It was fall. The field we walked on had been plowed, but it was dry and there was no fresh crop of winter wheat in it yet. I remember this vividly because my small feet had a hard time keeping up with Dad as he walked beside me. My eyes focused on the ground so I could concentrate as I tried to step on top of a hard dirt clod that had been turned over from the cultivator. My body weight was not heavy enough so my foot slid off the top of the huge obstacle as it rolled under my foot and caused me to stumble.
I never fell down, though. My right hand was held securely in Dad’s left and he kept me steady as I walked with him. I felt the warm firmness as his calloused hand engulfed mine. The grip of his hand was just strong enough to remind me that I had a safety net there when needed.
The sun was at my back to the west, and I could feel the warmth of its rays penetrate my body. I don’t remember the heat being too intense, but I do remember the dust. It rose from the earth beneath our feet like puffs of smoke every time Dad’s boots tromped on the rich, brown clods. It would sometimes rise up enough to filter into my nose, and this musky earthiness was a welcoming smell.
Grasshoppers buzzed somewhere in the distance. They were probably hiding in the grass planted on Mommy’s grave. Sometimes, as I played in the yard by the house, I’d look up on the hill to see if she was watching from her place of rest. The dark, square-shaped marker seemed so distant and tiny at times. Now, with every step we took in that direction, it grew bigger and bigger. I noticed that when we got closer, the granite stones glittered as the sun danced on them, and I imagined that Mom was smiling. I was sure she loved this simple beauty.
As we walked along, I asked Dad where Mom was. I knew the answer because I had asked this same question before. Hearing him repeat it to me one more time made me feel like this, too, was something I could count on. “She’s in heaven,” Dad said gently. The reassurance of his voice blended with the dust, the grasshoppers, and the sunlight. It was a part of the scene – like God created it that way on purpose, knowing that the mind of a four-year-old would find comfort in her Dad’s soothing voice that harmonized with the surroundings of our ranch.
The square, granite, stone marker loomed before us. In the middle was the copper plate, held securely in place with concrete in the middle of the sparkling, granite stones that framed it. Across the top of the marker was a flat, sandstone mantel which held a sign made out of welded iron that read “Heller Memorial.” Between the “r” and the “M” was a cross. From my viewpoint, the black silhouette of this sign against the horizon behind it was cold reality against the Montana blue sky.
Careful to not step on the Gumbo Lillies planted around the gravesite, Dad kneeled on the ground in front of the marker and began to polish the copper plate. Nothing had been engraved on it yet, and I asked Dad what the words were going to say. In a moment of quietness, I watched him polish the plate with a hole-filled cotton dishtowel. I could hear the towel slide across the copper as Dad pushed down and created pathways of new shine on the surface. “Well, her name…when she was born…when she died.”
“Is that all?” I crouched on my heels to draw pictures in the dust that had stuck to the toes of my shoes. The dirt gathered under my fingernails, adding to what was already there from a previous encounter with the earth when I played cars and trucks in the yard earlier in the day. This same playtime, along with other miscellaneous tom-boy activities, had caused my faded jeans to finally sigh and rip. The open hole showed where ground-in dirt had turned my white, calloused knees into rough, brown pads.
The dishtowel now whispered in quiet, circular rhythm. Dad seemed hypnotized by the motion he created as he polished the copper plate. His left hand held the obsessed dishtowel and his right hand made a dent in the earth by his leg. “Oh. I don’t know. I guess I’ll put something from her bible on there. She might like that.”