190614 waterside
One must rediscover the bliss of sitting by the waterside, listening to birdsong and wind in the pines Image Credit: iStockphoto

I hadn’t planned to make the trip. May was such a busy time that I’d stuck Post-it notes all around my house reminding me to “Say no to everything.” But then a dear childhood friend texted to say her father had died, and I wouldn’t have missed his funeral for the world.

When I got to my sister’s house that night, plans were in full swing for my nephew’s high-school graduation. As an emblem of passing time, it’s hard to choose between an old man’s funeral and a child’s graduation. The night that child came home from the hospital, my job was to take him to his mother when he was hungry and put him down to sleep when he was full, but instead I stayed up all night marvelling at all that life so neatly packaged in a tiny person. All I did was turn my back for a second, half a second, and he was grown.

The next morning there was time before the funeral to wander around the neighbourhood where I grew up, the same neighbourhood where my father had lived as a child. I found the place at the end of the road where rusted tracks emerged from the weeds, the exact place where my father had waited for his father to step off the trolley after work. I found the creek where my eighth-grade boyfriend first held my hand. I named to myself all the neighbours who had once lived on my street, every one of them gone now, as a scent drifted on the air that I couldn’t place. Then, finally: gardenia! It blooms in profusion in my hometown but not at all in Nashville, where I have lived for 32 years.

At the funeral, when my friend spoke about her parents’ long marriage, I thought of my own parents’ long marriage. When she recalled her father’s irrepressible pride in his children, I remembered my own father’s irrepressible pride in his children. When she spoke of the way her father’s love always overcame their differences, I thought of the way my father, too, accepted my reconsiderations of the worldview he had imparted as a birthright.

Sail on - no hurry

In her eulogy, my friend reminded us of how much her father had loved to sail: “He always said that he felt at peace when sailing, where it was serene and quiet,” she said. “I now appreciate that he enjoyed those days on the boat because the family was together without being in a hurry.”

And suddenly I was thinking of those Post-it notes stuck all over my house. How had I allowed myself to become so busy? How long had it been since I’d spent a day in the sun, eating sandwiches from a cooler and watching water ripple across the surface of a lake? Why do I so often behave as though there will be unlimited days to sit quietly with my beloveds, listening to birdsong and wind in the pines?

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Leaving the funeral, I found myself thinking of my mother’s last days. She was a lifelong gardener, but working the soil had become difficult, so I found a carpenter to build two raised beds, each waist high, next to the back porch of the little house across the street from me, where she lived during her final years. She stooped to dig in the dirt anyway.

After her sudden death, I found a holly fern in a plastic grocery bag on the back porch. She’d dug it up from our old yard while she was staying with my sister the week before she died, and her trowel was stuck in the ground right where she must have planned to plant it. She didn’t know it would not have lived through a Nashville winter. I took it home and put it in a pot.

— New York Times News Service

Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.