By Rachel Reeser
As we marched in a line through the gates into the pasture and fields one last time, I did my best to memorize every detail of this place where I grew up. The chicken coop, freshly painted red and white just the year before, where it stood next to my great-grandmother’s garden. The barns, each stripped of equipment and livestock, standing lonely in the overgrown pasture, the water pump and trough gone bone-dry. The cherry tree, where my cousins and I would spend hours picking from to be sold at the stand, along with the ancient walnut whose yield we were told to roll beneath our feet and collect to do the same—finally, the truck patch. My grandfather’s pride and joy, every year tended to diligently by his weathered hands. Dad and I used to help out every summer, a series of formative moments in my life. The best day of the year was when the entire family came out for the pumpkin harvest, the adults cutting and passing them up on the wagon for the kids to price and organize. None of us knew that the previous year would be our last.
As we passed silently through the final gate and came upon Pap’s tractor, the only cloud in the sky moved to reveal the sun, and offered a comforting warmth on the crisp autumn day. I squinted, the sun now shining in full force, and the sky so blue it was blinding. It was a beautiful day to celebrate.
We all started to clamber into the cart hitched to the tractor, the able-bodied hoisting those too young or too old up to sit on the bench. It was a tight squeeze, shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip. I leaned my head on my mother’s shoulder and held my grandmother’s free hand as my uncle climbed into the driver’s seat.
“Enjoy the ride,” he called to us over his shoulder. “This will be the last time.”
When the tractor jolted forward with the cart in tow, the chatter started up. Joe, Jordan, and I tried to uplift the somber mood by telling jokes and recounting old memories, while the adults minded the littlest children who were oblivious to the situation at hand. We took turns trading stories, laughs, and jabs as we meandered our way into the woods to our destination. The leaves fell onto us from branches above, decorating our hair and shoulders in an array of yellows, reds, and oranges. I tried to commit this path to memory, too, the hours I spent exploring it with my cousins and hunting with Dad and Pap. We knew every trail, every nook and cranny mapped in our heads. Given this, when we reached the giant outcropping of rock, our breaths collectively caught in our throats.
Uncle Kyle brought us to a halt, pausing before sliding from the seat. The rest of us followed suit, jumping down from the cart and assisting those who couldn’t. We moved to stand in a circle beside the rock formation, with Gram in the center. She unwrapped the cloth bundle in her arms, revealing the simple urn underneath. I clutched my mother’s arm, and my sister wrapped an arm around me as Dad, his siblings, and Mother slowly began spreading Pap’s ashes among the peaceful place. We stood solemnly until we finished, and Gram led us in prayer. I bowed my head, tuning out her words in favor of my private memorial.
When she finished, we said our goodbyes to my grandfather and the land we all loved, his memory etched into our minds, and the land’s dirt still caught under our fingernails. We piled back on the cart, drove out of the woods, and through the gates, each of us leaving a part of ourselves behind.
Rachel is a political science and policy studies major slated to graduate in 2022. In her free time, she can be found doing embroidery or cuddling her elderly house cat.