It is believed 300 African Americans were murdered during the attack, but no one knows the exact number.
|34thParallel Magazine||Oct 1, 2015|| 3|
The white mob stole private planes and fire-bombed the neighborhood. The Red Cross estimated a thousand homes were destroyed. More than 4000 of the survivors of this onslaught, many of them wounded, were rounded up like prisoners of war by bands of whites and local police. Some were killed after they surrendered.
Ed pulls in at the roadside farm-stand near our house in Brentwood and picks out a large watermelon from the bin.
He hands it to me in the car and I cradle the heavy melon on my lap during the hour-long drive to his father’s home in a suburb south of Oakland. The weight is uncomfortable, painful on my legs, the constant shifting back and forth of the fruit like a bowling ball across my thighs. Holding the melon makes me feel useful, although I’m helpless to ease my husband’s suffering as we rush through the California countryside to witness his father’s slow death.
We are silent on the long ride. He has the ball game on the radio but doesn’t shout at the announcer as he would normally when the Giants allow three runners to score in the eighth, losing both the game and their lead in the pennant race.
Velma answers the door and smiles when Ed holds up the watermelon. “Carl hasn’t touched any of his Ensure today. Let’s see if he’ll eat some of this.” Her voice is soft, velvety and Southern.
We follow her to the kitchen.
She slices the melon open and cuts away the rind, making triangles of the red juicy fruit. She slips several pieces into a bowl and we all head to the room where Carl lies. There is a pillow on the floor near the hospital bed. Velma and Carl’s two closest friends are taking turns sleeping there.
I flatten out against the bedroom wall as death moves in precisely drawn diagrams and schematics of pain, mapping out the amount of time it will take Carl to die. The hospice nurse predicts the shutting down of his system, organ by organ, day by day. I blend in with the gray walls of all this waiting. Three days left.
Carl refuses opiates for the cancer—now in his bones—that started years ago in his prostate and has transformed into deadly traveling cells. He lies rigid and delusional on a rented hospital bed. Velma tells us that last night Carl thought he was back in Oklahoma. “He was scared half to death. He kept moaning and saying demons were chasing him into the river, trying to hold his head down under the water.” Decades of emotional sludge fill the room with resentments and anger—a gristly, chewed-up love. There is a heavy odor of Vaseline Intensive Care Lotion. The air is choked by the past, unable to flow between father and son without the illusion of a tomorrow that might reshape brutal actions into gentle regrets.
Just six months before, at 72, Carl, had still been imposing, tall, with a trim athletic build and a stern gaze. He commanded attention. He stood straight, feet planted, shoulder blades reaching towards the center of his back, head raised. A man that didn’t bend. In his youth, he had been a drill sergeant in the Marineswhich he joined instead of the Air Force so he wouldn’t be limited to work as a steward. He was never going to be anyone’s servant. He earned his stripes in the decade following an executive order ending the Corps’ 144-year ban on enlisting African Americans.
I knew from my husband that Carl tyrannized him as a child—barking out orders, harshly enforcing rules. Ed was uncomfortable anywhere near him. Carl believed his job as a father was to prepare his son to survive in a hostile world. Ed learned the lesson that his father taught, that the world is against you and you must fight for everything you get.
Carl was still fighting when we crowded around to view the X-ray hung on the light box in the hospital room. Bones that looked like honeycomb. Tumors on his spine deformed its shape. The doctor pointed to the screen to say there was only a little time left. The bones looked like a dinosaur skeleton, mismatched fossils mounted on invisible wire.
Ed sits on a kitchen chair angled near the foot of the hospital bed while Velma holds the small white bowl over the rail, in front of Carl’s face. His eyes are half open and sightless, facing east, away from the afternoon heat radiating through the curtained window. His face is lightly coated with perspiration. He senses Velma’s presence before she speaks, and his long elegant fingers slightly rise from the bed reaching out for a moment before sinking back on the sheets.
This man who instilled fear in his oldest son, then rebelliousness—an independent, hunkered-down willis only a shadow without sound.
