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It should come as no surprise that death creates some unlikely bedfellows. Up here, up the hill, sworn enemies share a morning pot of coffee. The three Vande Gaard brothers, who fell into ten years of silence once their father’s will was read, hang out here along the river as if they were boys, just a mile downstream from the home place.
But a cemetery is as democratic as a public school: we’ve got to take everybody, so just one of the blessings of being dead and gone is miserable longstanding grudges melting away like an April blizzard.
I bring it up because everyone here knows the story of little Scotty DeVries, who, just a year ago, took his own life one night when his mother was, oddly enough, attending a PTA meeting and his father was who-knows-where. Scotty, just thirteen years old, hung himself in his bedroom. Emotionally, he’d been picked to pieces by tough-guy bullies, not unlike a score of other kids who were somehow blessed with the wherewithal to suffer through their own tortures. Overweight and friendless, as unathletic as some hunched octogenarian, Scotty DeVries threw in the towel, and for maybe six weeks or so, waves of tearful introspection rolled like floodwaters into and over the town—nowhere near long enough, or so our sages calculated.
If I’d been down there still, running the newspaper, Scotty’s obit would have been something I’d have had to cut back on, even falsify. And that’s another reason to love my new digs—ours. Up here, the truth can not only be told but accepted because we are, you remember, far more forgiving than the living. Which doesn’t mean that we weren’t as torn up about Scotty’s taking his own life as anyone was down the hill, although probably less so, life itself not being quite so precious here, it being, so to speak, behind us. I know that to say it’s been good for the boy to be with us sounds unfeeling; but up here on this more forgiving side of the divide, he’s, well, blossomed.
And strangely enough by your standards—I’m sorry for straying so far from the point—he now has an unlikely best buddy, his own great-grandma, a woman he’d never known, a woman who’d seen his travail, including the moment he’d taken that step off his desk chair. She was, in fact, the first to speak to him, to let him know he wasn’t alone up here.
That great-grandma is my mother.
“Scotty,” she told him that day, “it’s just so nice to meet you.” He was sitting on the grass, looking down the hill toward town, sitting there like the child he had been. “I’m your grandma’s mother,” my mother told him, “—your Grandma Van Kempema’s mom.”
Sometimes it helps to be young. When old farts come up here, they have some trouble tuning into the fact that, in some ways, they’re still around. Scotty smiled as if what she’d announced wasn’t much of a surprise.
“We lived six miles west,” she pointed up the road, “and a half south, a place with a big grove, even then, eighty years ago,” she told him.
Scotty, startlingly, seemed at home with the idea that up here he was talking to a woman a century older than he was, yet someone who loved him. “I’ve seen your picture,” he told his great-grandma. “You were wearing a hat, for Sunday—you were going to church.”
“I don’t think Mother would have allowed us to use a camera on the Sabbath,” she told him. “Might have been a funeral or a wedding.”
He pulled both legs up beneath him. “There’s a wagon behind you—horses.”
“Next time I’ll have to look,” she told him, as if it were a promise.
“You been there?” he said.
“You’re my family,” she told him, and then she got down on the grass beside him. “You feeling better?” she asked him.
His blue eyes got dreamy. “You know what happened?” he asked.
“We all know,” she told him.
He looked up behind her. “There’s more of you?”
“Look around,” she told him.
He saw no one but the hundreds of stones he couldn’t have missed. He scratched his head. “It’s not something I thought of then,” he told her, pointing down toward town, “but up here, I’m thinking that what I did—and I still think it was the right thing, you know—”
My mother nodded grudgingly.
“What I did—I hope it changes things,” he told her. “I wasn’t thinking of that—that’s not it,” he told her, sadly. “I’m saying now, sitting up here like this, whoever I am right now—what I’m saying is that I hope it does them all some good.” Mostly I think he was confused, as all of us are first thing. “You’re dead too, aren’t you? You understand?”
“Things look different, sure,” my mother told him.
“That’s not why I did it,” he told her, and she reached for him then, put her hand on his. “I wasn’t thinking how I wanted to get back at them or that maybe it would be good for them—that’s not it.”
“I know,” she told him, and he didn’t question her either.
“It was that, to me, mornings all seemed dark as night,” he told her. “You sure you’re my grandma?”
