by Julie Cadwallader Staub
A battered windmill still stands at Silent Land, a cemetery in southwestern Kansas, where some of my late husband’s family is buried. Nearby, a modest stone structure that used to house bathrooms has settled into the ground, its painted signs “women” and “men” still visible above the splintered doors—reminding us of an era when tending graves and visiting the dead was a regular, perhaps treasured, part of life.
We gather under a few stunted trees at the center of the cemetery for the interment of beloved Auntie Cleone, who died at 99, just a few days ago. Even under the trees, I have to shade my eyes against the unrelenting sun to gaze at the short rows of headstones. I’m remembering the way she harvested dozens of peonies still tight in their buds, wrapped each one in wax paper, twisted the top to slow the blossom, and tucked them into Ball jars. Then she stored the captive peonies in the ice box until the night before Memorial Day. I’m picturing the Country Squire loaded for the drive to Silent Land with crates of empty orange juice cans, the released peonies bobbing in five gallon buckets, and sprigs of mock orange, their lavish fragrance permeating the station wagon. Her three children scraped through the sun-baked earth, scooping out holes for the orange juice cans next to the headstones of great aunts and great uncles, grandparents, and the great grandparents who homesteaded the farm. And they carried bouquet after bouquet to these makeshift vases, filling them with scarlet and crimson and cream—and water, precious water, drawn bucketful by bucketful from the well beneath the windmill.
Now as we move to sit under the shade of a sheltering tent at her graveside, my gaze shifts from the cemetery to the fields of dry-land wheat, rippling in the wind, on every side, on every side, of Silent Land.
If you have a grief as big as mine–
and if you love in this world
I’ll bet you do–
come to southwestern Kansas
stand in the wheat fields
near a town aptly named Plains.
Feel the way that vast Kansas sky
changes solitude into loneliness
in a heartbeat
the way loneliness morphs into sorrow
a sorrow as heavy as it is invisible
a sorrow with no room for anything but itself.
Ah — you can build a house out of this kind of sorrow.
You can line its walls with resentment.
Paper over its doors and windows with bitterness.
You can live in this sturdy, narrow house
a long, long time.
Or—you can let your eyes travel
over the bounty of the wheat fields.
You can notice the way
they stretch for miles to the horizon the horizon
so far away
the sky has to bend down to reach it.
And it does.
See how decisively, definitively
it reaches for the earth.
by Julie Cadwallader Staub
Comfort was published in ARTS: The Arts in Religious and Theological Studies 26.3 (2015)