On the day of my mother’s funeral, over 30 years ago now, I took my Great-Uncle Carl for a drive around Beaverhead County, Montana. It was a Chinook-warm winter-day and he had driven from Eastern Washington with other uncles and aunts and cousins for my mother’s funeral and he asked me to take him on a car ride so he could see the country around Dillon, Montana.
The oldest child of immigrant homesteaders, Uncle Carl had dropped out of school after 8th grade to support his younger brothers and sisters, many of whom ended up as teachers and nurses. One of his many legacies was that as long as he lived each brother and sister and niece and nephew and grand-niece and grand-nephew who graduated from high school received a new watch from Uncle Carl. Mine was a Timex with a gray leather band.
He spent his life as a ranch hand, living in bunkhouses. I remember my mom telling me once that he and my Uncle Rudy, who was also a life-long bachelor, had both had great loves at one time that never worked out. If she knew what happened, she never told us.
When I was in elementary school, we lived in the town in Eastern Washington where my mother had grown up… in the house right next door to the one she was born in, and where she grew up. My Uncle Carl had a room in our house that he would stay in sometimes, usually on weekends.
Quite often he would load my brother Paul, my cousin Jimmy who lived next door, and me into his old car and take us for a ride around in the country, looking at farms and old homesteads and hayfields: “That’s the old Munson place… Your Uncle Rudy and Aunt Chris saw a cougar over there… I lost the milk wagon on this bend….”
Now on the day we were burying his niece and my mother, it was my turn to return the favor. We drove on small country roads, stopping every now and then to look at steers or horses or an irrigation ditch. What I remember most about that drive was something he said as we were passing a stack of hay bales. He said how much he loved in the winter to break open a bale of hay and how the sweet green smells of summer tumbled out. He said you could close your eyes and feel summer, no matter how cold it was.
I have thought of that image often over the years and always wanted to write a poem using it. This is not the poem I imagined, but is the one I recently wrote.