be laid next to, I looked out into the fields below and saw vast waves of green shimmering back and forth with the breeze. With every breath I could almost taste the crisp coolness in my mouth. At the time I had wondered how I was going to make it through the day.
Normally a day like this wouldn’t seem so beautiful considering the circumstances, but God must have been incredibly happy to have such a strong soul back in Heaven with Him because he blessed my Grandfather’s home going with a gorgeous day. The birds sang loudly as everyone else stood in what seemed to be hours of silence except for the occasional stifled cough or sniffle. I could smell my Great-Grandmother’s perfume as she stood in front of us as still as a statue. Though she was trying her hardest to stay strong you could see the distraught look she carried in her eyes. I remember thinking to myself that the pain in her eyes must be what the fear of being alone forever looks like.
My stomach felt incredibly deep as my cousins carried the casket down to the solemn, chilling grave. Flashes of memories, like images frozen in time, played through my mind at a thousand miles a minute. I wanted to smile and frown, laugh and sob, all at the same time. Although my emotions were as twisted up as a ball of yarn, one thing was clear in my mind, and that was the fact that I would never get to hear my Grandpa’s jokes again, or see his warm smile. Most of all I would miss hearing his voice on Christmas Eve reading the story of the birth of Jesus out of The Bible. Although those thoughts absolutely crushed my spirit, the idea of my Grandpa being laid to rest next to our past family, slightly eased my mind.
My attention had been on the Marines that were ceremoniously folding the American flag that had been resting on top of my Grandfather’s casket. I hadn’t known that each of the twelve folds had a symbolic meaning. When the flag is folded, the starts point upward to remind us of the national motto, In God We Trust(“Military Funeral”). Their decorated uniforms reminded me of how proud my Grandpa was when he was showing his off with a smile. As a young man my grandpa had served in the U.S. Marines overseas in the Vietnam War. He was part of the 540,000 troops located there by December of 1968 (Rosenburg). The image of him in his uniform faded as they handed the folded flag to my Grandmother. My heart dropped and pounded hard in my stomach as I felt short of breath. The flag seemed to be the only thing that Grandma would have left to hold on to and the thought of her feeling sad really broke my heart.
When I heard the first of the gunshots saluting my grandfather, my stomach dropped, much like going over a hill too fast. The sound of each shot pierced through the air, like a needle through silk, and I knew instantly that I would never forget those sharp, ringing seconds. Almost instantly, my pained ears were soothed by the soft melody of “Taps” floating through the crisp air. “Taps” was first played in the civil war with the Army of the Potomac, when Union Army Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield composed it with his bugler Pvt. Oliver Wilcox Norton because he didn’t like the call that signaled soldiers to go to bed. Later it would be used to call “to the sleep of death for soldiers”(Powers). The bugle sounded so distant, yet so perfect that it almost seemed as if the song was being played from the heavens, sounding right through the clouds angelically. Remembering how I sang “Taps” at the end of each day at Girl Scout camp only reminded me that this was the end and there was nothing that anyone could do to change it. A painful lump rose up into my throat and got stuck, making it hard to swallow.
My eyes started to blur as I fought to hold back the tears that should have already been cried. A shiver went up and back down my spine as the finale note of “Taps” rang out and echoed across the field. As I blinked, tears fell from both my eyes, at first warming my face, but then leaving a cold trail behind where they had been. I had lowered my head so that no one saw me cry. All I had wanted was to keep the tears from coming in front of everyone else. I felt a hand on my shoulder and took a deep breath of the cool air. My eyes had been shut for so long that when I opened them it took a few seconds for them to adjust to the light again. I looked up to see my aunt beside me. Together we looked down at the rough ground where my Grandfather’s tombstone would soon rest. We didn’t talk. We didn’t even look at each other. I think she was just as scared of crying as I was.
She stood there with me until I started to shiver and by the time I turned around to walk up the hill, most of the family had already made their way to the top. I walked slowly, feeling every rock under my stiff feet along the path back to the old faded church. Strange, how I could feel life all around me after just laying one to rest. It just didn’t seem right or fair at the time. Only later would I realize how beautifully ironic it really was.
At the top of the hill I stopped and turned around and took a deep breath. I wanted to soak it all in. I looked over that whole hillside slowly. I could see the tree line where the woods ended and the field began. The one tree in the cemetery stood toweringly tall and seemed to be proud to shade the resting souls underneath its long branches. The birds sang and danced in the clear blue sky to their own melodies as a gentle breeze rocked plant life back and forth simultaneously. I took one last deep breath, more of a sigh, and smelled the cool fresh country air once again. As I turned around the corners of my mouth drew up into the slightest grin and let tears roll out of the corners of my eyes.
That day marked the end of a long painful journey. It had been hard on the whole family for years, always worrying about Grandpa’s health problems and seeing him suffer through such pain. I had never felt quite so empty yet so happy and relieved at the same time. It was like two completely opposite emotions intertwining in my heart and my body didn’t quite know which one to express.
As we pulled away, I had my head against the window looking out towards the cemetery. The image of that little paint-chipped church on the hill, with its’ one tree reaching towards the sky, would forever be seared into my memory like hot brand. Though this place carries both good and painful memories, many hellos and few goodbyes, it will forever remain as one of my most peaceful and favorite places I have ever experienced thus far.
Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Vietnam War Timeline." About.com. New York Times, n.d. Web. 7 May 2012. <http://history1900s.about.com>.
"Military Funeral." Wikipedia.org. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 6 May 2012. Web. 7 May 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org>.
Powers, Rod. "Military Funeral Honors." About.cm. New York Times, n.d. Web. 7 May 2012. http://usmilitary.about.com.