Authors: Donald S. Smurthwaite
Tags: #ride, #retirement home, #cross country, #North Dakota, #family, #car, #road trip, #bountiful, #Utah, #assisted living, #graduate, #Coming of age, #heritage, #loyal, #retirement, #uncle, #adventure, #money, #nephew, #trip, #kinship
The sun is behind the last of the dark clouds to the west, the storm little more than a drizzle. A rainbow spins out of the sky, arching against the dark clouds, splashy and reassuring.
“I should tell you something, Levi. I have a confession.” He stops chewing. He shifts toward me on the front seat of the car. He places his hands on his corduroy pants.
a trifle concerned about that storm. More than I let on. I’ve seen lots of storms like that, and tornadoes have been known to touch down from those kinds of clouds. But I didn’t want you to worry,” he says, pointing his chin upward a little. “No, I wouldn’t want that.”
“Since we’re both into confessions, I have one for you. I
worried. I never did like
The Wizard of Oz
. I thought we might wake up with little giggly green people surrounding us.”
“We might have. I wonder if that is what paradise is like. Eh?”
“Too early for me to find out.”
“I agree. Too early for me as well. I’d like to add on a few more years. We have much ahead of us, Levi. Much to look forward to.”
The sandwich is wonderful. I wash the last of it down with my fruit juice. The rain drips onto the car with a pleasing patter. Suddenly, I feel very tired. I have been up since four in the morning, traveled halfway across the country, met a distant relative named Loyal, packed the old fellow up, and then started back to Zion again. It has been a long day.
A very long day
. My thoughts get filmy and slow. My eyes close. It is nice to just see darkness and not crazy lightning bolts touching down. I think of a green witch and big monkeys with long tails that somehow can fly. Just for a second, I tell myself. I’ll keep them closed only for a moment. Just for a second or two. Way off in the distance, I hear a now-gentle roll of thunder and the slow, polite munching on a ham-and-cheese sandwich.
Almost two hours later, I wake up. The night is warm and humid, and I can see by the stars winking in the sky that the storm is over.
In Poetry and Fable, Heading West Is Not Good
Levi fell asleep as the storm waned. I imagine he was tired. He said he had arisen at four, and he had traveled very far.
I am a patient man. Living on the prairie all these years, attending to people who were ill, running a business on my own, all that and more, has taught me patience. You learn first not to let your own concern come through in your voice, then not to frown, and then to smile when a baby has the croup and a young, frightened mother calls at three in the morning, panicked and seeking your help. You watch the seasons and wait for the burning heat of August to turn gradually to a cool autumn, then the gray, clipped afternoons of January, slowly, in tiny steps, giving way to the first pale green buds of spring. You learn to let this old earth turn on its hinges, and you realize you are a mere passenger. You learn to let things run their course. You come to understand time and its meanings. You learn there really isn’t much difference between minutes and hours, days and weeks. When you do try to move things faster than their natural gait, it is all too easy to become frustrated and then disappointed. When you rush things, you may lose their meaning. I suppose God wants us to notice things and learn. I suppose He gives us experiences that we might sort through them, retain what we should, discard what we don’t need, and inch along toward what we are destined to be in the eternities. Gods, yes; that is at the core of our belief; but even among the gods, there will, I believe, be distinctness, separateness, individuality.
Levi will learn patience too. Only in time, as patience must be learned. He will learn that even in a severe thunderstorm, with hail bashing down and lightning spitting, it is best to be patient, watchful, calm, and learn from it all.
These lofty and bold thoughts come to me as I wait and watch my great-nephew fall into a deep sleep behind the steering wheel of a fast red car, idled by a hot-breathed prairie storm that boomed across our path.
I believe he was truly frightened by the storm. It was a good one—oh, golly, but what a good one. Powerful, furious. And lovely. I think that, wherever heaven is, there will be storms because storms can be magnificent and possess a terrible and haunting beauty, and we learn more in storms than under fair skies. I suppose we need both.
