[p.187]He sat at his desk at work and looked at the map of western Wyoming and eastern Idaho that Norma had put in Neal’s history. She had circled several of the towns where Neal had worked.
The name of each place brought a series of images. In Idaho: swimming with his dad and Neal at Liddy Hot Springs; shearing sheep at Hamer and Dubois; picking up fishing supplies in Ashton; fishing at Camas Creek or Warm River; stopping for snacks in Swan Valley or Driggs; searching for the site of Neal’s old cabin in Irwin. Then Wyoming: finding the spot of Clark’s and April’s trailer just outside of Alpine; stopping for cheese in Star Valley; buying clothes in Afton; hiking into the Wind Rivers by way of Pinedale; picking up Shoshone relics in Fort Washakie.
You could spend a lifetime out there and never run out of spectacular country. The borders were all natural—Craters of the Moon on the west, Old Faithful on the north, the Wind River Mountains on the east, and Bear Lake on the south. You had Crowheart and South Pass City, you had Atlantic City [p.188]and Paris. Alpine was the center of it all, right on the Idaho/Wyoming border, at the edge of the Palisades Reservoir.
Shirleen tapped at his door and then opened it.
“How are you, Ryan?”
“I’m doing okay.”
“I was sorry to hear about your uncle.”
“Oh, I appreciate that.”
“Ross was wondering if you needed to take any time off work for the funeral?”
“No. I’ll drive up Saturday morning and be back to work on Monday.”
“My aunt asked me to give the life history at the funeral.”
“She did? Have you ever spoken at a funeral before?”
“No, but I don’t mind. I really thought a lot of my uncle. And I guess I’m like him in a lot of ways.”
“You’ll do a good job,” she said.
“How have you been doing?”
“Oh, pretty good. You—you knew about Miles and me, didn’t you?”
“Well, it was better for me that he left. It was a big mistake. I never imagined myself being unfaithful to my husband.”
“It could happen to anyone.”
“Anyway, I’m trying to recover.”
“I think you will,” he said.
He was pasting down some corrections when Ross knocked on his door.
“Come in,” he said, not bothering to hide his Coke. “Excuse me,” said Ross, “could I talk to you for a minute?”
Ross closed the door and sat down. “I feel bad about Miles [p.189]leaving.” He looked at Ryan like he was waiting for a response.
Ryan didn’t say anything.
“Anyway, I know you and Miles are pretty good friends, and that after what happened with the manager openings, and what happened with Miles, well, I imagine you are about ready to leave too. But I’m not asking you to comment on that. I just wanted to say that you’re needed here. This Navy contract for EMAC Systems is crucial, and you’re the expert on it. I’d appreciate it if you’d see it through.”
“I’ll stay until we complete that contract.”
“I’m very glad to hear that,” said Ross. “Thank you.”
Ross stood up. “Shirleen said you didn’t need any time for the funeral. Please feel free, if you find that you do.”
“Thank you,” said Ryan.
When he got home Catherine asked him to come back to Tyler’s room.
Tyler was lying on the bed.
“Hi, Buddy,” said Ryan. “Don’t you feel good?”
“No, I’m sick, Daddy.”
“Look,” said Catherine, pulling up his pajama top.
“Chicken pox,” said Ryan.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
“Has Allison ever had them?”
“No,” said Catherine, “but she probably will pretty soon.”
“I had them really bad when I was a kid. Mom kept running over to the Frost Top to get me malts. That’s all I wanted. I’d wake up and scratch my arms like crazy.”
They got Tyler comfortable and walked out to the living room.
“You know,” said Catherine, “I’m sorry I never knew your mother.”
[p.190]“So am 1. And I’m sorry she never saw her grandchildren. She’d still be in her sixties.”
“It’s hard to understand why some people die so young.”
“Well,” said Catherine, “considering the situation, I think you ought to go up to the funeral by yourself.”
“I guess so.”
“Maybe you could go see some of the homes where you used to live.”
“Yeah, I’d like to do that. And I’d like to go to Mom’s grave.”
“That’s a good idea. Can you stay with Aunt Norma?”