Velma wipes his face with a damp cloth then takes a small triangle of melon and nudges it softly against Carl’s cracked gray lips. He opens his mouth as she whispers encouragement and allows her hand to guide the glistening ruby fruit inside towards his sunken cheek. His lips close around it, and his jaws move slowly. We watch as he struggles to swallow, afraid to speak before this process is complete.
Ed says with relief, “Hi Dada. I’m here.” Carl tries to turn his face towards the sound of Ed’s voice but he stops, like his head is too heavy to maneuver. He starts to mumble and Ed gets up from the chair and moves to the side of the bed. Carl’s raging Old Testament thunder-and-lightning voice is now no more than a breath. “What?” Ed says.
“He’s telling you the ice cream is good,” Velma answers. Ed looks puzzled until she explains Carl is hallucinating all the time now. He thinks the cold watermelon is his favorite ice cream. We find out later this is the last thing Carl will ever eat.
Ed’s sister Becky has only come by once, and Velma confides to Ed, as we’re leaving, that Carl asks for her every day, but she won’t return. Then she mentions that Ed’s son, Erik has not visited or called, and Ed agrees to talk to him but gently reminds her that he is a grown man and has to make his own decisions. I know why Erik hasn’t visited. He was always afraid of his grandfather. A photo of Ed’s stepbrother, David, stares at me from a framed photo on the wall. Velma doesn’t mention her handsome, dead son, but I feel his presence. Carl raised David like his own son. He killed himself when he was twenty-two, filling his car with carbon monoxide. Ed once told me, “Being raised by my dad can do that to you.”
On the drive home, Ed says his father was really rough on Becky when she got pregnant as a teenager, so he understands why she won’t visit. I remind him his father was hardest on him. I don’t like Ed making excuses for everybody else’s failures but his own and my resentment seeps into my tone. He doesn’t respond, just turns up the post-game show on the radio.
I’ve never been to Oklahoma but I live with its past. It shares our bed. I am Ed’s third wife. We live in Californianot nearly far enough away from Oklahoma. The broken history of the land and the brokenness of so many of its people is passed down in this family from father to son. DNA dangling from the snapped wishbone of each Y chromosome.
It is a chronicle of bones.
Oklahoma has a long history of death, but nothing there can stay buried. Nothing there can stay dead.
Jutting out of its corners are 120-million-year-old rock formations. Relics from a time when the land was covered by shallow seas, the geography formed and reformed as the earth’s chest heaved. Its magma spewing, building mountains amid the collision of tectonic plates, tilting the land forever east, spilling the inland sea back to the coastal ocean.
These ancient outcroppings, the bones of the earth, erupt through the hard dirt, shattering the layers of time, even as their presence marks its passage—reaching up into the present from the age of dinosaurs, when Oklahoma was subtropical and wet with rivers. They are remnants of a lost world where stretched-neck beasts became the favored prey of one particular carnivorous dinosaur, Acrocanthosaurus. Skeletal remains of these huge predators, drowned in the hungry deep waters, were excavated from the dusty throats of long-silent river beds.
Oklahoma was mistakenly thought to be a good place to bury things, but there is a band of deep cuts in the Oklahoma earth, some of the gashes reach more than 150 feet into the ground, which make that stretch of land look just like what they call it, tombstone topography. The effect is like exposing the geology of griefthe whispering of bones in the promised land.
Shortly after our marriage, Ed showed me a photo of his paternal great-grandmother, Molly. She is sitting under a tree in a battered wooden chair. Her hair is plaited into two impossibly long black braids. The braids are as thick as her wiry arms. A shotgun rests on her lap. Her hands fold over the stock. There is a riverbank behind her.
She gazes intently at the camera, her face dark and impassive.
Ed said, “She’s Cherokee.” He smiled. “I remember when I was little I knew she looked different from everyone else in the family but I didn’t know why.” Ed told me back in Oklahoma, Molly hunted and fished for her own food. She sold the extra meat to town folks when she needed money.
