A Dirge for My Mother’s Cousin

Oddly enough, it may be my earliest
intense memory. We’re at
the village park for a family reunion,
I think, and it’s fun–that much
I remember. Then, for no particular
reason, my mother’s first cousin and
some other faceless relative pick up my
mother, one by her arms, the other by
her feet, and swing her around somehow.
They’re just north a bit of the shelter
house–I know exactly where they’re
standing, exactly, and it’s more than
fifty years ago.

I’m seething. I’m a little boy–probably
six or seven–and I’m furious
about the way they’re manhandling my
mother. I’m standing there helpless.

Maybe the helplessness is the reason
I’ve never forgotten the intensity
of that moment. My mother’s cousin is
a young guy who pitches on the town
softball team. He’s the star. He’s someone
I know to be really important, really
a man, and he’s disgracing my mother,
turning her into a sack of f lour. I’m
seven. I’m disgraced, I’m seething, and
I’m absolutely powerless. So I cry.

My mother’s cousin was and is a
fine man, the athlete who stayed on the
mound and pitched for most of his life,
a captain of the team, a leader in the
village, the church, and the whole community.
I’ve taught his children. For
years, he was on the Board of Directors
of the college where I’ve taught for most
of my lifetime. He still has grandchildren
here.

For years, the man who somehow,
once upon a time, disgraced my mother
and left me bawling–for years he
faithfully visited his aging cousin, as
he himself was growing old. He stopped
in to see her often, and she loved him,
loved his visits, loved his attention
probably just as much as she did when
she was a young mother and a sack of
f lour at a village park family reunion.
Honestly, I didn’t know him all that
well, except to know that he certainly
was a firebrand conservative with
respect to church doctrine, opposing
absolutely any change in the roles of
women, a move he was sure was contrary to God’s word and will. On women
in church office he held the line, determined
and hard core; and even my
mother, who loved him and shared his
views, thought it joyfully ironic that
when his own heart gave out, he was
blessed with a transplant, a pre-owned
model, of course–from a woman. For
the last twenty years there beat a woman’s
heart in the old winning pitcher.

But that one has stopped now too,
and my mom’s cousin is gone. That’s
what she called to tell me last night.
Her cousin died–before she did.

Today, in class, Hamlet, Act V–the
graveyard scene, “Alas, poor Yorick, I
knew him, Horatio”–one of the most
famous scenes in the most famous
play in the English language. The poignancy
of that particular scene transcends
even this marvelous play, a
young prince thinking seriously, his
conscience sodden, about the absolute
reality of death.

I’m neither young nor a prince. I
certainly haven’t been pushed to revenge
by my father’s cursed, purgatorial
ghost, and this isn’t Denmark.
But this morning there’s a dirge being
played in my soul–for a family I know
well; for my mother, who is certainly
missing her one-time tormentor, her
beloved cousin, and a life-long friend;
for a church and a community who lost
a bastion; and for me, powerless as I
am and we all are before the relentless
march of time.

But this morning, just two days after
Easter, my morning thanks are for
him, for my mother’s cousin; and I’m
thankful too that maybe today he’s
pitching on some heavenly softball
team in a twilight doubleheader; and
that soon enough, for my 92-year-old
mother, there will be a family reunion
at which she’ll take great joy at being
tossed around like some bag of f lour.
Soon enough, I’ll be there too, the man
who is, this morning, holding a skull
down here in the basement, but not
seething, because we’re not eternally
powerless, none of us.

“There’s a special providence in
the fall of a sparrow,” Hamlet says to
his friend Horatio. “If it be now, ’tis not
to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come:
the readiness is all.”

That’s the passage, this morning, I
think I’m ready to teach.

James Calvin Schaap is professor of English at Dordt
College in Sioux Center, Iowa.