“Yeah, the place will be packed, but she’ll insist. I was their last child in a way. I lived there with Neal and Norma after all the girls were gone.”
“Wasn’t that the year after your mother died?”
“Yeah. Twenty years ago. Well, I’ll be back Sunday night.
And next week I hope to start a painting project.”
“Good. I hope you do,” she said.
“You know, I wish I were more like you.”
“Oh, get serious, Ryan.”
“I’m serious. You’re more in control than I am. Like the way you keep studying. You’ll be ready to go back for your Ph.D. when Tyler’s in school.”
“I hope I’ll be ready.”
“I haven’t kept up with my painting like that.”
“I want you to paint. Even if it’s not for a living.”
“Daddy.” It was Tyler, standing in the hall. “Can I have a drink of pop?”
Catherine smiled at him as he walked into the kitchen with Tyler.
He arrived at the church Saturday morning at 10:55, five [p.191]minutes before the viewing was scheduled to start. He checked his hair and tie in the rear view mirror. Then he checked his pocket for his handkerchief, opened his door and walked through the rain to the church. Into the church and down the hall. He just had to keep his legs moving—that’s all he could think about now.
He stopped at the fountain for a long drink of water. A woman walked out of a room and stared at him.
“You must be here for the funeral.”
“Yes, I’m Neal’s nephew.”
“Oh, yes. The viewing is being held in the Relief Society Room, just around the corner to your left.”
He walked around the corner to see his dad and Eleanor standing in the hall. Eleanor saw him first.
“Ryan, we’re so glad to see you.”
She hugged him like she always did. His dad put out his hand.
They shook hands, his dad’s grip as firm as ever.
“When did you get here?” asked Ryan.
“Last night,” said Clark.
“We got a motel in Idaho Falls,” said Eleanor.
Ryan looked at his watch. “I guess the viewing is about to start.”
Eleanor hadn’t aged in the last two years, but Clark’s hair had taken another shade of gray, and the lines in his face had grown deeper. His body looked frailer.
“I always liked Neal,” said Eleanor. “I didn’t know him well, but I always liked him.”
“He was one of a kind,” said Clark. “I never thought he’d go before I did.”
“How’s Aunt Norma doing?” asked Ryan.
[p.192]“She’s holding up very well,” said Eleanor.
“She’s a rock,” said Clark. “It’s because she lives her religion.”
“We’d better go in,” said Eleanor.
Ryan walked into the room to see Uncle Neal, in the casket, dressed in a white suit and surrounded by flowers. Uncle Neal, who used to howl with laughter as he hosed you down after shearing; who loved to shake a can of Lucky before he opened it; who said more than once that he didn’t want a funeral.
Aunt Norma took his hands in hers.
“I’m glad you’re here.”
“Thank you, Aunt Norma.”
“Come and talk to the girls.”
Glenda thanked him for corning and asked if he had seen Susan.
“She’s right there.”
“Yes. I guess you haven’t seen her for a while.”
“I sure haven’t.”
Glenda walked with him to Susan, who was apparently with her husband. Ryan couldn’t remember ever meeting him.
“Susan, say hello to Ryan.”
Susan’s eyes filled with tears; she hugged Ryan. He placed an awkward hand on her shoulder, still not believing this beautiful woman was skinny little Susan.
“I didn’t even recognize you, Sue.”
“I guess it’s been a long time.”
“At least fifteen years,” he said.
“I’m glad you’re giving Dad’s life history. That’s just how he would have wanted it.”
“I hope so.”
[p.193]“I’m sorry, Ryan. This is my husband, Don. Don, this is my cousin, Ryan. He lived with Mom and Dad for a year.”
They shook hands.
“I think we’ve met, Ryan.”
“I think you were living in Pocatello at the time,” said Don. “Aren’t you an artist?”
“Yes. You’ve got a good memory.”
“Where are Catherine and the kids?” asked Susan.
“They weren’t able to make it. Tyler’s got the chicken pox.”
“Oh, the poor little guy.”
