I’m finished reading Wendell Berry novels, which might be a relief to some, but I did like this little passage from a short story called A Burden, in the collection of short stories A Place in Time. If you’ve ever been to a funeral of someone of doubtful destiny you might relate to this, usually unspoken, awkwardness. Wheeler is actually a very good man, who had gone to many great lengths to retrieve Uncle Peach from his fits of self-destruction, and he just can’t help saying what many a person has probably thought after a funeral, when a preacher has perhaps been more certain than evidence would allow. Though of course we know that grace has lifted a might burden for all those God saves. (I’ve changed the American punctuation, because I can’t stand it – is that allowed in quotes?):
And then when they were all in Wheeler’s car, driving home from the graveyard on the hill outside Port William where they had laid Uncle Peach to rest, they were silent until Wheeler said, “Well!”.
He let the silence come back, and then he said, “The preacher takes a very happy view of Uncle Peach’s prospects hereafter”.
Wheeler was lining out a text that would be clearly printed in his son’s memory, where it would wait a long time for interpretation.
When his father again let the silence come back, Andy understood that his mother wasn’t saying anything because she felt that the fate of Uncle Peach hereafter was none of her business, and his grandfather wasn’t saying anything because he didn’t want it to be his business, and his grandmother wasn’t saying anything because it was her business. It came to Andy then, for the first time, that his father was still relatively a young man.
But Wheeler wasn’t finished. He was always concerned with fittingness, which was maybe a kind of honesty. Those were words he used: “fitting” and honest”. He was always trying to get the scattering pieces of their history to fit together in a pattern that made sense. He wanted to find the right words and to say things right. “Right” was another of his words, as was “sense”. His effort often made him impatient. This also Andy took in and remembered.
“If Uncle Peach is in Heaven”, Wheeler said, “and Lord knows I hope that’s where he is, then grace has lifted a mighty burden, and the preacher ought to have said so”.
And then he said, as if determined in his impatience to capture every straying piece, “And as an earthly burden it wasn’t only grace that lifted it” – meaning it was a burden he too had borne. Even at the time, Andy caught that.
So did his grandmother. She said only syllable then that Andy later would know had meant at least four things: that his father would have done better to be quiet, that she too had borne that earthly burden and would forever bear it, that Uncle Peach had borne it himself and was loved and forgiven at least by her, and that it was past time for Wheeler to hush.
She said, “Hmh”!