What Do the Dead Leave Behind?

What Do the Dead Leave Behind?

daddy in ontarioToday, August 18, is the anniversary of the death of my father, John Dawson Carl Buck. This post is in his honor, the king of my Mighty Dead. And today, I also honor my grandmother, Ann Elizabeth Dawson Torrey. I honor my grandmother Florence Antonia Finder Birmingham. I offer all who came before them whose names I know and whose names I don’t.

I offer them light, sweetness, and freshness. I offer them my prayers of praise and thanksgiving as well as those asking for guidance.

I offer them my time at my altar before my candles, and I laugh when I get Florida water in my eye. I listen, listen close for what they have to say to me in the signs and symbols of this world and in the still, soft places of my heart.

My father has been very present to me these last weeks. Present in a way he has not been in all the 6 years he’s been among my dead. He has been central to my dreams. He has come up in conversation. I have written some about him here in this blog earlier this month. I helped choose poems my mother and brother read to honor him this past weekend. (Hopkins, Thomas, Buckland, and Keats made the list.)

Daddy, I am listening.

I do not yet have flowers for him, but flowers would be good too. I am offering him my reading, my teaching, my dancing (such as it is), my drumming, and my many songs. Among them is a mash-up I wrote many years ago:

The English is after the poem “Spirits” by Birog Dirop, a Senegalese poet.

The Latin, lux perpetua luceat eis, is “May perpetual light shine upon them.”

May perpetual light shine upon them.

The Yoruba is roughly blessed be the dead. It is more, but that will do for now.

“The dead are not dead. They are in the shape of your heads. The dead are not dead, they in the voice of the fire. Moferere moferere eggun eggun moferere. Lux perpetua luceat eis.”

They Are in the Shape of Your Hands

This is a story I have told before. When my grandmother was out of the last surgery she would have before her death, my father reached for her hand. He held her hand with his strength and her, gossamer-chiffon skin with the blue-white of her veins showing through.

black and white photo
my father teaching

I realized in that moment that my father’s hands looked just like my grandmother’s hands. Not particularly graceful. Fingers not particularly long. My grandmother had gotten manicures or done her nails for as long as I could remember, but her nails were bare in her last days.

My father’s hands were always expressive:  Turning, spinning, pointing, gesturing. My mother said that if you tied his hand behind his back, there’d be no way he could teach his British poetry classes, his classes on the Bible as Literature, his Freshman Composition classes.

And his fingers were not particularly long for his broad palms. They clenched in anger as he pulled a door off its hinges. They wrote and drew his calligraphs:  The ones he refused to sell but would only give away. They helped his strong arms carry the big bookshelves he built. And over and over, as you can see in the photo, his hands emphasized the beauty of his voice reading poetry, teaching poetry.

His hands swung wood splitters and axes, used chainsaws in the woods where I saw a bear and her two cubs on day. His hands held the steering wheel as he drove to the bridge at Laurel run where we scattered his ashes. His fingers tickled me, though not mercilessly. They tapped out the rhythms on his chair, a loving metronome before I had one to wind up.

Clarenbach SOLT
Catharine at the pulpit

And as my grandmother lay dying, I realized that yes, my hands are like theirs. My aunt told me once that I’d never be a great pianist because my fingers were too short. (I got a full scholarship for piano performance. Ha!) My palms are wide and someone once write that my fingers were “sausage-like.” (I was less than pleased, needless to say.)

I talk with my hands. I roll my wrists in exactly the same way my father did when I—or he—am explaining something. My fingers, relatively short, are nonetheless agile. I learned to swing a wood splitter when I young. My parents gave me tools—real ones—when I was four years old; my hands learned how to wield a hammer and turn a screwdriver.

Honoring Descendants as well as Ancestors

Three generations of hands that stop here. I have no children and I won’t have any. My brother does not have these hands. I do. My brother and his son have my father’s chin. I don’t.

This is the thing about physical characteristics in biological family. They show up some places, some not, and some not at all, generation to generation.

And mental and emotional effects are similar.

And so I honor my ancestors and descendants, not those descendants of my body, but those of my family, nonetheless. As well as those I do not yet know who will count me among their Mighty Dead. Those who will know my name and those who will not. I honor those who will come after me and receive the gifts I give to the interdependent web of human life and of existence.

What Gifts Do We Give?

Our ancestors have left us mixed gifts. And they remind us of our own responsibility in leaving gifts for the generations to come. Will those generations be able to live through the changes of climate that are coming? Will those generations tear one another through war and other conflict? Will those generations learn to create Beloved Community, as the Rev. Dr. King said?

What gifts do we leave for those who come after? And how do we interpret the gifts that have been left to us? My great-grandparents were wards of the state. My grandmother went to finishing school and lived in Paris as a teenager. My other grandmother had twelve children, older children raising younger ones. Her husband, my grandfather, taught 8th grade math while running a dairy farm. He was abusive in some ways.

Anger runs in my family.

So does brilliance.

So does mental illness.

So does resilience and persistence.

Everyone has a mix of gifts.

Earth in our hands

What will you leave for those who will know you as their Mighty Dead, who pray for you in purgatory, who offer you light and freshness and white flowers, who call to you on Samhain, or who simply remember you with fondness and complexity?

What will you leave behind?

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