When Levi was deep in slumber and the rain had turned to drizzle then the drizzle diminished to a fine spray, I quietly open the car door and slide outside. I take in the deep darkness of the night, the fragrance of rain on crops. I listen to the crickets courting. I wonder if I will hear crickets in my new Utah home. I wonder what the Utah air smelled like when a summer thunderstorm washed it clean.
I think about Daisy. She had been fascinated by the violent weather we so often saw in North Dakota. When the thunder rumbled like a freight train across the plains and the lightning came in wicked sheets and forks, she seldom retreated farther into the house but rather moved to the largest window we had and searched the skies for what would come next. I recall, during one early cold snap, when the temperatures dropped to ten below zero before November, coming home from work and seeing her in the front yard, clad in a light sweater, looking up in the darkness, her shape illuminated only by the pale yellow light on our porch.
I asked softly, “Why are you out here?”
She said, “To feel what it’s like. The cold makes me feel alive.” To feel.
On this August night, a quarter mile away, John Jannuzzi’s home is awash in light. It is a lighted ship in a calm sea. The glow reaches out and invites me in. But I do not want to leave Levi. And I have said my good-byes to these people once and do not know if I could say good-bye to any of them again.
The wind comes from the west and whispers to me.
I close my eyes and try to remember what Utah is like. I remember mountains. Perhaps I will like the mountains, though I know little of them. I remember people. I remember them in their hurries.
I say Daisy’s name in a muted voice, once more, and let the breeze carry my word across the prairie. The rustling of John’s cornstalks seems to murmur her name back to me.
Inside the car, Levi rustles and mumbles something and then drifts deeper into sleep.
Cars speed by on the state highway we turned off an hour ago, their headlights like small fireflies at first, growing larger as they come to the intersection of John’s driveway, the whooshing of their engines building momentum and then, after they pass by, quickly falling into nothingness. The air becomes still again. The chorus of crickets and rustling cornstalks plays a subdued, two-part harmony.
How did it come to this, I wonder. Is this decision, to move from my home to Utah, the right one? Is there a right decision at all? Does it matter to the Lord where I live out my final days? Have I lost my usefulness? I am old, but I still want to be needed.
I have been needed here, and that is part of what makes these prairies my home. Your home is where you feel needed.
There is a small branch in our town. On good Sundays, we have twenty-five people attend. Floyd McKay was the only other male experienced enough to be the branch president. So we rotated. Floyd would serve four or five years, and then he would get tired or discouraged or his wife would say enough, and he would ask for a release. The stake president would then call me in and ask me to serve. After four or five years, when I would get tired or discouraged or Daisy would hint that we had experienced enough on this round, I would talk to the stake president, and Floyd would be called in for another hitch. We each served as the branch president three times. Floyd is in his third year of his third turn. But he is also now old and I am leaving, and we do not know who will replace us.
It was much the same for Mary McKay and Daisy. It was not unusual for one of them to play the piano, the other to lead the singing. Then one would teach the Gospel Doctrine class and the other Relief Society. Mary bore a larger burden since Daisy died. Then she was the only person in our branch who played the piano. Such is the way with the Church away from Utah, from Idaho, from Arizona, and so many other places where it is well established. We make it work with what we have. We are needed.
But it is no longer mine to worry about. The Lord will provide for our branch. I hope a family or two moves our way. I hope our little branch isn’t combined with the small ward thirty-five miles from our town. I hope a pianist comes to us. Or that someone volunteers to learn to play.
Outside the car, it is warm and damp, and the land seems alive, an unseen world of insects and small animals throbbing to a beat and rhythm only they can hear and feel.
To Utah. I will go to Utah and be surrounded by those of our faith. But is this all
? The question returns.
I will live among people more or less my age. I will form a few friendships. I will be closer to Barbara and Warren and their children, and other family members, too. I will be close to good medical care. In the mornings, I will look to the east and see the tall Wasatch peaks, as they are called, and watch them turn from shadows to mountains, from black to gray to blue.