The history of relations between Cherokee and African Americans inhabits the shadows cast by conquest, subjugation, acceptance and denial. Contradictions and conspiracies hide in the corners. The Cherokee, seeking to prevent further loss of their lands, fought alongside Andrew Jackson and the Tennessee Militia in the Creek War. Their contribution to the war effort helped ensure an American victory. The United States formally recognized the Cherokee as a sovereign nation. Laws were written, promises made.
Before the land grab and the genocide took place, the US Government had impressed on the Cherokee a need to emulate the structure of the dominant government and culture. Its policies encouraged and rewarded private ownership of land and the possession of slaves. Soon Cherokee land was coveted by white settlers seeking to expand cotton plantations and trade.
President Jackson, whose life was saved by a Cherokee warrior during the Creek War, ordered the five tribes living in this large fertile area of the South to be displaced, defiantly ignoring their claim to the land. Cherokee took the government to court in two separate cases. They lost one and prevailed in the other. It didn’t matter. President Jackson ignored the Supreme Court ruling. They were the last of the tribes to be brutally removed and in the cruelest manner.
In 1838, 16,000 Cherokee, including Molly’s forebears were rounded up like fugitives in parts of Georgia and South Carolina. Families were split up, children lost in the chaos. They were kept prisoner in stockades. White settlers stole their ancestral tribal land and looted their homes. Then they were marched in separate groups west to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, without suppliesno water, no food—a journey that took almost a year. A trail of bones over 1200 miles long.
It was government-sanctioned genocide. At least 4000 Cherokee died along the way from disease, starvation, and prolonged exposure to severe weather. More than 25 per cent of an entire population slowly murdered, far from the world that was stolen from them. To this day, when the Cherokee nation turns to the dawn it is in remembrance of that lost home, and their heart tilts east like the Oklahoma land.
Ten to 15 per cent of the people forced to march the Trail were African Americans. Many were slaves of the Cherokee, some freedmen, some mixed blood, their footprints erased, all their shared sorrow still unacknowledged and unspoken. Their number of dead uncounted, unnamed.
Molly was born in Indian Territory, west of the Mississippi, some time in the 1880s, two decades before Oklahoma’s 1907 entry into Statehood. Indian Territory had been swallowed in pieces by settlers and thieves, culminating in a huge land run in 1893. Native Americans attempted to keep what was left of Indian Territory separate from any newly-formed State. They did not succeed. Their tattered autonomy was swept away when the land was consumed by Oklahoma’s mapped boundaries. Molly grew up in this shrinking, devastated world.
She eventually married Oscar, an African American who was a talented hunting-dog trainer, whose way with animals was almost magical. The couple remained on the reservation for many years where all but the youngest of their nine children, Wobble, were born and raised.
Molly’s oldest daughter, Rebecca, who was to become Carl’s mother, was an undocumented part of the Cherokee nation. Even though she was born on the reservation, she was not on the rolls, not recognized, like so many other mixed Cherokee and African Americans. Cherokee lineage is traced through clans and not all members of clans are entitled to citizenship. Since she did not officially belong to the Cherokee nation, her descendants did not qualify to vote, own land, to share in oil royalties, or to receive a free college education. By some strange formula citizenship was denied her, even though her ancestors were the survivors of the death march, the Trail of Tears, The Place Where They Cried. Until her marriage and move to Greenwood, Carl’s mother was like a pearl spit out from this sea of bones.
Rebecca married Lester, an African American and left the reservation. The newlyweds and most of Lester’s extended family lived and worked in the prosperous, African American community of Greenwood, a section of Tulsa, Oklahoma. In Tulsa, Jim Crow was outlined in streets: Greenwood, Archer, and Pine and of course a railroad track. Thirty five square blocks measured the limits of freedom for black Tulsans. There could be no retreat. Most residents had come from worse places, chased by hate. Here at least they hoped, as they strolled down the street to catch a movie at the Dreamland Theater or stopped to marvel at the new Mount Zion Baptist Church taking shape, built with their money, their hands, and their faith. Future was a word even the poor could pray.
