A stake in the ground

A stake in the ground

There is a stake in the ground just below the gully of willow trees, above the creek, in the back field of our farm marking the spot where my grandfather died. You can’t see this spot from our house, or from the barns, but if you walk down toward the creek or take a boat along the waters you can look up and see the two hills nestling one another, creating a crevice where a few trees have sprung up, their branches windblown to the right, the east. Below their grove is a lone stake reaching up into the sky; not far—maybe five, six feet—but because there is nothing else around it stands out.

As the story goes, one day my grandfather didn’t come home so my dad went out looking for him. My grandfather was a drunk. My father went to the two local taverns, checking to see if he was slumped over on a stool. He returned empty handed, and at some point, he walked the thousand acres of our property. I don’t know if he went at night, or in the twilight hours of the morning; if he started in the back field or on some other parcel, but at some point my dad discovered his father resting, dead, in what we call the backfield. And my dad put a stake in the ground to mark the spot.

I never heard this story firsthand when it happened; I wouldn’t be born for another 11 years. But I heard the story so many times, and my dad pointed out the spot again and again—we would walk to it, look at it from the backfield, and if we were riding the motor boat down the creek, my dad would slip into neutral to make sure we knew the spot where he discovered Grandpa. My father didn’t seem sad or melancholic when he told us this story; he was more matter of fact, but now, as an adult, I wonder if there mustn’t have been a twinge of sadness in his eyes, in his voice, each time he passed the place where his father passed away. I wonder if he carried his dad’s body back to the barns, back to the house, or if he had to go back to the yard to get a truck and then carry my grandfather’s body back. I wonder what he told his mother, Grandma Hilda, and if he showed her the body—if she felt sad or if she expected this outcome from her husband who couldn’t go a day without a drink.

Later, my father—I remember him when I was six-seven-eight years old—taking out a bottle of bourbon or whiskey only when he had a sore throat; he’d take a shot, and then put it away. In the farming business people gave my father bottles of fancy liquor for the holidays never realizing that he wasn’t a drinker. Our cabinet was stocked full. My father didn’t drink because he saw what it did to my grandfather, but every once in awhile he’d pour himself one single shot of something strong “to kill the bugs in my throat.” My father was loud and boastful and intensely aware of everything happening in the room, but he wasn’t a drinker.

I think about this story often, the stake in the ground, because years later, my own brother Martin would discover our dad in the field, and the thought of finding a dead body in the blades of green grass haunts me. I wonder if that moment haunts Martin. I worry about these things because they say that legacies happen in cycles of three; and I fret over who may die, who of our generation may rest their body down in the field and who may discover that body. I worry it may be Martin or perhaps someone else in our family. Martin didn’t put a stake in the ground, so I don’t know the exact place where my father died, but I know the whereabouts. I know you can see the creek, further east from where Grandpa died, before it snakes under the bridge and to our property; I know my father died looking north, nestled in the hills of the property on the other side of the road. But I don’t know the exact location and I don’t have a stake to mark its spot and I don’t know what happened when Martin found his body; if he was surprised, or shocked, or sad, or alarmed. I know he called the family, and eventually the coroner came and took my father’s body to the funeral home. But there is no stake in the ground, no tether holding us to that place, that particular patch of grass where my father took his last breath.

These stories—that of my grandfather, which I heard but didn’t witness firsthand, and that of my father, which I didn’t witness but felt firsthand—they are like pearls in a necklace, shining white balls that are knotted tightly to the string, though sometimes there’s a fear one will snap off and fall to the ground. These stories are buried deeply in the history of my family, and no matter how far I run or what distance I put between myself and land where I grew up, our cells originated from the same place, and our love of the country and dirt trails and hard work and big family parties reign above all else, even if we tell ourselves otherwise.