I am riding in the back seat of my grandpa’s old Buick, sitting next to my grandma Sally. My brother sits in the front seat, filming my grandpa as he talks about this place. Reedsburg, Wisconsin. The place he grew up. The place he will be buried. My grandpa has acute leukemia and has less than a year to live.
He is leading a caravan of cars through this green, hilly countryside. It’s a little pilgrimage he leads once a year. Much of the Midwest is flat farmland, but this land rolls on for miles, hills and valleys and streams, little farmhouses dotting the landscape. It reminds me of Ireland.
We stop on a little dirt road and get out. Down a winding gravel driveway sits an old wooden house. This is where he lived. Down the road a bit, a man is driving a tractor. He pulls up to the house and grandpa greets him warmly. It is his nephew.
We take pictures outside the little house and grandpa tells stories about how, during the Depression, his mom and dad used to make moonshine and sell it at local dances. He talks about walking miles to get milk from a local farmer. There is a solemnity and a nostalgia to his words, as if he is looking into the past, to a time before agro-business and development pushed the small farmers off the land.
We continue to another little wooden building that looks abandoned. The wood is rotting and the paint is peeling, but it still stands.
“That was my school,” grandpa says, “I used to walk two miles every day, except in the winter, when I had to take care of my brother and sister.”
At age 9, grandpa had the responsibility of keeping his house warm and his brother and sister fed and clothed. His step-dad worked in a factory. His mom was grieving the death of her father and husband in an auto accident.
The last stop is Big Creek Cemetery. There are grave stones bearing the names of my ancestors, dating back to the 1800s. Steffen. Poff. Miller. Atop a big rock is a metal placard with the names of my grandparents, aunts and uncles. This is where grandpa Glenn will be buried in less than a year. This is where I, too, may be buried.
We take pictures together. The little kids run around looking at gravestones. I am taking photos of my grandpa. I try to name what I am feeling. It’s not sadness exactly. In little towns like this, cemeteries are a part of the landscape. Death is a part of life. These stone monuments remind us of who we are and where we came from. I feel the weight of the past, present, and future. I feel my mortality. I don’t want my grandpa to die, but he will die. We all will. And yet, there is a certain solemn comfort in knowing that this place exists. Even grandpa does not look sad. He carries his usual husky swagger, a softness in his eyes, and a pride in his homeland. This is where we all come from, and it is beautiful.