It's time to toss it, this plaque my father received from his employers at the bank for 27 years' worth of a job well done. When he died, I just couldn't throw it, even though no one else wanted it, a handsome brass plaque set on maple commending his dedicated service. So it came along to Iowa, where for the last five years it hid behind some books in a basement book rack.
A couple days ago I found it when I cleaned up. No one's looked at in the five years that have passed since he died. It really has no particular use anymore, part of the detritus we all leave in a wake when we go.
"Death sets a thing significant," Ms. Dickinson once wrote, "the eye had hurried by." I suppose that's true of this old plaque too--I wouldn't have lugged it along to Iowa if my father's death hadn't bestowed additional significance upon it. Five years ago I couldn't toss it because it felt like I was tossing him, but whatever significance it carried back then has significantly lessened today.
Last week, in Minnesota, I walked through a cemetery adjacent to Ft. Ridgely, site of one of the battles of the 1862 Sioux Uprising. I must have been there for an hour or more that day. It was hot, and I was all alone.
I stumbled over this grave that day, along with some others that dated from the era of the uprising, the gravesite of one Eliza Muller, a stone inscribed this way: "Her valor and devotion to the sick and wounded soldiers and refugees during and after the Sioux Indian Outbreak of 1862 will forever be cherished in the hearts of a grateful people."
Like I say, I was totally alone, the cemetery is a long ways off the beaten path, and her stone stands far back in that graveyard, in the shadows, surrounded by other unreadable ancients. It is, by all estimations, out of the way. I don't know any more about Eliza Muller than what her stone explains, but it seemed, that day, that "forever cherished" was, at best, empty rhetoric because what seemed far more real than the eternal regard the gravestone pledged was the dark gray fungus spreading like the glove of the Joker over its marble.
I won't pound a nail in my father's coffin by throwing out this useless plaque--he's already gone, after all. And besides, I knew my father well enough to understand that, honestly, he wouldn't care if today--or five years ago--this commemorative plaque went in the barrel. Whatever service he did to "bank and community" was done not because he hoped someday to get some kind of good neighbor recognition; whatever service he did on the terra firma was done, I know, from his own sense of obedience to the God he loved.
I'm betting Eliza Muller, whose husband was a doctor once upon a time in New Ulm, Minnesota, did her heroic work for much the same reason, not to be celebrated by the Minnesota Historical Society, but in obedience to God who made it clear during that bloody seige that simply letting people die wasn't the way for anyone to live.
Somehow there's a lesson there, but it so dumb hard to learn.
There's an ars moriendi theme in all of this, something about the art of dying. But then, as many much smarter than I am have long ago pointed out, we're all on the same trajectory, which means practicing the art of dying is really becoming accomplished in the art of living.
And maybe I should just stay out of cemeteries. Then again, maybe not.