Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Wonderful Time To Live

John Ramsey Miller

It is snowing outside and I spent the day getting the old place prepared for the storm by cutting kindling, stacking logs on the porch, covering woodpiles and steps with tarps, gassing up my SUV and making room under the carport for it, making sure the chickens had plenty of water and food, putting a cover over their heated container, putting covers on the faucets outdoors, building a fire in the wood burning fireplace, and all while babysitting my granddaughter who was out here sick from school while her parents worked. I have a motorized wheelbarrow and I was making trips back and forth while she stood in the window waving at me. When she is well she rides in it.

Lately Sasha is preoccupied with her grandmother and me being soooo old. This afternoon she told me that I was getting too many sparkles on my face and hands. I said, “Sparkles?”
“No, that isn’t the word,” she said.
“Wrinkles?” I asked.
“Yep, wrinkles. Too many wrinkles. CAuse you're old.”
On the way home she said, “Look, Dotz, it’s a graveyard.”
“Yes, that’s a graveyard,” I agreed.
“Is that where you and grandma are going to sleep when you die?”
“Well, no,” I said. “We’re going to a much nicer graveyard where they have cable TV and Wi-Fi for our computers.”

My grandsons are more interested in what they can have when we die. They have asked for very little but are very specific about it.

Like Gilstrap wrote on his blog, I also think and write about death and destruction and it’s a subject I know better than I'd like. I have seen death and the destruction guns and knives and cars can do to human beings and it made quite an impression on me starting at an early age. We lived across the street from a funeral home when I was ten or so, and that was where my experience began. Our neighborhood kids used to lie on our stomachs and watch Mr. Barry embalm people in the basement. He always had the louvered-glass windows open and he never saw us as his back was usually to us. It was like watching horror movies. We used to run when we heard the ambulances heading for the hospital and we’d stand, an audience of innocents, watching as some unfortunate victim was wheeled in on a gurney. Often the ambulance (again Mr. Barry) would often make a quick stop before putting the vic back into the ambulance (it doubled as the hearse for black funerals at the other Barry home in another part of town) and it had red lights in the grill and a howling siren. The lights were covered with black cloth baggies for funerals. It showed me a side of death I’ve carried with me since.

I have a problem in that I never know what to tell kids about death, how to explain it without instill fear and worry in them. I told Sasha that the old moves aside so the young can have room to grow up, that it was true with every living thing. I told her that dying was just like being born into this world but in another place. I’m not sure about that but I don’t mind lying to children about that.

Before my funeral home days in Starkville, Mississippi, when I was five or six, my eighty-four-year old grandfather died, and I remember how empty I felt and how sad it made me. I took little consolation in people telling me he was in heaven. I only knew he was never coming back and that I’d never sit in his lap and use his pocket knife to carefully cut cubes of tobacco for him to chew. I’d never hear him tell me stories about his life as a cattleman, about gunfights in downtown Hazzlehurst, about driving cattle in storms, of lean times, of being gored by a bull and thrown by horses into bad places. Although I took no consolation in the idea of Papa in heaven, I did in the fact that he died of a stroke while cheering the Friday Night Fights on TV in the nursing home. I am so glad that I knew him for the years I did, and how he called my mama, “baby” and I thought she was truly old.

As I’ve grown older I’ve seen a lot of people I knew and loved die, and it’s never easy. Never. But it has given me feelings to run my fingers over and to put into my words.

Sasha told me she liked graveyards with rocks in them, not just lots of vases with flowers in them. I agree, those graveyards with flat plaques are pastoral but bleak, and if I intended to end up in one, I’d want to be in an interesting one where people come and walk around and read inscriptions, and maybe even sat lean against a tombstone to read a book on a warm summer day.

After we passed by that bleak country graveyard, I also told her that although I seemed old to her, I was going to live a long, long time and that I planned to be there when she was older and maybe I’d even drool into my lap at her wedding. And I told her I’d be there to hold her babies just like I held her when she was one. I don’t know if I’ll be true to my word, but I plan to try.


  1. Try hard, John. It's important to me that you do that.


  2. John, Thanks for a tender and thought-provoking post. I'm a lot closer to the end of my allotment of years than you, but this weekend we have a nine-month old granddaughter with us, and I intend to make every effort to be around to watch her and all the other grandchildren grow up.

  3. Not fair--you made me cry!! It really brought make a lot of memories of my grandma and step-grandpa (on mom's side). I'm a scrapbooker and amateur genealogist, so those memories get put to good use!

  4. Very thought-provoking words, John. Thanks for sharing. We live in a small town where everyone knows everyone. My eight-year-old daughter has met and befriended a number of elderly folk, some who've since passed on. She seems to take it in stride, telling me she'll see them in heaven someday. Like they'll just pick up where they left off. I like that thought.

  5. Good stuff. Death is our final destination in this life, and after that? Whatever you believe about the end what you do on this side of the river is what counts. Live like today is your last day, love as if you will never seen them again. Because we never know when we'll end up in the box.

  6. All we have for sure is the past and the present. The future is a gift.