Bones to the Ground

July 15-23, 2019: Ann and I took a 2200-mile road trip around western Montana that held so many layers of significance it is taking weeks let the heart and soul of our experiences weave into meaning-making. There are moments in this trip I am not ready to share; moments I will probably never have words for, moments that will be transformed into later stories that can only emerge from the perspective of long time. Here is one moment around which my heart swirls:

On the way east, we drove with a small, stainless steel canister containing my father’s ashes riding in the backseat. We were meandering toward the family homestead in Fort Shaw, and the family grave plot at the community cemetery in Sun River, Montana. This grave has been an informal pilgrimage site ever since my grandmother was buried there in 1960, followed by my grandfather in 1970. The headstone is engraved simply: Baldwin.

Dad/Leo Jr. at his parents’ grave: 2011

Over the years the ashes of my Uncle Kenny and Aunt Florence, my Aunt Grace, and now my father, Leo Jr.,  have been set over the coffins of Leo and Mary. Down the row is my Aunt Dorothy, Uncle Reese, and their son, my cousin Richard. With my father’s death at age 98 last October, and his sister Francie’s death at 103 this past February, all the eight first generation Montanans are now laid to ground. In our family’s sense of collective lineage, this marks the end of something. So seventy-five descendants came to acknowledge this cycle, to walk this valley one more time, to pose in front of the Square Butte that looms over the bee-yards and church steeple that defined us, to tour the honey house now operated by Treasure State Honey, evolving our grandfather’s standards of “pure, raw, unfiltered.”

75 descendants at the West Side Methodist Church in Great Falls where Grandpa B. was minister in the 1930s.

Sunday morning, July 14, in the midst of our reunion weekend, we all arrive at the cemetery. A new, flat stone marker is set in place. There is a small urn sized hole in the ground. It is sunny, windy, and we are all milling around in a large clump.

My cousin, Bill, calls us together playing the violin that my father gave him as a boy, his first learner instrument. His granddaughters hold the music pages balanced on the tombstone; his six-year-old grand-nephew comes running over, “That’s amazing sound,” Rhys says, “Can I learn to play that?”

“Yes, you can,” he says to the boy. “And so it goes,” he says to me.

I read a Wendell Berry poem. My brother Eric reads some words of his own, and words of our father’s. We sing Kipp Lennon’s song, “Family Tree,” and cry through the lyrics. And then it is time to lay the shiny canister into earth. I set down the old man’s bones. I invite anyone  who wishes to step forward and put some dirt in the hole. Who comes first are the children: Leo’s fourth generation of great-grandchildren, great-grandnieces and nephews, little hands solemnly spreading summer-dried soil over their ancestor.

Ashes to ashes, they understand the heartfulness of this ceremony.

 

We send silent prayers on the wind. We give thanks.

My niece Colleen with Leo4

 

After folks have drifted off to the brunch awaiting us at the local Methodist church, I sit for a last time with my dad, holding the story I am writing onward, honoring my lineage of Leos, asking forgiveness from the Blackfeet people whose horrific displacement made our placement possible.  Morning glory flowers creep through the grass. Bees buzz. There is both blood and bounty on this land. The wind is still blowing. I pray that all may come to healing; that we may cherish what is good, true, and beautiful; that we may find peace in the wildness of things; that we may learn to better love all our relations and the world.

Butte and bees–what remains the same

After a few moments I rise and walk into the arms of my grandchildren—where my responsibility lives now. They look thoughtfully into my teary eyes, “You okay, Nina?”

I look thoughtfully into their clear gazes. “I’m okay…” and inside I’m thinking to myself: stay healthy, stay fierce, stay strong, stay one whom they can lean upon.

Parents gone, we siblings stand on the ground of bones.

30 replies
  1. June
    June says:

    Beautiful Christina. It is in these moments that we cherish our parents and those gone before us. We are now them to our children and grands and nieces and nephews. Lives reversed. Our path leads them now as our parents did for us. Much love on your journey and contemplation of past present and future.

    Reply
  2. Tenneson Woolf
    Tenneson Woolf says:

    I am moved by your words, your sharing, and these images of family and land. I read with welled tears. Thank you for offering this in process sense-making Christina. I’ve been listening to Willie Nelson music lately. Because I want to. Because it connects me to my grandfather. His lyric, “It’s not something you get over, but it’s something you get through.” moves me. A bow to your story.

    Reply
  3. Anne Stine
    Anne Stine says:

    amazing story, Christina. You have a way of drawing us into your experience. And 75 of you came together? What a tribute to your father. I can feel that there are so many more stories. Your father lives on in all your lives!
    enjoy the summer! love, Anne

    Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Thanks Pam, I know you are still on this journey with your mother, and have your own experiences with your father and brother. Such big cycles.

      Reply
  4. Yvonne Palka
    Yvonne Palka says:

    Thank you Christina. It brought back memories of scattering my parents ashes on Mt. Rainier and supporting my brother on his journey this summer. Our family stories are very different but the heart is the same.
    Love, Yvonne

    Reply
  5. Cynthia Trowbridge
    Cynthia Trowbridge says:

    Deep gratitude for continuing the story of deep connection that runs through your family. Tears flowed as I read. It is a reminder to honor all that we share with place, with family, with simply being fully present.

    Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      I am so glad we share a sense of place and family. I miss seeing you monthly and hope all is well with you and yours.

      Reply
  6. Jeanne Petrick
    Jeanne Petrick says:

    With tears in my eyes and in my heart, I say, thank you for sharing this account. Life is fragile. It is beautiful in its genuine meaning of traveling well through a lifetime and then of leaving it behind for all of those who, by your own life, are left behind to carry on the cycle. I am sure that Leo enjoyed the honor bestowed by this group and especially yours! Appreciating what it means to let go of your Dad’s ashes to the land. Hugs to you. Jeanne

    Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Hugs back, yes I think Leo did “enjoy” the weekend. I felt his spirit around us and his smile seemed everywhere.

      Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Dear Linette, Maybe it is these cycles of life that help keep us connected across miles, time, and cultures. I can imagine those little hands in all colors in all cultures. Drinking tea and using the tea cozy you brought us on a trip from OZ to US… so thinking of you daily.

      Reply
  7. Sarah Schmidt
    Sarah Schmidt says:

    Dear Christina, thank you for this moving story. The minutes I was reading and reflecting on your words, and listening to the Family Tree song, provided an oasis of calm, comfort and inspiration this afternoon. When a new Peer Spirit blog arrives in my email, I always know I have received a valued gift of deep presence and insight. With heartfelt gratitude,
    Sarah

    Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Thank you Sarah, I’m glad you listened to the song. Sometime when you come to our house you can have a lick of the honey, too.

      Reply
  8. Sara Harris
    Sara Harris says:

    Oh, what a deep and rich story that brought me right in to the pain, loss, joy, celebration, connectedness of how you hold family. Thank you, as always, for language directly from the heart to the heart.
    Love,
    Sara

    Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Thank you dear. I know you are deep into your family stories–can hardly wait to hear. Blessings wherever you are writing!

      Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Love back to you dear friend. What a gathering of voices in response to this story… I am grateful to be held in such a circle.

      Reply
  9. Jeanne Guy
    Jeanne Guy says:

    Special post, special words, special woman. “Healthy, fierce, strong, one whom they (your grandchildren) can lean upon.”

    You are all of this and more – thanks, in part, to your incredible father, one Leo Baldwin.

    Sending love.

    Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      I just kept thinking that weekend how much he would have enjoyed it… and in some mysterious way, I think he was there and did. Lineage in action!

      Reply

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