Greenwood was a self-sufficient enclave where businesses were owned and run entirely by African Americans. The residents were more affluent than many of the whites in the surrounding areas. The community was so financially successful, it was nicknamed Black Wall Street. Most citizens in Greenwood owned property and the locals supported their own library, and two schools. Many of the men were World War I veterans.
In 1921 Greenwood was destroyed by racial violence that escalated into a massacre. Lester’s family lost their homes and way of life in the carnage, left nothing but heaps of ashes and piles of broken bricks buried under the burnt ground.
Greenwood’s destruction was triggered by an allegation that a young black man, a bootblack working outside a downtown building, had sexually assaulted a white woman inside the elevator she operated. The local newspaper splashed headlines across the front page inciting the white community to a lynch mob fury. Wild talk spread, rumors fueling the call for violence.
Along with other residents, Greenwood’s WWI veterans went to the jail prepared to stop the lynching. Some versions of the story blame the start of the attack on a confrontation between two elderly armed veterans, one black and one white, both of whom fired warning shots. Other eyewitness accounts note that many whites lined up in advance of the shots to watch the vicious assault on Greenwood, which points to a well-planned, almost choreographed act of violence against the community itself. There were running gun battles but soon the sheer number of white attackers proved too much. They overran positions held by the black defenders and pushed their way across the railroad tracks and into Greenwood. Meanwhile, local police were randomly arresting blacks all over Tulsa, while armed white men did their best to obliterate every building on every street, beating and killing black residents as they went. The police didn’t stop them. Deputized whites joined in the attack. This glacially-formed hatred was the catalyst for one of the worst race riots in US history.
The marauding white mob stole private planes owned by Greenwood residents and used the aircraft to fire-bomb the neighborhood. Balls of white-hot silver streaked through the sky, strafing those on the ground. A man-made meteor shower filling the air with death.
The Red Cross estimated a thousand homes were destroyed, as well as Dreamland, local businesses, and the just-completed Mount Zion Baptist Church. Greenwood was razed and more than 4000 of the survivors of this onslaught, many of them wounded, were rounded up like prisoners of war by bands of whites and local police. Some were killed after they surrendered. Many were held for days before receiving medical aid. Even children were locked up in these internment camps. The National Guard was called in. Martial law was declared.
It is believed 300 African Americans were murdered during the attack, but no one knows the exact number. Hundreds more underwent surgery in makeshift hospitals for severe injuries. The National Guard Adjutant General banned funerals in the days after the violence. Witnesses told of trucks piled high with corpses being driven out of town. Some maintained the dead were dumped into mass graves. Others speculated the bodies were thrown in the Arkansas River. Some victims were left to burn inside their torched homes. No-one looked for the dead.
After the captives were finally released, the insurance companies and the banks colluded, denying the riot victims any compensation for their losses, refusing them loans. Lawsuits were filed against the city by residents but the cases were lost. These institutions made it impossible for them to collect enough money to rebuild their homes and businesses. New permit rules were enacted making it almost impossible for black owners to obtain approval to build. Violations of these regulations were made a crime. Those few with funds to rebuild were arrested when they began any construction. Outside offers to donate money to help the residents rebuild were refused by the city commissioners. White businesses and neighbors then bought up the land cheap, taking over much of the area.
Oklahoma’s State fossil is Saurophaganax Maximus. In 1931 Dr Stovall began discovering fossils of a large predator who lived in the late Jurassic period 150 million years ago. He was able to identify and track this dinosaur’s fossilized footprints as it chased its prey over ancient Oklahoma mud, now harder than rock. Eventually, enough bones were collected to construct a skeleton.
In 1950 Dr Stovall and his team unearthed large fossilized bones belonging to a dinosaur that lived in a later geologic age, the Early Cretaceous Period, about 112 million years ago. Scientists were intrigued. They identified then tracked these new fossil finds across several States and were able to determine by the location and the number of bones found that Acrocanthosaurus roamed wide across the middle of North America but favored Oklahoma as its hunting ground. Both these creatures were painstakingly excavated, footprints followed, bones carefully counted and precisely reconstructed, and then thoughtfully named. .
