Imagine a small American town of about 1,500 people. A town that has occupied its plot of ground near the Ohio-Indiana border since 1793. A town that was built around a frontier fort when the unpleasant assignment of tired Revolutionary generals was to expand the fledgling territory of a new nation among the Indian nations of the Delaware, Shawnee, and Chippewa.
They say that when General Wayne arrived to build his fort, he was able to identify the site by the untold number of unburied remains that were scattered across the ground from the skirmish of St. Clair the year before. They had to move the bones out of their way in order to find a place to set up tents and beds for his men. Sixty years later, this town established an annual Bone Burying Day so that the human remains still being discovered could be properly put to rest.
The population of Fort Recovery has nearly doubled since the 1950s. A whopping 28 new heads counted since the census of 2010. Not exactly a booming metropolis.
If you were to ride the streets of this village today, you’d have to dodge a million potholes from the winter freezes of the last few decades. You’d see your typical smalltown icons. The IGA food store. NAPA Auto Parts. Second National Bank, about the size of a postage stamp. Homan’s Auto Repair Shop, with the garage just off the street and living quarters on the second level.
There are steeples that rise above the rooftops in honor of a people who respect the faith of the saints. A few Lutherans, but mostly a cast of stalwart and staunch Catholics live here. People who believe in good beer, attending Mass and helping the poor.
Many of them are born out of the blood and sweat of farming, evidenced by the massive grain elevators that can be seen above the steeples at the far end of town. They understand hard work. They are more than familiar with their share of bitter winter seasons. The ground is flat and the wind howls at you in this place every time an artic blast moves down from the Great Lakes.
Today, there will be a funeral in Fort Recovery. I only know her by the name of Mary. Fitting for a life-long Catholic woman. She almost made it to her 90th birthday. Small in stature. Snow white hair that is thin on top. Eyes bright and at rest because of the hope that lies within.
Although I don’t know her, I do know her daughter and son-in-law. They made the long road trip from here to there over the last couple of days. They were in Fort Recovery just a couple of weeks ago to see Mom. To hold her hand. To make conversation about little everyday things and to speak of the deep things that so few of us completely understand.
I’m glad they made the first trip, because I know how difficult it is to make this second trip. The house will be full of family. Full of laughter about old stories. Full of deep-dish casseroles from church folk and friends who came by to offer their sympathy by way of food. A house full of memories. Full of days that will be only memories from now on.
When a mother dies, a part of you goes with her. She is the woman who gave birth to you. She gave you her eyes. The set of her cheek bones. Her wit. That mark on your backside left by the steel of her hand when moms used to do that sort of thing. She takes with her a thousand influences that made you into the person you have become.
So, losing your mother is like losing a part of who you are. For nearly 90 years she has defined most of the values you hold. Her character has shaped your life in ways that you can’t even describe. Things creep up on you unaware, and you say to yourself, “Boy, did I just do that? Did I just say that? Am I becoming my mother?”
And your husband says, “Why, yes you are.”
When you were young, you fought like crazy to be different from her. Your teenage hormones took over and made you think that you could be better than her. You’d roll your eyes at her. You thought she didn’t see, but she did. A look that cut her to the core. You swore to yourself, “I’ll never be like that when I have kids.” Then you had kids and ate crow casserole for everything you said you would never do.
It’s funny how perspective changes. Life has a way of bringing us to our senses. The old adage of how our parents get smarter the older we get rings true. We look back and realize what total idiots we were. How once they’re gone we start wishing we had more time. More chances to learn from them. We hope they forgive us for all the times we must surely have disappointed them.
These are the unspoken things that come to mind on a day like this.
The hearst pulls away from the church and you can think of nothing but her. The convoy of cars with headlights on makes its way out to the edge of town. The cemetery sets among the century old maples and oaks near the Wabash River.
They sky is grey. The temperature hovers in the low 30s. The wind cuts you when you step out of the car. You think about how it’s 75° back in Georgia. The chill makes you snap your coat around your mid-section a little tighter. Hands folded inside your arm pits. You and your siblings gather underneath the tent.
Here the bones of a valiant woman will be laid to rest in a small town. An event that will be go mostly unnoticed by the rest of the world. She will be in the company of the bones of those who sacrificed to build this town nearly 230 years ago. Her own kind of sacrifices will not be forgotten. Her faithfulness and commitment to her family will live on in the lives of the children she leaves behind.
The day is bearable because behind the tears there is hope. Within the loss there is discovery. Out of the broken ground rises a new day.
I don’t really know much about Mary, but I know what parents are like. And I just want to say to you that you don’t have anything to worry about. She forgave you for being a snooty teenager a long time ago. In fact, in her mind, there was really nothing to forgive. She loved being your mom. She adored the woman you became and never gave a second thought to the mistakes you made. You were a light in her eyes because you were always a joy in her heart.
Like I said, I don’t really know these things. But I do know something about mothers. And knowing you, I’m pretty sure she was better than average.
Bring back a casserole or two if there’s any left over.