Songs of Gentle Sadness
By Buie Seawell
Papa, Gran and I are just standing there together looking west. The sun is setting. Deep golden shreds of fire dance off the ancient oak tree’s limbs and leaves. It is monastically quiet. I am in complete peace with myself, my world, my ending up. And I am watching it all from the steps of the back porch at the house on Elm Street. I’m framing myself in a forever.
I’m not sure how we got there. Maybe Gran said, “Son, come with me and Papa and watch the day ending.” Or maybe Papa said, “Jake, let’s go feed those dogs.” He kept his bird dogs, three of them, chained near their doghouse in the back yard. And maybe Gran came along and said, “Oh, Professor, look at the sun setting. Hold Jake’s hand and stand with me a while.” I just know I am there eternally, held and holding.
I would give most anything to know more about that day. Why it is stuck in my mind? Just a single frame in a movie that I cannot recall, either the scenes of or the credits for. How can that moment be so clear in my mind with no segue forward or back?
Was it the day my five year old friend Mickey died? He lived just four doors up Elm Street from Papa and Gran’s big house. We played roughhouse on his front porch two days before, until his mother called a halt to our silly rambunctiousness by saying, “Hey you two, I can’t hear myself think in here!” Then she brought us some Kool-Aid with ice in it, and we sat there on the front steps feeling the red liquid cool our hands, mouths, and insides. When I saw him again it was at Stephen’s Funeral Home. He wasn’t Mickey anymore.
I had cried a lot. I hadn’t heard of death before, at least not for people, especially not for friends or family. And Gran just held me in her lap, pushing the green swing slowly back and forth with her foot. “There are things that don’t make sense,” was all she said. She was a really religious person. Believed in Jesus and all, but that’s what she said, “There are some things that don’t make sense.” Maybe it was later that day.
Mickey had been riding with his uncle in a milk delivery truck, going over to Red Springs really early in the morning on a summer Saturday. They said it was an accident. Maybe his uncle dozed off. Anyway, it didn’t make any sense to me. It just meant that he wasn’t there on Sunday afternoon when I went down to his house to play. A wreath was on the front door. I’m glad Gran told me it didn’t make sense. Maybe it was when I came back to her house that afternoon that we stood together looking west.
Or maybe it was one day when Papa and I had come back from riding out to see the farms in his Packard. I loved those rides. Papa smoked and chewed his White Owl cigar, and talked to me about rain and weather and crops and who was worth a damn and who wasn’t as tenants, and who he was “probably going to have to let go,” whatever that meant. I was real good at listening and pretending I understood all his farm talk. The best part was I didn’t have to do anything but “uh huh, uh huh, uh huh” a lot. It was like being grown up. I was good at riding out to see the farms.
We always took one or two of the bird dogs. Papa would let them run around with the farm dogs when we stopped to see how Strickland or Mr. Kinlaw or the Locklears were doing. One of the dogs was named Beauty and another named Jake. They were white with mauve and brown spots, and could run like crazy. I liked them, but they licked my face a lot and clearly did not see me as their boss. Papa would have to whistle to make them get off me. Papa was just about everybody’s boss.
I can remember getting home from the farms with cut okra and tomatoes and corn, and sometimes a big pork rump, if it was fall and Strickland had killed a pig. Strickland had a wife and nine kids. But he always saved us a piece of the pigs and calves he slaughtered. Gran would tell us when we got home what a good job we did farming! Maybe it was a day like that, when happy to have been with Papa and knowing Gran was going to fry the okra for dinner, that we stood there watching the sun and feeling whole.
In years that came I retained that still life. I’m not one to meditate. I get bored too quickly. But in times of trouble or in times of joy, if I’m still a minute, I get centered again in that perspective. And there we are. Just us three. Gran and Papa are gone, of course, but I know where to find them, where they are. And I know where I will be one day — with them looking west feeling a deepness in wonder to last forever.