Father’s Day: A miracle in the book of stone, In memory of Ralph W. Burger.
June 21, 2009
Note: This piece was originally written shortly after my father’s death in 1981. I have re-posted it, with some changes appropriate to my own life and sensibilities as a write require, on occasional Father’s Days ever since.
The essayist Loren Eiseley once wrote that: “Everything drifts by fire and flood and ruin into the final ambiguous lettering of the Earth’s own book of stone.”
I was startled to realize that my father has been gone for nearly three decades now. His passing marked the end of a period of several years in which most of the giant figures from my childhood faded and fell; my grandmother, an aunt, two uncles, and then my father.
They have faded in my memory now, shadowy figures sitting on the front porch, or the men, in slacks and white t-shirts, standing on the postage-stamp front lawn, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and talking about work at the mill.
They are almost all gone, now.
That untamed, indefinable thing that once swept up the mute salts and minerals of the earth to fling them about in a mad dance has departed as mysteriously as it arrived.
The weary particles sifted down, stunned and silent.
I read once that the universe in which we live was created from the dust of previous generations of stars. I don’t have enough science to argue either for or against the notion, but it pleases me to believe it.
At funerals I have heard the solemn clerics speak of death as a mystery.
They are wrong. Death is the common denominator of existence. Almost everything that is, is dead or dying, from stars to salamanders.
Whatever life itself is, that is the mystery, the one great joke that flouts itself in the face of the vast, stony cosmos.
Speak if you will of water into wine and conversations with burning shrubbery; I say look around; every square foot of our own back yards bears enough miracle to keep us staring and breathless every waking moment, if only we would shake of the blinders of familiarity. A square foot of typical soil can contain as many as a million microscopic spiders.
It beggars the imagination. The poet Dylan Thomas once remarked that the books in his school could tell him everything there was to know about wasps except why.
Look at you. Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, a little sulphur, if I remember my biology, wet with a generous portion of water and stirred like a wizard’s concoction into a spell of action, thought, poetry, baseball scores and how to score a dart game.
The whole construction takes in energy, grows, stands, strides about the world making a great noise. Then, and one day, the strange vortex subsides, or goes on to other business, and all the clever pulleys and wires fall away to nothing, vacant and bare, clattering into the darkness, discarded toys.
Now and then, plowing through boxes looking for something, I will come upon something of his; a pistol that belonged to his father, a dedicated drunk and a hard man from a hard time; a construction-paper shield, with a crudely crayoned dragon and coat of arms, with childish letters on the back spelling “Lolly Boy;” a photo of him near the gun emplacements he commanded on a Navy ship in the Pacific, shirtless, his hat far back on his head, younger by many years then than I am now, and a whole lot more “go-to-hell” glint in his eyes than I have in mine now.
It has been nearly 10 years since I visited his grave. I had meant just to stay for only a few moments.
But I sat under the old maple on a hill overlooking what used to be a steel town and talked with him, or with his memory, for a full hour.
I’d like to say he left me some profound legacy; pithy wisdom, secret lore. I can remember little, and nothing profound. He liked Glenn Miller’s music, and the women in my family said for all his size, he could dance like nobody’s business.
I have a tin ear and dance like a footsore bear.
So, in all those ways he is truly gone.
But he is still here in other ways. I hear his humor echoed in my own, and in photographs of myself I see that same impudent and sometimes imprudent grin.
At the cemetery, the sun had gone, a cold wind had begun to tease its way from the river and through my clothes.
The throaty calls of the crows seemed briefly more harsh, and then died away.
I stood up from my perch on Grandfather George’s headstone, noting a stiffness in my joints that I hadn’t remembered from earlier visits. The bronze plaque over his grave gave his Navy rank, his name, and the dates that formed the ark of his life in time.
In my mirror, and in the faces of my brother and my half-sister, I see him sometimes peering out; the shape of skull, the ridge of bone over our eyes, the eyes themselves. Something of him walks across my face when I am angry. I see him, gazing out when I am quiet and take time to look for him.
This is what I have of him, then; no heavy philosophy, but shreds and tatters of memory; no monuments, but a certain heaviness of bone, some movements and gestures that I think I have forgotten until I make them.
What else is there to say? He was an ordinary man, a particular stirring for 64 years among some particular stardust, a miracle, certainly, but of ordinary proportions. It will have to do.
© 2009 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
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