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Essay: Homeplace

Alva Clum on homestead circa 1939

Granddad Alva Clum, pictured with a niece circa 1939

In 2006, I walked into a packing and shipping store and set down my burden — two urns containing the remains of my grandparents. I had loved them and nursed them and held them when they died, and now, tearfully, I was asking whether I could mail them home.

Home is Oregon — Granddad’s birthplace, not mine. Home is the Mohawk River Valley and its stands of pine and cedar, birch and hazel; its covered bridges; its rambling roads edged with berry brambles.

Down Old Marcola Road, past the grange, is the homeplace. Now a derelict trailer lists where my great-grandparents’ farmhouse once stood, but a few of their apple trees are still there. Across the way — on a patch of the original 200-acre homestead — my mother’s cousin Clyde still lives where he was reared, skipping distance from his grandparents.

And further along, down a quiet, shaded lane, is my Great-aunt Louise’s old place, where when I was a girl we camped one summer in the meadow, and I picked thimbleberries for pie and left food for the gnomes I thought lived under a footbridge.

Devil’s Kitchen is still there — a swirling black hole in the Mohawk River where Granddad learned to swim and where generations of our family frolicked and then hauled out of the icy water to warm themselves on the slickrock bank.

As the mortal remains of my grandparents headed home by UPS, I traveled to Oregon by plane, meeting them again at the rustic Upper Mabel Cemetery — burying place for the pioneers who settled the Mohawk. There, generations of our family came together under sighing pines to commit my grandparents to the earth with hymns and prayer and abiding love.

They lie next to my grandfather’s parents, his siblings and their families. They rest in the woods that swallowed Granddad and his brother Jasper on boyhood adventures, when they would disappear into the wild with only fishing poles, a frying pan and pockets full of potatoes. They rest less than a mile from where my 85-year-old great-grandfather spent a day cutting fence posts from the forest and floating them home across the river before he walked home, laid down and died in his sleep. My great-grandmother joined him in the family plot little more than a year later.

When we buried my grandparents, Aunt June — my grandfather’s sister — turned to me and said, “There probably won’t be anyone here when they bury me.” I promised her I would come, and I intend to keep that promise.

In the meantime, I’ve tried to return each summer to the homeplace. I visit the cemetery and pick moss off the stones of my kin. I stand on the bridge and watch the water eddy at Devil’s Kitchen. As they have for decades, the family gathers nearby — four generations now — on the banks of Shotgun Creek for a potluck reunion on the third Saturday of each July. The youngsters swim in the creek; the older ones laugh as they watch the kids shiver and shriek with delight in the waters that froze all of us once upon a time. We sit, and we talk, and we remember.

Most of our family elders are gone now, and Aunt June is among the last. As we bid our goodbyes this summer, she said she didn’t know if she’d be around for another. She’s waiting, it seems — biding her time until she too is called home.

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