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A Dirge for My Mother’s Cousin

By June 1, 2010 No Comments

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 flour. 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 flour 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 flour. 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.