Norma introduced him to her sister, and he watched Susan as he talked with them. She would be about forty. It could easily be another fifteen years before he saw her again, maybe at Aunt Norma’s funeral, her face betraying a difficult life. She would ask about Catherine and the kids, and he would say yes, the kids were fine—Allison married and Tyler in college—and yes, Catherine was fine too. The next time he saw her she would be seventy—this time Glenda’s funeral. She would ask about his grandchildren and talk about how lonely life was as a widow. He wouldn’t see her after that.
Aunt Norma asked Ryan, Clark, and Eleanor to stand to one side of her, and the girls and their husbands to the other.
Then she stepped to the casket and stared down at Neal. She patted his hand.
“He looks good,” she said.
Ryan let himself look long at the body. You heard death was a sleep, but you could never mistake the two. No one slept like that.
Norma wiped her eyes with an embroidered handkerchief and told the funeral director she was ready. He opened the door. Ryan recognized the first couple, neighbors of Neal and Norma. They put their arms around Norma, all three of them crying.
[p.194]“Sometimes they can linger for years after having a stroke,” said the woman. “It’s better to go quickly.”
Ryan watched Don, Susan’s husband. He still couldn’t remember ever meeting him. He prided himself on his good memory; maybe it wasn’t as good as he thought.
Neal had never liked viewings. He thought they were a curious custom.
You stood in a line and shook hands with people, like at a wedding reception, even making the same kind of small talk. It was a funeral, and you still ended up asking people about their grandchildren, or their jobs, or their favorite fishing holes.
Norma walked with most of them right to the body, to stand there and look at Neal and say one more time that he looked good and that it was good he hadn’t had to suffer.
She kept her composure throughout the viewing and the family prayer. She started to cry when it was time to close the casket, the girls crying too. They all kissed Neal. Then Ryan saw Clark step to the casket. He stood close, putting his hand on Neal’s. Then he stepped back. Norma kissed Neal again and placed her Book of Mormon on his chest. Then the funeral director slowly closed the casket.
Norma’s bishop conducted the funeral. After a prayer by Norma’s brother, a friend of Neal’s and Norma’s sang a solo. Ryan was next.
“We’d like to thank Sister Jensen for that beautiful hymn,” said the bishop. “Now Ryan Masterson, a nephew of Neal and Norma, will offer the life history.”
Ryan walked to the pulpit and looked out at the audience. The chapel was full, with the overflow spilling into the gym. Aunt Norma sat in the second row, flanked by her daughters and grandchildren, all of them watching him.
“Neal Masterson, born October 10, 1916; passed away July 27, 1984.
“The year after Neal was born, his father purchased an [p.195]eighty-acre farm in Hibbard. Neal spent his youth on the farm, and he would never forget what he learned there. His parents were both hard workers, and Neal learned how to milk cows, irrigate, and harvest grain and potatoes. But the work he learned best was shearing sheep.
“Neal’s grandfather owned a shearing plant in Beaver, Utah. Every spring Neal and Clark, his brother, would go to Utah with their father and spend three or four weeks there shearing sheep. In those days a herd of sheep often numbered in the thousands. Scheduling herds was a major task because they had to make it compatible for each rancher and had to do it before the lambing time of each herd. Over a hundred men were employed shearing sheep.
“Neal’s father owned a black Hudson at that time, and they would drive to Beaver in it. Neal remembered those trips as some of the best moments of his life. One night they had car trouble and an expensive-looking car stopped to help them. It was the governor of Utah. He had his driver tow them to a gas station.
“When Neal was six years old he was thrown off a horse. He broke several ribs and his collarbone. His mother nursed him back to health, feeding him soup for several weeks because his tongue had been split in the accident and required several stitches. He fully recovered.
“Neal met Norma Young one night when he was shearing. She was from Paris, Idaho, and was staying with some relatives. They fell in love and were married in the Rexburg Tabernacle in 1937.
“In the summer of 1941, Neal got a construction job on Wake Island. He had a chance to make excellent wages and planned to be gone one year. Along with other civilian workers, he helped build submarine bases and airfields. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, however, he was trapped on the island.
[p.196]“The civilians and soldiers on Wake Island held out for sixteen days before the Japanese captured the island. Neal was taken from one prison camp to another, spending two years in China. In 1945 he was taken to Tokyo. One of the guards broke his leg with a club. His friends did what they could to splint the leg, but Neal always walked with a limp after that.