“You got my blood in you—or did,” she told him. She opened her hand to him as if it were right there in her life lines.
“This isn’t hell, is it?” he asked.
My mother put her arm around him, her hand on the back of his neck, and pulled him, like a mother, into her chest. She’d asked me to be there just in case she might need backup, so to speak, and I hope it comes as no surprise to you when I say that my mother, who died already a half-century ago and never knew this boy at all, nor his parents, sat there in the grass like a child, shedding tears she tried her best to wipe away the moment they appeared. “No, dear,” she told him, “this isn’t hell.”
Scotty came to us alone, even though no one is, and my mother made sure he wasn’t. We all watched that day and found it sweet; but then, up here we’re not all that hard to please.
It was my mother’s idea to go to church that Sunday evening, when Scotty’s father, who’d run wild, to say the least, had determined that the faith he’d been born into and walked away from was calling him back, once more, after Scotty took his own life. He wanted to testify in the very church he’d spurned for lo, these many years. My mother determined Scotty should go with.
We’ve got church up here too, but some distinctions are simply lost post-mortem. No one here defines worship as something that happens only between four walls, nor in the presence of a pulpit or communion table. Besides, we’re all preachers, although, truth be known, we’ve still got our favorites. What I’m saying is no one here feels compelled to go down the hill to enter a sanctuary, not like in real life, which is not to say this isn’t. Try to imagine a world in which the practice of piety is always real. It’s quite heavenly.
If I had it to do all over again—and this isn’t wishful thinking because, believe me, we’re not subject to that kind of envy—I would have tried harder to be a real writer, taken the idea of writing stories more seriously when I was down the hill because I never realized until I made it up here how richly all those human lives played out before me, even then, whole novels through the generations. I understand it now—just as I understand so much. If I was still down there, with what I know I could write a whole lot better novel than that one attempt I made. Some lines from the Old Testament make more sense these days—the sins of the father and all of that, the legacy we leave behind. Nobody up here blamed Scotty’s father for what his son did—nobody. The good Lord be thanked, we’re beyond blaming. But down there, what wasn’t said aloud could have created an ice jam in late July.
My mother insisted on sneaking down the hill and attending worship that night because her granddaughter’s husband—Scotty’s father—wanted to testify to the faith he’d found again after the horror of his son’s suicide. And she wanted Scotty to be there too. And her husband. And me. And whoever else was around and interested. That night we could have used a school bus because that church turned into a massive congregation of saints.
Around here, the second Sabbath worship, an evening service, isn’t well-attended anymore, so for those few from town who showed up, the old church, as usual, seemed achingly bereft. But there were tons of us because everyone had seen how heartfully she’d taken her great-grandson in, not that it was a burden—burdens having been lifted, remember. Besides, most of us had nothing else scheduled.
Scotty’s father, my sister’s son-in-law, makes money and loses it, almost as a way of life. He’s never seen a fad he wouldn’t buy into—blown-in insulation, heat pellets made from waste, even ethanol. He’s first on board, and he’s built more big houses, then lost them, than most people find time to covet. He’s either rich or bankrupt, an insanely purposeless talker who has more enemies than you can shake a stick at.
He’s takes people with him—good times and bad. When others are timid, Turkey DeVries—he’s nicknamed—doesn’t hesitate. He’s hungry as a jackal, got eyes like a raptor and the sweet words of a crooked preacher. He stays in Highland only because it’s home, the place where we’ve got to take him back. And we have.
Turkey never knew what to do with little Scotty, who wasn’t cut out of the same sharp steel the old man was. He’s the kind of man who will never win public office, even though he’s always running. Let’s just be clear about things here—what people have always said about Turkey DeVries I couldn’t have put in my paper. He’s an asshole, all right? I couldn’t have printed that, and I probably shouldn’t say it now, given my status; but I can because there are things you know once you’re dead. Trust me.
It was the end of winter, that time of year when everybody’s sick of cold because the warm promise of southern breezes is growing ever more immediate. It was January cold, even though it was almost March, a fierce wind out of the northwest, following two or three days of spotty snowfall, fleece-like and weightless.
