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Column: Learning from the past; leaning into the future

Column: Learning from the past; leaning into the future

Kurt Ullrich

RURAL AMERICA - Over the years, whenever a parent or grandparent passed on I would invariably receive boxes of stuff, mostly photographs, remnants from another generation no one else in the family wanted; consequently, I have hundreds and hundreds of old photos in my basement. I rarely look at them, preferring to live in the now.

But I’m wrong to feel that way. Once everyone who remembers you is gone then you too are gone. Long after I pass if someone sees a photo of me and says, "I remember that guy!" then I too will still be hanging around. I will still be at their side. Thus, I plan to visit the basement later to greet my relatives. It’s been too long since seeing them last.

As I write this, it’s almost midnight Christmas night and a glass of Jameson prepares me for bed. But first I have to step outside, where what must be every star in the universe is visible, and spectacular, overhead. The Milky Way drifts like wispy clouds, a marvelous diaphanous presence I cannot begin to describe. I don’t dawdle because once again my friendly coyote pack is not far off, vocally wishing me a happy new year and, much as I love them, it’s a little spooky, so I quickly enter the house.

Earlier in the evening I spent hours at a dining table, talking with friends. It was an amazing time; five adults in the half-light of a cool evening speaking gently of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Five adults embodying peace, grace, and tenderness in a way not found in any church. We laughed a lot, and my eyes welled up a few times. I cannot utter words when that happens, and all were respectful of my silences.

The day before, I toured a cemetery in a nearby town, a cemetery populated by many people of my acquaintance. There is something oddly comforting about cemeteries. Over there are my in-laws, next to my wife in a calm, quiet spot, a place I too will inhabit one day. In a treeless area nearby I see the stone where my high school band director will rest and, oh my gosh, how old can he be? And, speaking of bands, I see the place where a classmate lies, a shy young woman who sat next to me in band, now gone to wherever it is people go when they pass.

I learned much from those folks, most of it unimportant but helpful. From my mother-in-law I learned to be honest about the food one offers me. At her table in the late 1960s she served what I later learned was called a Waldorf salad. I mean, really, a dish that includes mayonnaise and marshmallows? Give me a break. Anyway, my mother had taught me to compliment anyone who serves me food, so I told my mother-in-law that I really liked the salad. Thus, for years every time she made a meal where I was a guest there it was, a Waldorf salad. Ick. But I loved her, so I happily ate it.

So now we face a new year and I plan to lean as happily as I can toward the future. I will play Springsteen really loudly and Gorecki very softly. I will dance when I can and sit when I need to. I will read more books and watch less television. And I will smile every time I see your beautiful face, happy in the knowledge that you’re still out there. Happy New Year.

Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County. His book "The Iowa State Fair" is available from the University of Iowa Press.

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