“After the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the guards made the American prisoners sleep in bomb shelters with blankets over their heads. One day they woke up and the guards were gone. They heard planes, and one of the soldiers could tell they were American planes. They ran out and waved to the planes. From there they were taken to a Navy hospital ship in Tokyo Bay.
“Many men died in the prison camps, and others died before they reached America. I should add that during the entire time, Neal’s family did not know if he was alive or not. He was simply listed as missing. But Aunt Norma had faith that he would return safely.
“When he landed in San Francisco, in September 1945, he called Norma. She was just putting the girls to bed.
“Neal’s parents and Norma drove to San Francisco to pick him up. They came back through Nevada and stopped one night at a cafe in Lovelock. Neal, who only weighed one hundred and twenty pounds at the time, had a tremendous appetite. He ate two roast beef dinners and then ordered a piece of apple pie. When the waitress brought the pie he made a remark about how it wasn’t a very big piece. The waitress was rather offended, but Norma apologized and explained what Neal had been through.
“Well—” he stopped, cleared his throat, and blinked hard a few times.
“The waitress brought an entire apple pie over to Neal and announced to everyone in the cafe that he had just returned from forty-four months and seven days in Japanese prisons of [p.197]war. The people in the cafe gathered around to shake Neal’s hand and pat him on the back. The waitress was crying. It—” Ryan stopped again. Norma was smiling at him, nodding for him to continue.
“It was an experience that had a profound effect on Neal. He never forgot it, and he always pointed to that moment in the cafe as the beginning of his new life after the war.
“Neal and Clark began working together in eastern Idaho. They sheared sheep, fixed trucks and tractors, built homes, and worked road construction. In the mid-1950s they worked on the Palisades dam, where Neal was dirt foreman. Neal knew a lot about dams. He predicted the collapse of the Teton Dam a year before it happened.
“Neal was proud of his daughters. He often talked about how well they were doing in school, and later about their children. It was important to him that his daughters were always active in the church.
“As most of you know, Norma has been a faithful member of the Mormon church all of her life. And while Neal was not an official member, through Aunt Norma’s influence he was always shoveling walks or raking leaves or fixing cars for widows living in Menan. At a time when he did not have much money, I remember him contributing ten dollars to help a family whose house had burned down. He was not a man to hold grudges. He was a Christian. He lived a full life, and he loved his family and friends. He was a good man, and I loved him.”
Ryan sat down, his throat tight and his head throbbing. Uncle Neal was gone forever, and the pure hurt had hit him with all its force. He didn’t think he could stop crying. A person of strength could stand firm in a situation like this, but he wasn’t strong. He had stopped believing that a long time ago.
He took his glasses off and wiped his eyes with his hand. The ward choir was singing.
[p.198]O my father
Thou that dwellest
In the high and holy place
When will I
Regain thy presence
And once again
Behold thy face
The man next to him—he didn’t even know who it was put a hand on his shoulder.
The sky had cleared, and they drove to the cemetery in bright sunshine, the Menan Butte prominent to the north. From Menan they went west, up and around the side of the hill and into the cemetery.
LITTLE BUTTE CEMETERY
PLEASE DO NOT PARK ON THE GRASS
Uncle Neal had said many times it was the perfect place to be buried, in the country, on the edge of a hill, with fields below you and cedar trees leading up to the top of the little butte, no towns or drive-in movies or even stores in sight, just farms and fields, and an extinct volcano to the north.
After the graveside service Ryan drove into Rigby. He could not understand the custom of going back to the church for a banquet after the funeral. It was well-intended, and people did have to eat, but the festive atmosphere denied the event that had brought these people together. Casseroles, jello salads, hard rolls, and cakes and pies from the Relief Society. He did not want to eat with a large group of people; he wanted to be alone and have a drink in peace.
He wanted to sit alone in some bar and hear the bartender announce that they had a group performing for the afternoon, talented musicians from Lubbock Texas, Buddy Holly and the [p.199]Crickets. After the show someone would mumble something about John F. Kennedy’s politics. Someone else would mention the African runner Bikila and his amazing string of victories.