When there were more people on the land out here—more farms, more houses, more big families—the church was a whole lot bigger, the balcony—Sunday morning, Sunday night, nearly always full. Today, that spacious upstairs section is rarely used, so that’s where we all went that night, up in the balcony—a half dozen rows of curious, saintly zombies, some of us arriving earlier than others, just like the old days because old habits die hard. Gerrit Bosma was first. He waited outside just like he always did in real life, his family in the Buick.
Among the living, no one really believed Turkey’s latest profession of faith because most people stopped believing anything from his mouth a couple decades ago. So even though that old church hasn’t been full for forty years or more at evening worship, the crowd that night made the nave look like eighty acres of corn after harvest, here and there a half-dozen yellowing stalks over shorn rows so straight you could have shaved with them. Most people stayed home to avoid acid reflux.
Here comes the hard part. You’ve got to grant us some omniscience, hard as that might be for you to understand. We don’t know everything, but we know more than we ever did, and that’s a blessing. It’s a good thing none of us hang out at casinos across the river anymore, because those poor Lakota would have to lock the doors. But there’s no greed up here. I’m not asking you to believe me; but we’ve got crystal balls that work a whole lot better than the ones we used to think we had down there.
Here’s the thing: we know the truth. And that’s why Mother insisted on going down the hill and getting a place for her and Scotty, front row, in that empty balcony. She knew—all of us did—that this time, impossible as it was to believe for anyone down there, including Turkey’s wife, my sister’s daughter, that what Scotty had done had grabbed that man’s heart in its iron fist and squeezed until nothing bled from it, nothing at all. It wasn’t the first time Turkey DeVries had gone down his knees, believe me; but this time he’d done it because he could not stand for one more minute on his own two feet of clay. What Scotty did scrubbed that damned pride away with an acid wash.
So we knew that this time it was for real, even though nobody else in that sanctuary did. No one. Not the preacher, Pastor deGraaf, a kind old man people up here trust because he visits, often. Not Turkey’s daughter, Scotty’s sister. Not his neighbors. Not even Pammy, his wife. Nobody knew that this time the sinner standing up before that measly crowd wasn’t lying—to others or to himself.
Trust me. We see things you don’t.
I’m wanting to tell this story right, and I don’t know if it’s coming along the way it should, either, not ever having written things like this before. In a lifetime as a small-town journalist too often I couldn’t tell the whole truth and nothing but—and this one, Turkey’s readmission to the sacraments—wouldn’t have made the Weekly anyway, even though it might have been a good headline. It’s just something that happened that I can’t get out of my mind. Praise God.
Rev. deGraaf had to dig that odd readmission form out of a dust-laden hymnal because thumbing people out the church stopped about the time church barns got auctioned away and hauled off with mules. It doesn’t happen anymore that men or women are actually excommunicated. When they get in trouble, they just pick up their papers and do church business somewhere else. They’re thankfully forgotten. I admit it: it was like Turkey to want this whole deal public.
Look, it’s hard not to dislike him—I’ll admit that; but like I say, we knew that this time he was telling the whole truth, so help me God, because what he saw inside himself after his son’s death was a color of darkness he’d never seen before.
Every time Rev. deGraaf comes up the hill he draws a silent crowd. He never sheds a tear, but he can stand before a grave like a night watchman, as if waiting for a trumpet. I think he’s one of the few around who seems to know when he’s here that we are too.
The old form from that dusty hymnal was something he could doctor up a bit to make it relevant to Turkey’s story, which he did. Lenora Ooms was at the organ that night, an old family friend of my sister’s. Five rows of empty pews stood between the pastor and a half dozen silver-haired men and women who weren’t there for the ceremony but wouldn’t miss worship even if that night they were forced to witness something almost distasteful. Credit the old preacher, who’d scheduled the ceremony for the evening service, not the morning, when, without a doubt, Turkey would have been an awful distraction. There were three families with little kids. Nary
a high-schooler—they’re all in the with-it church on the other side of town. A half dozen singles. And, of course, Pammy, Turkey’s long-suffering wife. Three or four of her coffee friends, not members, who showed up for moral support.
And us, a balcony full of ghosts.
The old pastor slipped on his reading glasses.
“Beloved Christians,” he said. We’d sung a few hymns, prayed, taken an offering. The sermon was to come. “We have lately informed you of the conversion of our fellow-member Gerrit DeVries, to the end that with your approbation he might be received again into the Church of Christ.”
