The other day I decided I was going to start telling people that my parents died in a plane crash while delivering medical supplies in the Congo. My father was a pilot and my mother a doctor and they had created a non-profit organization back in the 70s that was their life’s work. They lived and died serving others.
The truth is, my dad died when he was 61 from heart failure, 98 percent of his arteries were clogged, and my mother died at 56 from cancer. My dad was a part time taxi driver who lived in the woods in a car with solar panels on top, and my mother was a Safeway clerk who lived in trailers and apartments. They were hard working people who struggled since birth to get by and do right. And while I am not trying to erase their stories, I am trying to find some form of understanding as to why they died so young, and to find another answer to the question that is so often asked.
How did your parents die?
It is an odd question, I have found, in that when people find out my parents are dead they do not ask about who they were, what they did, what were their hobbies and passions, what books they read, where they lived, and all of the questions that somebody may ask about a person who is still alive… they always want to know how they died, and that be the end of the conversation. Which doesn’t leave a lot of room for honoring my ancestors, telling their stories, and feeling proud of who they were and what they accomplished in their lives. So I figure, if I tell people they died in a plane crash in Africa, people will want to know more…
But the truth is, after almost 6 years since my mother’s passing I still find it difficult to talk about it. Sometimes I will tell my daughter about her grandmother and I will begin to weep because I miss her so much. I will tell her, “Multiple times I went to your grandmother’s apartment and found strangers sleeping on her living room floor because they did not have a place to sleep for the night. Your grandmother would use her days off to bring people in need food, clothing and money. People who were too anxious or proud or high to line up at food banks and ask for assistance. Your grandmother would spend all day driving people to and from Anchorage because they did not have a car or they were too afraid to drive. Your grandmother…” And then I have to stop because I begin to miss her so bad I well up.
Sometimes I tell my daughter, Primrose, about her grandfather but I don’t what to say because I didn’t know him at all, so I stick to the facts. “Your grandfather could grow a beard down to his chest and could box with the best of them. Your grandfather loved to read and write poetry just like your daddy. He studied the Bible and loved God with all of his heart. Your grandfather was a tough man who didn’t feel deserving of love, so he gave and received love in the only way he knew how, from a distance.” And then I come to a stop, not because I have tears, but because I don’t really know what more to say.
Savanna, my wife, decided that we would celebrate Did de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) this year by creating an altar in the living room with our deceased ancestors. We have an unidentified skull covered in geraniums, a few candles, artifacts from our ancestors and pictures to honor them. We light candles and burn incense every day in honor of them. I pray to them, thanking them for what they did for our family and ask God to help me honor them and to honor our future ancestors. It has been a very healing experience, to look at their pictures and remember them instead of allow them to recede into the blackness of the past.
I bring this all up not because I am sulking over people not asking me questions about my parents or because I feel like I’m missing out on not having parents who are alive to hold their grandchild and support my family, although there are certainly slivers of those buried deep in my heart. I am writing about this because I helped a 79 year old neighbor butcher, pluck and clean 7 chickens yesterday and death is on the mind.
My neighbor, Mr. Harold Kerchner, with his knobby, arthritic hands, false teeth and radiant eyes of pure gold, taught me a life long skill yesterday that I will hopefully continue to use and pass on to my daughter. He used a machete, two nails and a log- a boiling pot, two metal buckets and a plastic one for heads, feet, necks and feathers. A young calf watched, unstartled. Chickens in crate did not panic, crow or peck as he opened the crate with one knobby hand, grabbed a bird’s feet while pinning back its wings and set its neck between the nails, stretching out the neck. “Thwack!” Off with its head. He gently set the chicken on the ground until all 7 were lined up by the pot.
He said, “My daddy used to hang the birds by their feet by little lassos on the wall and he could come up behind them with his thumb and put it right through the back of their neck, killing them instantly. I never saw a more ethical way of killing a chicken.”
Wet snow fell. A half inch on ground from previous night. 9:30 am, cold, October morning. We could see our breath, the cows breath, and the steam boiling from the pot of water.
He dunked the birds for less than 10 seconds in the steaming pot then gently set them on an old chicken feed bag on the ground as I took to plucking. He talked about his family, all farmers from Missouri, and how his parents lived into their late 80s and 90s and how his own siblings are in their 80s. He and his wife moved up here to live off grid in the late 70s, their son and daughter live on our same road with their families, they spend time with each other every single day. They are real time farmers, no doubt, as we have seen over the past two years since they moved here with their tractors, trucks, animals, and keen ability to build, clear, plant, and give to their neighbors. Every time Harold gives advice or talks about something regarding to farming he starts by saying, “Now I don’t know much about all this, but what they say is…” They are kind, funny, hard working people who don’t waste time with unnecessary words and unnecessary action.
When finished plucking, I watched him cut and clean two birds before I started cutting. The warmth of the bird felt comforting on my cold hands. We took the cleaned birds inside the house to quarter. I arrived home at 11:30 to a smiling wife and happy daughter. Savanna’s smile grew even bigger when she saw two cleaned birds in my hands, and it continued to grow throughout the day when she made chicken barley soup for dinner that filled the house with a good smell of country comfort and filled my belly with goodness. Life is good.
While I certainly was not a country boy, I am a country man, and I am honored to be learning from people who have lived the country life for generations. Perhaps in learning from them I can not only gain self reliance, sustainability, security and friendship; perhaps I can honor my ancestors of the past and the future, and be willing to rewrite my past and recreate my future.