It wouldn’t be 1959 and it wouldn’t be 1963 and it wouldn’t be 1984. It wouldn’t be any year at all, just a moment when possibilities had come to fruition.
It was possible to have a world where atomic bombs wiped cities off the map, where whole races of people were murdered, and where parents lost their children, never knowing what became of them. If those things were possible, why wasn’t it possible for time to derail and somehow bring the best of possibilities to reality?
He stopped at a 7-Eleven and got himself a Big Gulp. Then back on the new highway, toward Menan. When he was a kid he loved crossing the Snake River on this road, watching the tiers of the bridge flash by. That bridge was gone now.
He missed the turnoff and had to backtrack. West toward Menan, with the Butte to the north. One of Rose’s science classes at Ricks had taken a field trip to the butte once. She probably went in a sweatshirt, an old pair of jeans, and white sneakers, thoroughly enjoying the trip and making it pleasant for everyone else. There was probably a returned missionary in the class anxious to take her out. And maybe he did. Maybe he took her to the temple.
There were several cars parked outside Norma’s house.
He went in and sat on the couch next to Eleanor.
“Ryan,” she said, “you did a lovely job giving the life history.”
She had several sympathy cards in her hand.
“Norma was just showing me these,” she said, handing them to Ryan. “You can tell how much people thought of Neal.”
Ryan looked at the cards. “Yeah,” he said, “she sure received a lot of them.”
[p.200]“You probably know many of these people.”
“I probably do, or did. Some of the people at the funeral knew me, but I didn’t remember them.”
He looked at the first card.
“These are the neighbors down the street.”
The next card had a portrait of Jesus on the front, with a scripture: “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”
Ryan opened the card.
Dear Sister Masterson,
I was so sorry to hear that your husband had passed away. I know you are thankful for the life he lived. I’ll always remember him fondly. I pray for the Lord’s Spirit to be with you. With much love,
He recognized the handwriting before he saw the name. Even after twenty years, he had no difficulty remembering the distinctive loop on the capital M or the closed s or the o that you could hardly distinguish from an a.
He looked up to see Aunt Norma, in the kitchen doorway, watching him. Holding the card, he walked across the room.
“I just noticed this card from Rose,” he said. “I guess she remembered you and Uncle Neal pretty well.”
“Well,” said Norma, “I have seen Rose occasionally through the years.”
“Yes. It’s so strange. A few months ago it was me sending her a sympathy card.”
“It was very sad. I’ll get the obituary.”
She went to the closet, pulled down a large envelope full of newspaper clippings, and started thumbing through them. [p.201]Then she handed one to Ryan. The girl in the picture was smiling, and she looked like Rose.
Our beloved daughter, Tiffany Ann Straton, has returned to the presence of her loving Father in Heaven. She was born on December 23, 1970, in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and died on April 29, 1984, at the Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. Tiffany will be remembered for her cheerful personality in spite of her long illness. We acknowledge the hand of the Lord in all things, both temporal and spiritual, and have faith in our ultimate reunion as a family. Tiffany is survived by her parents, Lowell and Rosemary Straton; a brother and two sisters—Jeff, Harmoney, and Leslie; a great-grandmother, Verna Burton, Brigham City; grandparents, Howard and Roberta Straton, Thousand Oaks, California; a grandmother, Marjorie Richards, Salt Lake City; and many other loving relatives. Funeral services will be May 2, 1:00 p.m., at the Idaho Falls 34th Ward, Holmes and Sunyside, where friends may call May 1 from 7 to 9 p.m., and one hour before the service. Contributions to the American Cancer Society are suggested. Interment at Rose Hill Cemetery.
He looked up at Norma, who was crying.
“When did Rose’s father die?”
“My,” she said, “that must have been fifteen years ago.”
“I never knew that.”
He gave the clipping back to Norma. Then he walked to the window. Seeing Norma cry had brought tears to his eyes too, maybe for Neal, or for Rose’s daughter, or maybe for her father, whom he had hated so much twenty years ago.
[p.202]He stared out at Neal’s pickup and tried to remember what he had been doing on April 29. He couldn’t remember, no more than he could remember December 1970.