Paleontologists studied the dinosaur fossils, piecing together history to discover what killed off the ancient creatures. No-one, not scholar or scientist, would try to uncover what killed off Greenwood until long after the dinosaurs were named and catalogued, their fossils strung together and displayed in museums.
No remains of the Greenwood dead were ever found. Knowledge of the atrocity was hidden in plain sight, in the Oklahoma soil, where dinosaur bones would be unearthed before the truth of Greenwood crept up from the ground. I imagine a river of bones snaking underneath Greenwood Avenue, coiled, ready to strike. The past grows legs and kicks. The ground shakes. Vibrations of sound travel into the ear canal, where the tiniest bone in the human body, the u-shaped stirrup, sends it to a nerve for translation by the brain. What is heard is never spoken, the rustle and rattle of the story stays trapped in the land, close to the surface. No-one asks.
Oklahoma boasts America’s only skeleton museum, The Museum of Osteology. It is filled with bones, both of humans and animals.
Its website states the museum showcases “the diversity of the vertebrate kingdom”. All on display in halls arranged by classification, function, and place found. All types of predators and prey. Mice and muskrats and whales. Birds and reptiles and fish. Skulls of ancient people. Skeletons from around the world—imported bones, as if Oklahoma doesn’t have enough of its own.
My husband’s father Carl was born in 1929 in a shanty town on the outskirts of Tulsa, eight years after the Greenwood massacre. He was conceived in the ruins of a dream, in the aftermath of consuming hatred and greed. He was Rebecca and Lester’s only son.
He never spoke about his childhood. He never shared any of his experiences or memories about growing up in Oklahoma. It was as if he denied his own existence prior to the age of 18, a boy wiped from the face of the earth, extinct. That silence told its own story, marking his past in that place as his epicenter. To bury things is sometimes a way to honor them. Other times it is a way to conceal, to hide. Burying things can also be an attempt to erase without witness, nullify existence, to vanish even memory, to murder a truth.
Except for Uncle Wobble, Carl’s family hoarded the story of their past. They were stingy with any personal history, barely nicking the skin of truth with a few closelyshaved facts. Ed once told me he remembered, as a young boy, hearing the murmuring voices of his great aunts and uncles telling stories late at night, huddled around the kitchen table, snatches of sentences snagging Ed’s childhood attention: “jealous thieves”, “sneaking up in the night”, “stole our land right out from under us”. It was past Ed’s bedtime, so he hid behind the door eavesdropping on the adults and wondering what those menacing phrases meant. Ed watched Uncle Wobble shaking his head and muttering, “Murderers took everything we owned.” Family history was guarded like the legendary lemon pie recipe Rebecca refused to pass down, the knowledge of those secret ingredients and whispered stories dying with the respective owners.
Carl and Wobble were a study in contrast. Although Carl’s uncle, Wobble’s ten years younger. He always had a scheme, Carl always had a plan. Wobble was a drunk in recovery. A teller of tall tales. Carl didn’t trust him. Carl was aloof, quick to take offence, and scrupulously honest, only speaking what he believed was the truth, no matter what it cost him.
Wobble told stories like there was no tomorrow. Some of them were even true—the ones he told Ed about Carl. Wobble was Rebecca’s baby brother, Molly’s youngest child, the only one not born on the reservation. Wobble was slightly built with a crooked gait that forced him to walk as if he were the victim of too many encounters with the wind. That storm-tossed step earned him his nickname. He told Ed Carl’s childhood nickname was Pug because he was always fighting, prideful, got his feathers ruffled too easy, just couldn’t let anything go. He said Carl’s father,
Lester, was one mean sonofabitch, but Carl’s mother Rebecca was a quiet thing, except when she was drinking. The day Carl graduated from high school with honors, she showed up to the graduation ceremony blind drunk, yelling at her son all the while carrying a fresh-baked lemon pie.
