What We Leave Behind


It’s strange, driving down a back road through farm country in October when the corn has been harvested and the trees are changing color. And it’s 85 degrees. My mind and body are connected to this land, and after 39 autumns, most of them spent in this part of the world, I recognize that something is different. Something doesn’t feel right.

The three of us drive along the eastern edge of the valley, our windows wide open. He tells me to turn off of the road. We drive slowly along a tractor lane that separates two fields, the car heaving up and down like a trawling boat.

“Turn here,” he says in a quiet, gravelly voice. Soon we are out in the middle of the field, approaching a quiet grove of trees. We follow the tree line, bend around the back, and he tells me to park where the ground sags like the bottom of a wave, that last glorious moment before the ocean picks you up, lifts you towards the blue.

It is a beautiful day. From here, we walk.

A narrow path splits the trees, then navigates the space between the wood and the 10-foot-high drying corn stalks. They are tan and brittle, and when a breeze blows they rattle like bones.

“The deer must be using this trail this year,” his wife says, and then I notice the corn, some of the cobs gnawed off.

“There it is,” he says, and we stop and the wind is all around us. We stare at a cross pounded deep into the ground just inside the woods. It is a metal sapling, rusting the color of fall. It is a marker that serves as a reminder of forgiveness, a reminder of a past that the current generations have vowed not to repeat.

“There it is,” he says again.

* * * * *

What will we leave behind, when we are gone? I thought of this the other day when I met with someone who told me the story of how her father died when he was only 46 years old. He passed in the middle of the night, cause unknown. I will be 46 in six years. If I would die then, what would I leave behind? What metal crosses have I pounded into this existence? What will the stainless steel letters say about me?

* * * * *

The three of us stand there for a bit, the way you do when you are standing in the presence of something holy. She talks about how well the cross is holding up. He grabs the top of it and, by the firm way it holds to the Earth, I can tell it has been pounded deep. He talks about adding a date to the back, in case anyone stumbles on it in the future.

I wonder about that. I imagine someone crossing through the field, stumbling over the rows, picking their way through the thick undergrowth in that grove of trees, putting their hand up against something that doesn’t move. They take another look. They see a cross with the words “Generations” and “Forgiven.” They see a year.

How are we marking these battles? What will future generations stumble across on their way from here to there?

* * * * *

I do not know who turns away first. I know it is not me. I follow them back to the car and we retrace our bouncing steps, finally back on the smooth road, the sky blue overhead, the warm wind denying fall has ever been here or will ever come back.