And so it began, Turkey standing up all alone, Pammy sitting beside him. Some of us thought it might have been nice to see her stand there with her husband; but we knew that Pammy, like everyone else, wasn’t all that confident of her husband’s newfound righteousness. He had a long record, after all. Really, it’s a wonder she was there, a wonder she wasn’t with us in the balcony. Mother would have liked that. Ten months had passed, I think, their time.
“The Lord Christ, declares that what things soever His ministers shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven,” that preacher said, gently, every last word savored. Hard to believe that, once upon a time I thought him a bigot; but then it took death in my case to see that we all can change, some of us deeply blessed to get a head start before making it up here.
“Therefore, since God declares in His Word that He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that he should return from his way and live, the Church always hopes for the conversion of the backslidden sinner and keeps her bosom open to receive the penitent.”
It seemed to me that the church keeping “her bosom open” couldn’t be sung with the beat that comes from the drum set beside the piano. But deGraaf didn’t run away from that language either. He read it with a kind of solemn respect, as if God himself might have been speaking.
“But to proceed now to the matter in hand,” he said, both hands beneath the hymnal. “I ask you, Gerrit DeVries, do you declare with all your heart, here before God and His church that you are sincerely sorry for your sin and stubbornness?” He waited for a couple of seconds, then did something unusual— stepped out from behind the pulpit and took a step down on the platform, as if to say that there needed to be nothing between him and Turkey.
A deathly quiet held in that church—and I’m not making a pun. My mother was standing there holding her great-grandson, perfectly riveted on what was going on downstairs.
“Do you also truly believe that the Lord has forgiven you and does forgive your sins for Christ’s sake?” the preacher said.
A half century or more may have passed since there was that much drama in that old church, and the silence alone created tears in the eyes of some people, even though most of them were wrung from the most tragic thing to happen in Highland in years, that thing being Scotty’s suicide. No one was crying for Turkey DeVries. It would be lovely to think that people were taken by God’s grace offered freely once again to a man some folks thought didn’t deserve a dime’s worth. But that wasn’t it. It was Scotty, who, in a way, even for them, was there that night because he simply could not have been absent.
“And do you therefore desire to be readmitted to the Church of Christ,” the pastor said, “promising henceforth in all godliness to live according to the command of the Lord?”
Three questions. Turkey stood there like Gibraltar, which is the way he wanted it.
Rev. deGraaf took another step down, and for a moment I wondered whether he’d walk right into the messiness and lay his hands on the man.
“I do,” Turkey said, and nodded.
Not a soul in that church saw what Scotty did, felt what he felt, knew what he knew; and what I saw in the boy’s eyes just then was nothing less than glory— trust me. But then, that boy is no longer a boy.
“We then, being here assembled in the Name and the authority of the Lord Christ, declare you, Gerrit DeVries,” Rev. deGraaf said, one arm now raised, “to stand in the communion of Christ, of the holy sacraments, and of all the spiritual blessings and benefits of God which he promises to and bestows upon His Church.”
And then he did it, that pastor I once disliked— he walked right down the aisle to where Turkey was standing, shook his hand, grabbed his shoulder and pulled him into a hug.
And then Pammy, too, because that old pastor wanted to show that sparse crowd that he was buying the whole thing and ready to invest in this man who’d been broken like few can be. I’m sure that the next day, the coffee shop and sixtyfive other conversations were full of talk—how Pastor John deGraaf at that moment grabbed Pammy’s hand and put it in her husband’s, pulling them together, as if they were getting hitched all over again.
It was heavenly really, even though people said the next day—not up here, but down there—that what they’d seen that night in the old church wasn’t like anything that had happened in that church for a century at least, if ever—as if they knew.
But then Pammy quietly took her hand from her husband’s and sat back down, a cue—it seemed to all of us—that everyone else needed to do the same, to end it, as if that much emotion let loose in the old church could prove dangerous to Turkey. She was scared. She’s my own sister’s child, and, Lord knows, she’s seen enough. She needed it to stop for a dozen reasons at least.
It was the very first moment since I’ve been up the hill that I told myself that someone I know down there really needed to be up here. If I could have taken Pammy up into the balcony just then, I swear I would have—but we have our rules. If the whole lot of us could have swept down there like an army, we would have. Nobody I know ever needed peace like she did right then. That’s why she made it stop. And we knew it.