And I will miss my house in North Dakota and the friendships that took me four decades to build. I have seen one generation, then another, and then a third spring from these plains, fresh faces, new hopes rising. They are things not easily replaced. To move is to close a door on one way of life and start over in another. Even when you are eighty-two years old. You can still start over. Sometimes you must start over.
Is it right?
I suppose the answer is you must make it right, Loyal. It is right to stay, right to leave, right to do whatever else. The choice is yours. Pencil out the sketch of your life, then fill it in with hard, fast colors that will not fade.
I can, with only faint imagination and in a voice not quite a whisper, hear Him: “Trouble me not, Loyal. You may choose, and you and I will go along about the same. You are eighty-two years old. Make your choice, and I will be with you, I will support you. I will leave you enough manna in the wilderness and water from a brook until you are able to sustain yourself.”
In the distance, I hear a nighthawk’s shrill cry. The moon rises and glows through filmy clouds. I hear cattle lowing from John Jannuzzi’s barn. The soil, like the air, smells warm, moist, and pungent.
The earth smells like the sky, and I hear the rustle of cornstalks and wonder if it is the whispering of angels.
Levi is fitful. He has slumped over on the car seat and is now almost in a prone position in the front seat. He sniffles in his sleep. He lets out a long sigh. My young nephew is restless.
Were I at home now, I would be lying down, the window open, a book in my hand. I would read, then listen, then read some more, and listen again. My television set broke five years ago. I never replaced it. I never missed it. I did not own a computer. I wrote all of my letters by hand, on big sheets of light brown paper. I sent out far more letters than I received, but I will continue writing them. It is part of the old way. Pen in hand, words to paper.
Levi mumbles something in his sleep, then coughs lightly. He smacks his lips and stretches an arm up toward the window. He soon will awake, and we will begin our journey again. To the west. To the mountains and valleys of Utah. To my new home.
I have read enough to know that in folklore and poetry, a traveler who moves west moves toward unhappiness. It is a symbol I must counter.
Levi sits up. He looks around, bewildered by his surroundings. He does not know where he is, what he is doing. Then he looks at me through the door, left half open.
“I must have fallen asleep. Let’s see. I remember the storm and the farmhouse of your friend. Where are we again? What time is it? How long have I been asleep?”
“Awhile. You needed the rest. Shall we push on now?”
He seems to regain his senses and bearings. A thought seems to snap him awake.
“Sure. Yeah, let’s get moving again.”
He fishes the car keys out. Quietly, I climb back into the car. He turns the engine on and carefully backs down to the highway. This time, he doesn’t need to ask me for directions. He turns the car to the left.
A barn owl blows three somber notes in the thick night air.
I take in a breath of fresh, soily air as the lights of John Jannuzzi’s house fade into the night. I hear a noise, swishing, swooshing, like a murmur from beyond, and think that maybe angels are watching over me as the car tires crinkle over small gravel.
Levi turns the car to the west, and in mere seconds, we are again moving toward our destination.
Drive Straight Like an Arrow
Almost two hours! How could I have slept that long in a car just after a tornado might have touched down and ripped me off the face of the planet? Uncle Loyal must have been awake the whole time. He didn’t say a thing to me. Just let me sleep. Sandwiches first, then sleep. Eat, sleep, breathe. The basics of life. Uncle Loyal just sat there and let me do what I needed to keep the Levi organism functioning.
I will give him credit. Credit for watching out for me. There seems to be more to Uncle Loyal than meets the eye. Or at least my eye, untrained as it is. More than Aunt Barbara told me. More than Aunt Barbara
He reminds me of some of the tribal elders I met on my mission in northern Arizona. They didn’t say much. They just sat there and oozed wisdom and time and experience, and you got the feeling they’d
each of their wrinkles. Sometimes they didn’t say
, but you felt different and better just by having been around them. I suppose wisdom never is loud and never draws attention to itself.
When I wake up, he’s just standing outside the car, his head cocked slightly, listening and looking.
“How long have I been asleep?”
“Awhile. An hour and one-half or so. But you needed it. The storm is over. We should be driving again. I know you’re in a hurry to make good time.”