When you were little, how much did you love it when your parents let you bury them up to their necks in sand as they lay on the beach? How exciting was it when your third grade class dug the hole for that time capsule on the fringes of your school playground? When you were five and your beloved Travis the Turtle died, you were sad. But admit it. Popping him into that shoebox in a shroud of paper towels, preaching the backyard funeral, and planting him under the maple tree with two crossed sticks for a gravestone was pretty damned … well, cool.
There’s something undeniably irresistible about burying things, and our fascination with it doesn’t end when we’re kids either. Most of us grew up, lay still and laughed along when our own kids approached us with their sand buckets and shovels. A New Mexico man has somewhat famously buried a lockbox full of gold coins, jewels and artifacts, then published clues about its whereabouts in an attempt to give families a reason “to get up off their couches.” Burying our dead (and not just the slow-moving ones with shells) is a ritual that’s been around for at least a hundred thousand years. We’re clearly entranced by it.
And let’s face it, most of us adults are pretty accomplished at burying our ugliest secrets and our most painful memories — not to mention, all too often, our heads in the sand. For that matter, the way I’m going on and on here without letting you know where I’m going to end up, you could even accuse me of burying the lede. Well, that’s my point. I can’t help it. This burying thing comes naturally.
But like the high school seniors who eventually return to that elementary school playground, eager to excavate and marvel at their unbelievably tiny handprints and once-cherished but now mostly-forgotten pet rocks, Beanie Babies, Furbies or Pokemon cards, many of us find the urge to dig up, to “un-bury,” as inexplicably compelling as our drive to cover things up in the first place. In fact, just last month, a Colorado man became the second to die while hunting that aforementioned buried treasure in New Mexico. (Sorry if I’m bringing down the room.) And while my analogy takes a little detour here (for those of us who aren’t graverobbers, that is), it certainly doesn’t end here.
My maternal grandfather was, depending upon one’s perspective, a horribly embarrassing and at times downright dangerous “lout” OR a wildly entertaining “card.” Suffice it to say that he was a bit of a drinker, with a liveliness and a temper that both reportedly rose commensurately with his blood alcohol level. At his best, he was the hilarious life of the party, telling dirty jokes and funny stories in which he typically starred. At his worst, he lashed out at anyone — especially my grandmother, my mother, and his other children — if they said the wrong thing or looked at him the wrong way or moved when he wanted them to be still.
In the small town where he and my grandmother lived, many knew him not by his real name, but as Muletrain. You see, he liked to hang out on the county courthouse steps, where he and a group of other men spent hours just sitting, talking, and occasionally rounding the corner and breaking out a stashed bottle for a nip or two. Or five. Or six. At some point, Granddaddy would either get into a fight with somebody, or break out into a spirited (in both senses of the word) rendition of his favorite song, Frankie Lane’s “Muletrain,” complete with whip-cracking choreography and sound effects. Sometimes he’d do both, not necessarily in that order. Drunk, disorderly, and sometimes bloodied and bruised to boot, he’d “earn” a ride home, courtesy of the local police. Woe to anyone in his path once he got there.
Of course, I really only know these things about him through my mother’s and my grandmother’s stories. By the time I came along, the years had slowed Granddaddy down considerably. I got the mellowed-out version, the funny grandfather who regaled me with an edited version of his jokes and stories, offered me sugary jellied orange slices from the jar he kept next to his recliner, and occasionally took me with him to the Old Mill store, where he’d let me fill up a brown paper bag with all the Maryjanes, peanut butter logs, and fireballs I wanted. While some might say his sugar-pushing ways were a flaw, I certainly didn’t think so. Aside from smoking cigarettes, he was pretty perfect as far as I could tell.
I suspect the word-of-mouth stories about Granddadddy’s antics are funnier to me than they were to his wife and children who were onhand to be humiliated by his behavior. Likewise, the stories about his periodic abusiveness trouble me, but, because I’m so removed from those tales, not nearly as deeply as they should. Yet for some reason, there is one memory associated with my grandfather that always makes me shudder a little.
At one time, my grandparents lived in a house with a mirror on the wall just inside their bedroom door. It was a fairly large mirror with a wooden frame. There was nothing particularly notable about it. Except for some long, spidery cracks in the glass. And the bullet holes from which they emanated. I don’t think I even understood that they were bullet holes at first — I was probably only four or so back then — but I do remember asking my grandmother one day what had happened to the mirror.
“That’s just something your granddaddy did,” she told me.
“Because he’s so mean he hurts!”
That was all the answer I would get from my grandma that day, or any day thereafter. She made clear without saying the words that the subject was closed.
But later, I asked my mother. She was more forthcoming.
“Your granddaddy came in the house late one night and saw a bad person with a gun trying to sneak into the bedroom, so he had to shoot at him.”
“What happened to the bad person?”
“He just got away.”
Of course. I’d seen Gunsmoke. Such things happened. It was a good enough explanation. For the time being.
Years passed. My grandparents moved to a new house, and they never rehung that old mirror. But one day — I can’t recall why — I dug up that memory and poked at it some more. My mother must have figured I was old enough now to hear the rest of the story: It had been his own reflection that my grandfather had seen, and shot at, in the mirror that night.
“When people are bad, they see bad in everybody else,” my mother told me. “They always imagine somebody else is trying to hurt them. Probably because they know they deserve to be hurt.”
There’s a kind of hopefulness in burying things. Unburying them can be risky. But it’s your only shot at the treasure.
Today’s post is in response to this wordpress prompt: BURY.