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.

Grandmother in the 21st Century

Jaden, age 5, meeting baby Sasha on the day she was born.

Something happened to my heart when Jaden was born. A chamber opened that I didn’t know was there: the grandmother room. He, and now Sasha, reside in this special place. I am honored to be their “Nina” and delighted to be partnering with their “Maga,” to be the nature grannies.

 

We bring them Island Life: unstructured and unsupervised time outside, time on the beach making up games with the corgi dog, constructing driftwood caves. We draw and collage and cook. We watch videos and eat popcorn in the evenings. We give their parents “Spring Break” through the deliciousness of having them with us for spring break.

Sasha and Nina on beach

 

Pretending to be a cave man.

 

 

And last month, we all spent Spring Break on our pilgrimage to South Korea, when Sally returned with her entire family around her to put her feet on the soil of her birth. Ann’s blog chronicles this trip; so what is left for me is a look at grandmothering through the lens of two moments with these beloved kids on their first foray into a world way beyond America.

Sasha at Jogyesa Temple

On our second day in Seoul, we stopped to visit the Jogyesa temple grounds on our way home from the Namdaemon market—two very different scenes! The temple was preparing for Buddha’s Birthday, a major public and religious holiday in South Korea. As we stepped off the street, we were offered green tea to shift from street vibes to spiritual quiet. Noticing our foreignness, they arranged for a woman who spoke English to escort us. Sasha and I went into a little welcome room where we were handed a decorated card and an opportunity to write a prayer to be hung on the side panels of the temple ground gates. Sasha’s private prayer was so thoughtful I knew we were going to have a special time. We hung our cards and stepped under a canopy of colorful hanging lanterns that made the whole place magical.

Sasha at the Dharma Hall

We stood respectfully on the steps of the main Dharma Hall. Inside the glass walls several hundred women were engaged in chanting and prostrations before tall golden statues of the Buddha. Sasha whispered:

“Is that their Jesus?”

After a while we wandered over to the smaller hall dedicated to ancestors. Here all the hanging lanterns were white, the meditation pillows and interior walls were white. We stood in silence at the back of the room while people on cushions sat is silent meditation.

“Is Uncle Brian an ancestor?”

The third room we visited was the hall of the Bodhisattvas. A central figure, with offerings placed at its feet, was the focal point of meditation. We—Ann, Sally, Jaden, Sasha, and I—all took off our shoes and sat. Behind the large statue was a wall of shallow boxes each housing a smaller statue.

“Are those guys like angels?”

A few minutes later we were outside the room putting on our shoes. “So they believe in Buddha, and we believe in God?”

I tied my laces, “Well, all religions believe in God,” I said. “God is the Great Mystery, a Creator who made the whole universe. This idea is so big human beings can’t really understand what God is. So religions show us different ways of practicing respect for this Mystery. In Christianity, Jesus comes as the Son of God to show people one way, and in Buddhism, Buddha comes as another way.”

“So everybody’s okay?”

“What’s important is to be a good person—following the teachings that mean the most to you to your heart. They all lead to God.”

“Like all these lanterns and the tree of lights, it’s kind of like Christmas, even though it’s Buddha’s birthday.” And she was off, skipping across the temple grounds.

 

Jaden in Busan

Taller than his mom, slender, wearing black jeans and black hoodie, phone in hand and playing some kind of game every moment we weren’t “touristing,” Jaden looked the part of an Asian teen. He could fit in, slipping into the street scene at night with his dad the official trip photographer or cruising the market eating fresh doughnuts, shopping for a cool shoulder bag. It was the company he kept, the language he spoke, that made him different and set him to thinking: how would life have been different if I’d been born here?

Dusk on the harbor cruise in Busan.

He spent a reflective evening staring at the light spangled cityscape by Haeundae beach, trying to piece together an image of himself in a completely alternative reality. Well, that’s what he does all the time on the phone—play in other worlds—only this time he was his own avatar.

After listening to him think through his “other life”—the one he’d would have had if his mother had been raised Korean, and he’d been raised Korean, I said to him, “You know, this is your century. You will define it, live your whole life in it, and make the choices that create the world around you. And by your bloodlines you are uniquely positioned to discover a special kind of leadership that is uniquely you.”

“What do you mean—my bloodlines?” He put down the phone.

“You are half Korean and half Hispanic, and especially after being here, it seems clear to me that in the 21st century Asians will rule the world, and Hispanics and other minorities will pretty much rule America. Hispanics are already nearly 20% of the US population, and in some cities are at a 50% mark. You attend one of the most diverse school systems in the country. And here in Korea you get to see the determination of the people to become a nation making a global technological impact.”

He was still listening, so I added—“Who will you be? How will you use the incredible diversity of your upbringing to be a 21st century citizen? What wisdom lives in your bones that can guide you?”

My dear grandson is a sweet-natured young man, thoughtful when probed and prodded, both shy and gregarious, newly elected to his middle school council, a kid who hangs out in his science teacher’s classroom after hours because the teacher is cool and an informal mentor. He’s piecing himself together in a world I barely comprehend. It’s like a video game—fast action, options coming and going, opportunities morphing. My role, my love, is to provide a thread that weaves through all this action, a whisper to the inner boy. I watched my comments sink into his thinking… Where are they now? I don’t know, and probably he does not know. What I do know is that they are working in his giant jig-saw puzzle of putting himself together.

Oh so thirteen.

I am grateful both these children are willing to listen to their sometimes so serious Nina, to allow me these moments.