Carl was a star athlete who was good enough to play in the NBA, but they didn’t allow blacks in the league in those days. After graduation, Carl made good his plan to get away. He believed in education and was accepted at Tuskegee. He was voted freshman class president. Who was that Carl?
He had to leave college after one year because there was no money, so he came to Oakland, California, joined the Marines. He met Ed’s mother. He hardened. After service, he stayed in California. Ed was born shortly thereafter. The GI Bill would help him to finish college, start his career in the probation department, and buy his first house.
Greenwood and the Trail of Tears—tragedies too large to stay buried. The pull of that grief influenced many who came after.
In a man like Wobble it spread a thirsty sorrow. In a man like Carl it built determination and anger. He was a young man descended from a legacy of broken promises, trying to keep a promise to himself, creating a new history for his children, far removed from burneddown homes and stolen lives.
We are seated in the funeral home’s largest room. The service is elaborate formal and old-fashioned—and uncomfortably long. All the arrangements were planned by Carl months ago. The program is four pages and the cover has a studio photograph of Carl taken on a cruise. Above his photo is his full name in large bold lettering CARL LESTER BELL and underneath in a smaller font: Sunrise April 7, 1929—Sunset August 9, 2003.
The room is crowded and the sun is beating down on the thin walls, driving up the temperature. The open coffin sits in the front of the room, cradling Carl’s emaciated body.
Behind the coffin, high up on the wall, there is an oversized garishly colored stained-glass window depicting a dove of peace, its wings spread. The white walls are shrouded by thick velvet draperies in a faded shade of wine. The dove looks menacing, with a huge wingspan and pointed head, more like a bird of prey.
Before the service begins, I stand near the casket as part of the long procession of mourners filing past and paying their last respects before taking their seats. In front of me is Ed’s great Uncle Wobble, dressed in a black suit, his eyes red from weeping. He stands in front of the coffin swaying as he reaches out and rests his hand on Carl’s shoulder for a moment as if to steady himself before moving on. I hear him murmur, “Goodbye, Pug.”
It is my turn to view the body.
I manage a quick glance at Carl’s face, coated in caramel-colored make-up paste. I imagine the heat melting the pancake off his face, dripping like sweat onto the white satin casket lining and leaving a rusty stain. Horrified by this image, I avert my eyes and stare at his hands. They are drained of color and anger. His slender intertwined fingers resting on the concave center of his chest, the half-moons and ridges on his nails the same as Ed’s. Somehow, even with the soft dove-gray shade of the skin, his hands don’t look dead. Underneath the make-up is a gray-colored shrunken man, no longer caramel-colored, no longer six-feet-two-inches tall, no longer listening to my mumbled goodbye. Carl had chosen the navy suit—a suit he wore on cruises two years before—that now drapes over his tumor eaten bones. Carl always insisted on looking his best.
The viewing now over, the staff passes out white paper fans on wooden sticks that have the mortuary’s name printed in big black letters. Every time someone waves their fan back and forth, the black letters blur on the background. To me they begin to look like wings, black and white butterfly wings flapping without gaining height or speed, going nowhere, trapped in the dusty listless air.
The minister finishes his sermon about how the Bible says Carl will sleep in his grave until Jesus returns and calls him up to heaven. The audience punctuates his words with chants of “Amen”, “Come on now”, and “Yes, testify.” His bald head bounces on his stubby neck as he emphasizes in a sing-song voice that Carl, like all Christians, has to wait until that second coming before he rises. The idea of staying buried, waiting alone, for who-knowshow-long in a coffin before being allowed to see God and reunite with loved ones repulses me. This is the type of pastor who believes that men and stars and dinosaurs were all created together a few thousand years ago. The minister then invites those present to come up and speak and refers to the program notes that specify each individual’s remarks are to be no longer than two minutes. Another reminder of Carl’s wishes.
Ed gets up and walks to the podium, looks out at the assembled mourners. Behind him is his father’s still-open casket.
