This must be the first harvest from our acreage: our young vineyard singing, the plastic, ribbed grow tubes that make little greenhouses for each of the young grape plants catching wind and, like a throat and its vocal chords, producing a note. I first hear it when I crouch down to tie one to a string line support held up by a line of T-posts, an airy humming that crescendos, fades, then dissipates, before beginning all over again. A loon calls, and I look up. Any bird in flight today is a misplaced shadow, dark gray against the overcast sky. We expect it to be warmer, because it is, after all, nearly the middle of May. But we’re enduring gusts as cold as the hand of winter swiping our breath.
Two days earlier, we planted 150 bare root cuttings in the Minnesota ground, all cold hardy—50 Somerset seedless, 50 La Crescent and 50 Frontenac Gris—as we hunkered over augur-drilled holes while rain turned to snow. I wore knitted gloves I thought would keep my hands warm and unencumbered enough to bury the vermicilli-like roots in their watered holes, move dirt around each plant and tamp down the sandy soil. The wet earth squeezed between my fingers like thick porridge and clung to the cuffs of my jacket. Somewhere around plant 135, my hands stiffened and began to swell, so I went in to warm them under the faucet until they were nimble again.
In the last 48 hours, I’ve squatted 500 times and can no longer stand up completely straight. Instead, I curve like a human comma, my shoulders threatening to collapse onto my hips. Each time I rise takes concentration on how knees work, imagining them as a hydraulic jack lifting me up. Just as it seems like they’ll give, one heartbeat from upright, I will myself that last bit to vertical by picturing my heels pushing into the ground; quite literally, they are my footings. Lingering, now, near a grow tube, listening to this unexpected music, is both respite and pleasure.
When my husband and I first planned this vineyard, we bought wire and clips to make support lines for the grapes; we bought rolls of floral fabric to guard plants from weeds; we attended a grape growing seminar; we stacked sacks of grow tubes in our garage; we watched a DVD about pruning. All that and I still couldn’t picture what planting would be like. I expected it to be hard, but the hard of starting a vineyard cannot be imagined; it can only be experienced through the demands it makes on the human body.
I remember that it’s been ten years to the day that my dad died from lymphoma. I wish there were some evidence of connection between the anniversary of one of the worst days of my life to this first awareness of music issuing from our vineyard; that is to say, something other than me. But I am it; the woman thinking about the past earlier in the day is the woman listening to unexpected sound in the afternoon, as if hours passed through her, like air. I so wish something could reach through from the past to me now crouched among fledgling fruit plants. It would make loss seem a part of a scheme beyond my everyday understanding, perceptible only on occasion, like when I look up.
And I wish the music of these grow tubes around our young grape plants were a cantata of voices of those I have loved that are dead. But death is flat and quiet, like the empty hospital bed in the living room when I arrived the day after my dad’s death, the one that the hospice hadn’t hauled out yet, the one that someone is probably dying in right now.
My dad seemed as though he never belonged to anybody but us, his immediate family: his wife and three children. The family he grew up with, from the poor section of Minot, North Dakota, didn’t seem to exist any longer in his world. His father was abusive to my dad’s younger sister Jeannie, someone I never met. My dad might’ve cold-cocked him once over it. My dad’s mother Bertha, a brilliant cook and extravagant shopper, died of a stroke, long before I was born. All that I know of her is what I remember from a faded sepia photograph.
That life is what my dad emerged from, like an actor walking off a set he won’t ever return to, and that’s why he was so exclusively ours. An English teacher once told him to never get into sales because of his poor communication skills, but, for most of his working life, my dad sold cars… quite well. He sold Studebakers early in his sales career, Toyotas, later, when gas efficiency became tantamount in buyers’ minds. Eventually he co-owned the local Minot Toyota dealership, a job that made it possible to pay my college tuition. So I’ve got to believe that if anyone could push his voice up through one of these grow tubes in Minnesota he could, someone who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, so to speak, to become a successful businessman. If he could, he would call to me by whistling, like he did when I was a kid.
Because there is a big spread between my older siblings and me—my sister married when I was four and my brother went into the Navy when I was in grade school—I had my father to myself for quite some time. Though I am loved now by family and friends, there is no one who has ever been as demonstrative about my presence as my dad was. Missing him is all about an absence of someone missing me to such a degree. It’s selfish, but it’s the truth.
Toward the end the end of my dad’s illness, my husband and I traveled to Minot for several visits. Cancer had gone into his spine, weakening him further. He needed help getting out of bed, grooming, cleaning up. These small daily tasks seemed necessary, because they served the here and now, but also purposeful, because they offered a precious window that I knew would close shortly. This was, for me, a staggering glimpse into mortality, compressed into a handful of weekend visits. My mother slept on the couch near my dad’s bed in the living room, perched lightly on the edge of wakefulness—rehearsing her future I now realize.
For these times, I am grateful, in part because I never thought I would be able to endure them and also because I know they were important to my dad. He didn’t have to whistle. I was there to do the very thing I thought would destroy me—watch my first love in the world die.
