We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

—T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”


Precious memories, unseen angels

Sent from somewhere to my soul

How they linger, ever near me,

As the sacred past unfolds

I turn down the soothing voice of “Gentleman Jim” Reeves.  He looks at me from the CD case, a face thought of as handsome in his day, though Jim seems too mature and, maybe, just a bit innocent, even naive, for our jaded time.

I saw the black police SUV too late as we entered town.  Now we sit on the roadside, just past the cemetery, the SUV’s lights flashing, the wind kicking up hard, rocking the car a bit on a blustery December morning.  We were running late, and I’d had a heavy foot.

We’d come through Glen Rose, the somewhat menacing-looking twin domes of the Comanche Peak nuclear-power station looming off to the right, then took the south fork in the highway just past Chalk Mountain, and on to Hico and then the county seat.  Forlorn windmills and cattle.  Cactus and mesquite and cedar.  A small herd of buffalo I always take note of.  Signs for churches in every small town in this part of North-Central Texas.

Put that thing down, dammit, I tell my son.  He’s recording the proceedings on his smartphone, to be broadcast on the internet, no doubt.

He just grins at me.

All right, I was a smartass myself once.  Talking back was second nature.  Thank God we didn’t have cellphones back then.  So send your damn video.

The officer is a young man, not much older than my son, and a little innocent looking himself.  Short hair and boyish face.  Surely from around here.  One of the keepers who stayed as the town and the county dried up and liked to have blown away to Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, or some such.

Only the old people and the keepers remain.

I’ve come a long way myself, here and gone and back again, to find that my final destination was the place where I had started.

I roll down my window and pull out my driver’s license.

Better keep both hands on the wheel, dad.

He’s still grinning.

I’m not aiming to get shot.

I hand the young guy my license.  He just nods and says, The reason I stopped you, sir, was you were doing sixty-four in a fifty.  Can I see your proof of insurance?

I grunt and nod, hand him the insurance paperwork, and he walks back to his SUV.  A few minutes later he returns, smiles, and says in a soft voice the wind almost carries away, I think we’ll let it go with a warning today.

He hands me back my license.

Then the wind kicks up real hard and blows the papers, including my proof of insurance, off his clipboard and clear down the highway, sailing past the cemetery.

The officer looks surprised.  I’ll be right back!

He runs to his SUV and turns around, lights flashing, taking off down the highway.

My son is laughing now.  This will make a nice video.

That was embarrassing, the young policeman, just a little rattled and shaking his head, says, as he hands me my proof of insurance.

I reach out and shake his hand.  I really appreciate that.  Thanks and Merry Christmas!

He didn’t even give me the warning.

We roll into town, past the square where the old courthouse stands, now decorated for Christmas, and I tell my son that there’s a little piece of America still out here.  Probably a local boy.  Makes my heart glad.

And in my mind’s eye, I see another policeman, my great-grandfather, a small-town sheriff.  He’s standing so straight that he looks taller than he really was.  He’s wearing a Stetson in the sepia-toned reality of his time, captured in a picture that hangs in my father’s house, his badge on his chest, six-shooter at his hip, his handlebar moustache long and drooping just a little bit.  He stares through and past the camera like they did then.

My vague memories of him have faded as the years fly by.  I can still make out the sheriff as an old, old man.  He always wore a short-brimmed black hat and was usually sucking on a cigar, his collar buttoned at his Adam’s apple.  He wore suspenders.

We’re here for Christmas dinner at my in-laws’ place.  Driving over the cattle guard, I see the old cabin where we used to stay before they built the big house.  It’s fallen into disrepair, but I remember other Decembers when the cabin couldn’t accommodate everybody, so my wife and I and our kids slept on the screened-in porch.  We’d huddle in thick blankets and sometimes nail up sheets of plywood for cover from the wind.  Nobody seemed to mind.

A trail of black cattle troop by, single file, heading who knows where.

My father-in-law has been gone for more than three years now, and there aren’t as many cattle as there once were.  My mother-in-law pays a local man to come by and take care of the place.  Stubborn as ever, she won’t move.  A few miles away is her parents’ old place, where her sole surviving brother lives now.  We always bring back bags of garbage with us when we visit since we don’t want a woman approaching 90 to be out burning trash.  We don’t want her driving, either, but what can you do?  She has her route laid out that takes her to the post office and the grocery store.

