A few years ago, my mother and I were talking about death.
She had passed her 90th birthday, and she was surprised that she had lived that long. A month ago, we celebrated her 96th birthday with her, so these nice surprises continue.
Her Aunt Alma, who raised Mom, died in 1972. Alma had spent much of her later years planning her own funeral. She had picked out at least half a dozen dresses to be buried in. Whenever an old favorite crossed her mind, she would add that to the list of hymns that should be sung.
Alma also would remember an unsettled feud and would tell Mom to make sure that some old buzzard was excluded both from the funeral and the church luncheon afterward.
Cremation, Mom told me. No church. No memorial gathering. At most, she said, spend a little money and have a nice party in someone’s backyard.
Same for me, I said. I’ve been to enough funerals. I don’t want anyone having the final word on my life unless I say it myself.
My father’s ashes are in an urn on a shelf in Mom’s living room. She says their ashes belong together someplace, and she’ll leave the details up to my brothers and me.
There was just one pang of regret, she said. Dad died on Sept. 8, 2001. In the years since, she occasionally wished there was a special place to go where she and others could remember him.
I understand that. I don’t consider myself to be overly sentimental, but I keep some oddball things around to remind me of Dad. I have his old bowling shirt hanging in my closet and a bowling trophy on my office shelf. I have a three-ring notebook from his time as secretary of the German Township Lions Club. I have his handwritten instructions on how to hook his Zenith camcorder up to his TV set.
It’s not just about Dad. I have ways to jog my memory of many others who are no longer with us. When I sit in my basement and I notice the low ceiling, I think of how my friend Jim would have had to duck his head in the doorway. If I’m watching a women’s basketball game, I think of Mike. Old baseball programs remind me of Steve.
And it doesn’t end there. Once reminded – by a doorframe, a basketball game or a baseball program – I enjoy revisiting long-ago conversations and adventures. If I’m headed down Memory Lane, I might as well stay for dinner.
I thought about what Mom said and came up with an idea.
My three brothers and I had spent most of our boyhood years on Cleveland Road west of Butternut. It was a farm neighborhood, and like most other families there we raised a small herd of cattle. We put food on our dinner table but also sold enough beef to start our college funds.
We had pastures on both sides of Cleveland. When the cows were in our north pasture, they got their water from two large troughs that we filled through an underground water line that ran to the barn.
When they were in the south pasture, we had to improvise. We put an old bathtub at the top of the hill across the road from the house. We would run a garden hose over the road and turn on a faucet on the side of the house. Then we would run to the tub to watch the water fill it. This seems like a dumb idea, but it was the best one we had at the time.
Eventually, Dad found a guy with earthmoving equipment who was willing to barter his expertise for some of our hay. He dug us a spring-fed pond in the lowest spot in the south pasture, and we never had to run a hose again.
If you have thirty or forty bucks, you can go see that pond. It’s left of the putting green on the 18th hole at the Blackthorn Golf Course.
I could write a story someday about the heavy-equipment guy and then another about how my parents ended up selling the farm. There are lessons to learn from both, but this article is about something else, and I’ll stick with that.
The main thing to know is that my folks spent most of the best years of their lives on the farm. It seemed fitting, if Dad were to be remembered anywhere, it would be there.
My idea was to put a commemorative rock somewhere on the part of their farm that became the golf course. I knew the course owners, and they are good people. I told them what I wanted to do, and they gave me permission.
I looked at a lot of rocks. The one I liked most was one that was sitting under the tulip tree in my backyard. I took it to South Bend Monument Works, which is next to the big cemeteries on Portage Avenue. And this is what they engraved:
RICHARD AND HELEN BRADFORD OWNED THIS FARM FOR 32 YEARS AND DUG THIS POND BECAUSE THEIR COWS WERE THIRSTY.
That rock is now on the back edge of the Blackthorn pond, small enough that most people won’t notice it.
In my newspaper career, I estimate I’ve written 10 million words. Few gave me the satisfaction of those 19 engraved on a rock. It was a perfect story. I introduced two characters, told what they did and explained why they did it. No extraneous detail. No exaggeration.
Mom has seen the rock, and she was pleased. I’m guessing that even my father, who avoided any personal recognition his entire life, would have approved.
It makes me think of my own legacy. I’m wondering about my own rock:
THEIR YOUNGEST SON KEN THREW HIS 64-DEGREE WEDGE INTO THIS POND AND LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER.
Perfect. It would be a place you could come to remember my parents, me and that wretched wedge.