The last time I saw him, however, remains so painful, I can barely stand to think about it. When my husband and I left that early May Sunday morning, I worried it would be the only thing I remembered of my dad, that awful, permanent goodbye.
I tried to talk with my dad on the phone a couple times after that, but he was so weak I could barely hear him through the receiver. It was as though his heart were a drain and his voice disappearing into it, his body a throat taking its last slow swallow, something that made his burial merely a symbolic and public enactment of what had already happened.
“My dad’s been dead ten years today,” I say to my husband before we get back to work tying grow tubes to their supports. We’ve had our coffee, are outfitted in insulated sweats, jackets, and sunscreen—a weird combination—and are in our truck headed to the hardware store for shear pins and twine.
“He was a good boy,” my husband replies.
We lock index fingers, a wordless toast we’ve developed, though I don’t remember how or why or when. I feel like I should cry. Would I be forcing tears if I did?
My dad had this white shirt made of puckered, seersucker-like material, and what I remember of him is the back of that shirt, across his shoulders like a small projection screen, as he played blackjack at a Minot fraternal club. I would walk up to him, lean over to see if he were winning or losing. He’d shuffle his chips—his answer—and I’d watch a couple more hands. But that is a memory, something that I know belongs to the past and won’t return. So I’ve tried to assign myself a new image to use to think about him, but what comes instead is a sensation. He is a presence just above my shoulders, like a shawl that hasn’t quite settled onto my body. I guess we’ve switched places: I am what he was at that blackjack table; he is me, looking over my shoulder, keeping gentle tabs on what I am doing.
When I look in the mirror in the mornings, I see his face pushing forward through mine as I age, deepening the nasal-labial fold lines, softening the flesh in my cheeks till it hangs like curtains from the rods of my cheekbones. My body shows him, too, in the squareness of my hips, like a bookshelf, unapologetically wide with severe corners just below the waist.
Our young vineyard is five acres of undulating clay soil. It dips and rises like my own private cocoa-colored ocean, rippling where my husband has worked it with a retrofitted tiller he must wrestle on to the back of the tractor. The field reaches to the Crow Wing River. One side of the field is demarcated by huge Basswood trees, growing in handfuls of five and six. On the other side, just a few Norways remain, spaced far enough apart for a tractor to turn around between them. I find myself wanting to lie down in the middle of this rich tract of land, imagining fanning my arms and legs along the topsoil to make an angel.
Hoof prints the size of large fists often trace paths across this field. One night a buck emerged from the woods, and took a wide stance near the Norways’ red bark. He lifted his snout and hissed toward my husband and me as we sat downwind of him. “Get outta here,” my husband yelled, and the deer turned back into the woods. Our dogs didn’t chase him; they waited with us, staring at the spot where the deer had stood as if something else might materialize there.
Beavers construct lodges of birch and pine harvested from our property. Eagles fly over, dipping when we have machinery going or are outside working on a project. We tell ourselves they’re keeping tabs on us, hoping privately that we’re right.
No doubt the fat clusters of grapes due to come will attract animals. Grow tubes will offer protection to our plants in their first year, but we’ll need an electric fence once the plants mature. The stalks will develop into trunks the size of a small tree and the grow tubes will have to come off. The notes I relish now will disappear. I’ll have to listen to something else, something I haven’t yet considered, a sound I’ve yet to imagine but that I will have to notice.
During one of our visits to Minot, I awoke in the middle of the night because my dad needed help. Through the closed blinds of the living room I noticed what seemed like a searchlight losing its power in the night sky. After tending to my dad, I went out and walked around the yard just so I could half-tell myself that this beautiful spectacle I was seeing, presumably the Northern Lights, was a sign. But when I returned to the living room, things were so unremarkably the same that I was doubtful.
After my brother called to let me know about my dad’s death. I went outside after the conversation and looked up. Where else could I look? The early evening sky was the same as always—without answers, without malice for its lack of answers. Though I was disappointed the natural world didn’t acknowledge my loss, I wasn’t surprised. If it responded to every single death in the world, that’s all nature would ever do.
That night, I wept so hard that it felt like a physical collapse into grief. It was both the overwhelming relief of not having to see my dad suffer anymore and the dawning absoluteness of his death.
Things change, my mom often says. People die and life goes on. How do I live with that instead of being destroyed by it? Noticing is how; that’s what I’ve decided. I did it when I heard my dad’s whistle when I was a little girl, thrilled that it was just for me. I did it when I crept up behind my dad’s back during his blackjack game, responding to his very presence. Noticing is my best response on May 12, 2008, the ten-year anniversary of my dad’s death. It’s what my response should be every day, my given.
So I’m here, crouched down and alert, noticing that my vineyard is singing. At the next grow tube I hear even more music, substantive yet ephemeral— like a life, the way it goes through us, touching our edges but not staying. And really, how does this note feel as it rises from inside me? Who hears it?
I do. I commemorate my father’s death this day. I miss him so much.