The group for Christmas dinner has dwindled rapidly in the last few years.  Aunts and uncles have passed on.  Their children have moved away.  The extended family has split into its branches, a victim of economic policy, technology, and the siren call of the modern that has spelled the all but inevitable victory of city over country and small town.  It was the same for my family; the dozens of cousins and aunts and uncles that covered us like a blanket from the cold have been blown away by the same winds.  My children don’t know many of the people we once took for granted; they are scattered and gone, and we have lost touch.  Winter is all year round now.  The summer of our lives has passed.  In middle age, we can just see the Old Man approaching a ways ahead.  And we watch the solitary elders and can’t help but think of age and decay.

Christmas dinner is a rib roast and ham, green beans and sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes and corn and gravy and rolls.  My wife’s aunt sits back and remembers the vast amount of food that the once sizable family enjoyed on Christmases past: Daddy liked to look at the table and point at all the stuff we had raised ourselves, she says.  Turkey and beef and chicken—she recalls the time they slaughtered and plucked 100 fryers, and my sister-in-law groans: I sure don’t miss that!  And the aunt sighs and says, It was a lot of work, I’ll grant you, but it was a lot of fun, too.  And she remembers summers of the men hauling hay and tractors in the fields and midday meals set out lovingly on long tables outside.

In the old days, Christmas dinner would have been followed by a lively game of dominoes (I once joked they were the only family I ever knew that made dominoes into a contact sport), but the players aren’t so many or so able as before.

My wife had arrived early to cook.  With the sun setting and the small group fading after dinner, she sets about her last chore, sorting through her mother’s bills, throwing out junk mail, reassuring her mother that all is well and don’t pay any attention to mail you get from these people, OK?

Darkness falls early, and my wife and I load the truck that once belonged to her father with presents and leftovers and trash bags as we get ready to drive back home.  Our children have already left.  My wife’s surviving aunt and uncle have gone home, too.  Her two sisters will stay the night and set out for Houston tomorrow.  As I pull out of the driveway, the headlights fall on my mother-in-law, shuddering, arms crossed; she can’t control her emotions.  I understand.  I have trouble with that myself since my mother passed away nearly two years ago.  She seems small and cold, though it is still warm outside on a Christmas Day that reached nearly 80 degrees.  My wife sighs and says, My mother’s never happy anymore.

My father is like that, too.  He can still smile, especially when his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are present, but in quiet moments, he says it doesn’t feel like Christmas or Easter or what have you.  Yet he gets along, stoic in his way and accepting that life is like that.  The fire and the rose are one.  But I understand my mother-in-law.  She’s from another time, when families were big and life revolved around weddings, births, holidays, planting and harvest, and the inevitable funerals, then another birth, another wedding and on and on.  Try as we might, we cannot reproduce that unbroken cycle.  Our lives are too atomized, too splintered for that.  And the isolation that is the hallmark of the world as it is now wears on even the most faithful.  The passing of a husband or wife often removes the last thread that connected the ones left behind to a life with purpose.

Theologians say that what we look forward to in the next life is spending eternity with God.  But for simple people, ordinary people, and even extraordinary people, their hope is most often to see their husbands and wives and children and friends again.  In large part, that’s what their religion is to them.  But it’s hard, very hard to imagine, hard to think of in an immediate reality that often appears cruel and lonesome and unforgiving.  An afterlife that seems abstract and intellectual leaves them cold and maybe seems as frightening as death itself.  And that they can see all too well.  I can’t forget them, because I know that I may be there one day myself.


As we pull out of town after nightfall, the clouds break overhead, and I can see patches of stars, contrasted against the darkness, as if they are struggling, resisting it.  Gentleman Jim sings again:

Life’s evening sun is sinking low,

A few more days, and I must go

To meet the deeds that I have done,

Where there will be no setting sun.

April may be the cruelest month, flowers sprouting from the dead ground, mixing memory and desire, but December is often the time of faded hope and unquenched desire yielding to more profound hopes and wishes, the intersection of the timeless moment.  Never and Always.