“I’m going to tell you a story about my father I have never shared with anyone. It’s a story about a five-year-old boy and an egg.” There is laughter from people in the audience, anticipating a sweet and funny childhood story. But something in the way Ed pauses, waiting for silence, makes me wary. Like the paper fans, my lips flutter, forming a fragile prayer, Oh God, don’t let this go bad.
He had not planned to speak at the funeral, and his face is puffy and grim, unused to tears. Ed’s next words are measured and come slow. “When I was five our family lived in East Oakland. My Dad’s mother, Granny, lived down the street from us. She was half Cherokee and was born on the reservation in Oklahoma. She was a countrywoman. One day she gave me some baby chicks. They were the only things that were all mine, and I didn’t let my little brother or sister near them. They were my first pets and I loved them. We kept them in the garage and I took care of them every day. They soon grew big.” Ed’s deep voice trembles, threatening to crack. He stops and briefly stares at his hands planted flat on top of the wooden stand.
I want to get up and go to him, pull him back to his seat but it’s too late for that.
Ed looks back out into the audience and strokes his ruby silk tie before continuing, his voice stronger now. “One day my father announced he was getting rid of the chickens. They were too messy and loud to live in the garage, and there was nowhere else to put them. Once my dad made up his mind that was it. I didn’t want to lose my chickens so I came up with a plan to convince Dad the chickens were useful. Sneaking into the kitchen, I took an egg out of the refrigerator, ran outside to the backyard, and nestled it under a bush where the chickens liked to hide when we let them out to play.
“I told Dad the chicken laid an egg, and he followed me out to see. He bent over, grabbed the egg, and then jerked back up, looming over me. He roared like a lion, demanding to know if I put the egg there.
“I stammered out the words n-no, sir. Dad took a step closer, his voice a battering ram against my ears as he pounded out the words, your chicken didn’t lay this egg. It’s cold as ice.
“I admitted I hid the egg. He pulled off his belt and screamed that he was going to teach me a lesson, never to lie to him again.”
Ed’s voice is tight and controlled. “I never lied to him again. I learned to stay out of his way. That was a bad day. I lost my pet chickens and got a whipping. That’s my earliest memory of my father.”
No one is laughing now. The rituals surrounding death seldom invite the truth. Ed has honored his father today by telling a hard, raw truth, a secret language of anger between father and son.
I imagine how such a brutal reaction affected five-year-old Ed. I want to cry for that crushed little boy and for that damaged father. The language of trauma is a lesson in pain, in how to be a manan echo without sound, a light travelling from an exploded star, a remnant of grief, devouring time.
He leaves the podium, walks down the aisle and sits back next to me. I cover his hand with mine. The fans have stopped waving. Sunlight refracted through the stained-glass window casts a burnished copper light on the fans making them look like ambercolored insect wings, caught in midflight. The paper butterflies begin to flutter trying to fan the tarnish from the praise. The spell is broken when people begin to move, adjusting themselves in their seats. With ragged breaths we offer threadbare words of prayer. It’s over. It’s never over.
We drive through the gaping, rusty cemetery gates. Carl is buried next to David, at the end of a row of tombstones, some elaborately carved, others plain except for name and date—the topography of death, mimicking the tombstone topography of the Oklahoma landscape over a thousand miles away.
I wonder how men learn to be fathers. The jagged edges of manhood not allowing for any soft landings, men like Carl were not equipped with any emotional safety valve to release pain except in anger, destined to become extinct. But like stars that die but continue to send out radiation and light, these men and the tragedies that made them continue to exert a pull on those near them, our memories of them will linger with us, spiraling in and out of time.
I live in Northern California with my husband of 24 years, Ed, and our five German Shepherd Dogs. After retiring from a career in State law enforcement, I enrolled in the MFA program in Creative Writing at St Mary’s College in Moraga, California, and graduated in 2013. I am a contributing editor for The East Bay Review and a two-time alum of the Squaw Valley Writer’s Workshop.
Burying Things is my first published essay. It tells a story of an American history not often explored from the vantage point of my husband’s family. Like all history, it is incomplete and flawed, but my hope is the reader will come away from the experience questioning our nation’s creation myths.