I read Wendell Berry‘s wonderful novel Jayber Crow novel a few years ago. At the time, I remember being struck by his sense that, at least in a rural agrarian community, death wasn’t so inconceivably sad and painful… but perhaps welcome, though uncomfortable – more a part of the cycles that are embedded in an ongoing continuity.
When my mother died, I had planned to bring this Wendell Berry insight into my brief remarks at her memorial service… but I ended up editing it out, for brevity… and also because I felt like it was probably more about me than about her. Wendell Berry is more in my pantheon of favorite authors, not hers though she’s read some of his work. His essay collection What Are People For? was on her bookshelf… though I suspect she got that book for its essay Wallace Stegner and the Great Community. Mom was a huge Wallace Stegner fan… but that’s another story.
So, this blog entry is sort of my exploration and of a memorial thought that I’d left on the cutting room floor. (To use a completely presumptuous analogy, but one mom would relate to, it’s a bit like Sondheim’s Marry Me a Little. Mom was a huge Stephen Sondheim fan… but that’s also another story.)
Jayber Crow is the name of a barber – the barber in Berry’s fictional Kentucky small town of Port William. The novel is told in Jayber’s words, though it ends up sort of spanning the events of the township.
Death comes toward the end of Jayber Crow. It’s not Jayber himself, but the end of Athey Keith Chatham, a farmer who Jayber has shaved, and, over time, Jayber become close to the Chatham family. Athey is the sort of hard-working capable quietly-strong farmer that Berry holds up as unabashedly good. Athey’s son-in-law Troy strays from Berry’s farming ideal; Troy ambitiously leverages the farm, going into debt by purchasing modern farming acoutrements such as the latest in automation, fertilizer, pesticide, etc. Troy is a factory farmer, who aspires to farm from an office. This sort of insensitive ambition and lack of respectful continuity is very undesirable to Berry; Troy is unsympathetic character, as close as Berry comes to a villain.
Troy’s son (Athey’s grandson) Jimmy, takes after his grandfather:
[Jimmy] loved Athey’s place and his ways of working. He loved working with Athey at whatever Athey did. Troy’s work did not too high-powered, fast and dangerous by then to permit a small boy to stay along with him, let alone help him. But Athey’s way of working permitted company.
Over time, Jimmy learns the farming skills that Athey passes along to him. Jimmy plays a greater and greater role, as Athey gets old and somewhat incapacitated.
Athey began to suffer little strokes. No one of them was enough to bring him down. Little by little they whittled him away. It happened slowly, but not so slowly that you couldn’t see it happening. A kind of fumbling in both speech and motion grew upon him. It took him longer to make his daily trips to my [Jayber Crow’s barber] shop, longer to get through my door. There more times when he had to stand back from his work and let Jimmy do it alone. It was a blessing that Jimmy was willing and able.
Jayber ends up making house calls to tend to Athey’s grooming.
Sometimes Troy would be there, but not often and never for long. He was coming by dutifully, keeping up appearances. He didn’t want to be there. Troy didn’t want Athey to matter to him, he didn’t want to be bound to an old man dying, couldn’t bear to be enclosed by a house where death had come as a patient visitor.
It’s that metaphor that really resonated with me: death as “a patient visitor.” Death doesn’t come all at once. It’s a gradual shading, growing almost imperceptibly over time. We’re mortal and we should be comfortable with death as present, natural and inevitable… though in many ways, slow, polite, patient…
Over time Athey fades and passes away. It’s a sweet, touching series of passages, especially in the way that Jayber is connected with the family – in visits to shave Athey when he can no longer do it for himself.
Berry, later in book, alludes more to aging farmers’ fears of death, not so much as personal tradegy, but as fear of a lack of continuity – in that those to come may not respect the “enduring lineage” passed from each generation to the next.
So… to personalize it (this is just a blog post, not a lasting universal treatise, nor even a great novel like Jayber Crow)… I do feel that one reason that I didn’t perceive a lot of fear of death in my mother, was that she did see that lineage – that continuity – in the faces, the energies, the passions of her children and grandchildren.