Most people who “read me” (really, I laugh at the arrogance of that notion) know that I grew up on a farm, and that I lived and worked there until I was thirty-one years of age, when, to preserve our health, my wife and kids and I moved to Oregon. They also know, if they aren’t completely bored and are paying any attention at all, that I do not have what is in common parlance called “a college education.” Truth be told, I was at a university just long enough to get drunk and married, neither of which I regret, and which are, in fact, two of the best things I’ve ever done. While the drunkenness has taken on other comically exaggerated forms, the marriage, now in its thirty-seventh year, continues to blossom, thrive, and grow. Soon after our wedding, my father’s mother wisely referred to us as “two children playing.” She’d be glad, I’m sure, to know that her description is still apropos.
A few months before, although he would never have put it in those terms, my father was delighted at the prospect of our future life together. When my grandparents were married, his father was twenty-one. When my parents were married, my father was twenty. When my wife and I were married, I was nineteen. But the fact is, I was married from the time I was fifteen or so — life just hadn’t led me to the right girl yet. I offer this revelatory tidbit as one who has elsewhere entertained the possibility that his writing life began at birth, or even before. Of who I can be sure; how, and where, and when, remain a mystery.
It hurt my father to see us go. Bodily, by doing too much of the work he loved, he had been crumbling for years. He understood the logic of our departure, which was first and foremost for the benefit of his grandchildren. But without my hands and help there was no longer purpose to his farm, and without that purpose, and having to endure a steadily increasing amount of physical pain, purpose quietly eroded within himself.
I can’t count the times he has appeared to me in dreams, or that I’ve wondered if our continued presence would have helped him stay alive. And I still dream of the farm, with its big and small jobs needing to be done. Sometimes I find I’m late and have fallen far behind: how will I prune twenty acres of vines now that spring has arrived? There’s water in the ditch; polliwogs and crawdads teem along the edge. A buzzard drifts; a bullfrog calls.
The other day, I shared a dream in which I’d found him spreading ashes in the vineyard. With infinite patience, he was placing a shovelful at the base of each vine. Ash. Why ash? In my book, Winter Poems, there’s a page-long poem called “A Thimbleful of Ash” that I wrote more than six years ago on Christmas Eve. It ends thus:
The vineyards are asleep.The neighbors have gone to bed.In the far distance, a baby cries.I still remember what he said:Long lives, a thimbleful of ash.
And so, again, I say I don’t know how, or where, or when. But of who I can be sure. He is a child. He is a man. He is everyone who is, and who has ever been. And I must sleep if I am to remember him.