The day before Thanksgiving, my 8-year-old son, Charlie, and I set out up the mountain with my Winchester 32 special (Charlie had his lever-action BB gun) and hiked up to the ledges, rocky outcroppings that give a hunter a commanding view of the woods below. The old logging trails stood out as if they had been marked by a road crew, and the shape of the ridges, knolls, and valleys rose up through the bare trees. After sitting a bit, we headed up over the backside of the mountain into a hollow, where we came upon paths littered with sign, plenty of tree scrapings, and my favorite old elm, with its smooth, sculpted trunk that splits into thirds and spirals up and away from the forest floor. An hour later, we ended up on a narrow ridge with the wind surging through the pines and a view down the other side through a stand of half-dead chestnuts, gnarled, moss-covered, and standing round-shouldered like overdressed old men in holiday vests. In the distance we could see the remains of Fred West's farm, the house having been destroyed by fire last summer, three chimneys blackened and standing bare, as if in a child's drawing.
The sun was sinking into long dirty fingers of clouds, and the two of us peered down into a wooded bowl, a hazy abyss of trees and rocks a sea of browns and grays, indistinct and smoky in twilight. Above, we looked up to the surface, patches of pale blue sky visible, where the sun was still strong, its warmth no longer reaching the depths. Winter was on its way, but Charlie's boyish enthusiasm for the hunt overwhelmed thoughts of a dark season.
The week before I had attended a family funeral in Baltimore. The relatives had gathered as if at a standing room-only Thanksgiving; a quiet chattiness descended on the room, which was overheated and decorated in a woody 1950s style, with a large bowl of wrapped peppermint candies by the door.
This half of my family is an odd bunch and fond of nicknames. The four sisters (my grandmother among them) were named Mick, Dick, Kid, and Shick; one of their daughters was called Snoozie (as a baby, she slept most of the day) and another Squee (now referred to, with more deference, as Dee). Kid's first husband, John Condit, firmly believed that he could build a moon rocket. In Florida back in the 1920s, he actually constructed one, charged admission, and then skipped town on the day of the launch. Kid (named after the Yellow Kid comic strip) was herself a character. She kept a monkey as a pet, raised pit bulls, and more or less terrorized the rest of the family. (With her last breath, she called the nurse over to the bed, pinched her hard on the thigh, and then expired.) Shick, who was commonly referred to as Aunt Charlotte, was an artist, making sculptures of boiled chicken bones and colored glass. On a visit to her house as a child, I opened a large bureau only to find a treasure trove of these medieval artifacts, each delicately wrapped in tissue.
In the reception room at the cemetery, the youngest among us were prim, quiet, and stiff; the older family members, being used to the fleeting nature of life, were rather enjoying themselves, soft laughter bubbling up through hushed reminiscences. There was a procession to the graveside and then a short service performed by a stout, hirsute nun, a bit unsteady on her feet, from a nearby church. The wind whipped the holy water and earth into the faces of those seated in the front row, stinging their eyes with a reminder of life's indignities. The cemetery was raw and cold, the sky gray; perfect weather for hunting, I thought. Photographs were taken of old men standing behind overdressed children, the two groups bound uncomfortably by ritual. A postfuneral lunch at a nearby country club offered snow crab soup, soft-shell crab club sandwiches, and stiff, well-seasoned bloody marys.
Back on the farm, around the Thanksgiving table, adults and children had gathered once again. The last piece of chocolate trifle had been scooped off the plate, and, with the apple, pecan, and pumpkin pies half-gone, silence descended and the table was as quiet as the woods. Five-year-old Emily was folded up in her Mom's lap. Our teenage girls were temporarily sated from the pleasures of dessert. Parents and guests were happy to just sit back and watch the fire.
Now that I am decidedly closer to death than birth, I am often surrounded by the young and the old, celebrating beginnings and endings. Winter comes, the dead are buried, the young grow up, and we meet again in familiar places. These days, I seem to focus on the food and the fire rather than on meanings. Horace, the Roman philosopher-poet, was given a farm upon retirement, and he was quoted as saying, "Now I have nothing left to pray for." I am quite content to live on the edge of darkness, with my son by my side in the twilight or seated awkwardly at funerals, hugged by a cold, wet wind. Those lucky to have lived long enough finally see only what is before them. In the woods, we look for signs of prey, not deliverance. At a funeral, we see friends remembered, not forgotten.
In this life, on this day, I see a table well stocked with children and pie. I start to think that Horace and I have a lot in common. On a farm, on the far side of need, we have finally found nothing left to pray for.