The old pastor backed off, nodding, as if to say he really shouldn’t have tried to choreograph what happened, that he was pushing it himself, even though we all knew, upstairs, that he knew, as we did, that the man who’d just sworn his allegiance to God and his kingdom wasn’t trying one more time to gather disciples.
Rev. deGraaf took one step up on the platform and opened the hymnal. “Gracious God and Father, we thank Thee through Jesus Christ that Thou hast given this our fellow-brother repentance unto life, and causest us to rejoice in his conversion.” All those thees and thous he hadn’t bother to edit. “We beseech Thee, show him Thy grace, that he may become more and more assured in his mind of the remission of his sins, and may derive therefrom joy unspeakable and delight to serve Thee.”
Then the Lord’s Prayer, in which we joined in, silently—I mean the balcony choir.
DeGraaf took a drink from his glass and with a thumbnail wiped away a tear. I saw it. We all did. He had his Bible open to a passage in Second Corinthians, something he’d chosen earlier. “. . . Whenever anyone turns to the Lord,” he read, “the veil is taken away.”
My mother, in her silly church hat, and her grandson, Scotty, were the only ones standing now, just the two of them and, down below, good old Rev. deGraaf.
“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord,” he read, “who is the Spirit.”
I swear he knew we were there. He was talking to the people out front, but what he read fell on our ears just as surely, maybe more so.
“Let’s sing,” he said, picking up the hymnal. “‘Beautiful Savior,'” he said, “number 373,” and Mrs. Ooms started on an intro.
What I don’t know is how deGraaf knew—if, in fact, he did. Maybe his choice was entirely his own. Maybe he’d asked Turkey for a favorite, maybe Pammy. I just don’t know. What I know is that in an old hymnal I grabbed from my mother’s shelf when she died, an old hymnal I kept for years afterwards, a book that probably sits in my sister’s house if she kept it, if she didn’t simply toss it out, if it’s not burned in some incinerator or aging fretfully somewhere in the bowels of that landfill south of Sheldon—in that old hymnal I remember a list of favorite hymns—Dad’s, Mom’s, Annie’s, Gert’s, and Jack’s—all of them penciled into the inside cover in Mom’s royally perfect hand. And Mom’s, all of this dated, 1940, is “Beautiful Savior.”
The preacher raised his hands during that song in a fashion that’s almost never done around here, and his eyes followed his left arm all the way to his fingertips, as if he really had no control, as if his hands had just found their way up there all by themselves, some other force lifting them and him, and this is what I saw: he looked directly at my mother and the boy she was holding, directly, and then back down at Pammy, his mother.
I don’t know that my mother ever saw it because she was thinking about Pammy, Turkey’s longsuffering wife, Scotty’s mom.
Then came the miracle. Pammy looked up at the balcony.
Maybe she was following the pastor’s eyes—I don’t know. But there was no one up here but us saints, the dead but not gone, the ghostly audience who’d come down from the hill, as righteously as anyone, to witness the lost sheep returned, by grace, to the fold.
But Pammy wasn’t seeing me or them or anyone suited up in angel wings or halos. What she saw—I swear it—was an ancient grandma she knew only by an old picture that hangs there in the family room, that grandma with her arm around her very own boy.
For the life of me, or the death of me, I’m still not sure how or what old deGraaf pulled off that night with God almighty and maybe my mother too. I don’t know what kind of bargain he struck, but somehow, some way, some incandescent light from a source I know as divine opened up on her grandma in that old church hat and the boy standing straighter than he ever had in life itself. There they were, from a cloud, witnesses for Pammy.
No one in that church saw it like we did. It was a stunt old deGraaf somehow pulled off just for her, a woman who needed a vision more than any other hungry soul that night.
When deGraff’s eyes swung quickly up toward the balcony once more, I gave him a thumbs up.
Last Tuesday he was back here up the hill. For a while, he stood at Scotty’s grave, wearing a wizened smile I thought was just about as ripe with grace as even I could have imagined. There he stood. We all saw him. Like I said, he draws a crowd.
I still don’t know what happened that night, but it doesn’t bug me because up here wonders never cease. They’re just part of life, which is to say, I guess, they’re just part of death. And it’s a joy.
I think I got that all right.