Then, suddenly, the last day of autumn: last chance to savor the sadness of red leaves and what she once called blue and gold days: fields of wheat – stubble glowing under a sapphire Montana sky.
They called her Sonny when she was growing up in a tiny town just eight miles from the ranch, where she moved after marrying in 1942. Their first daughter was born with cerebral palsy and died before her third birthday. After that, friends stopped calling her Sonny.
She had a passionate obsession with flowers – wild, cut, even legume blossoms in the fields like a neighbor’s gorgeous acres of sainfoin: tall lavender blooms reminding her always of Indian paint brush. Every year the window-box in front of the house, where she once saw a cinnamon bear cub peering in at her, exploded with petunias and begonias; after her death, it became a twisted mockery of mangled stalks and gray earth.
The real change in her came after the change – menopause – quite late in life. No one knew why, least of all her husband, who was on the phone to my wife constantly about such strange behavior – taking off in the car without saying where she was going, returning late in the afternoon, announcing that she’d driven up to nearby Glacier Park and sat most of the day in a meadow of mountain’ daisies. A doctor would’ve diagnosed depression, and so it probably was, but there was something different about her moods too, something we couldn’t put our finger on.
In the end, sadness for her was nothing to savor – free-floating and like a cold wind down Black Leaf Canyon, it wasn’t something she had but something she was, or came to be. Maybe she was afraid, thinking of the red leaves of autumn only as brilliant flags in the ranks of death. Yes, death is the magisterial mystery, but there are mysteries and mysteries; like a cat staring into space, she seemed to see something no one else could. Since then, I haven’t been able to think of an afterlife without chills sweeping over me, like that wind down the Black Leaf.
She’d often flip through the family album, pausing to gaze at photos of herself as a little girl, surrounded by stray dogs she took in until her mother put a stop to it. And once I saw with my own eyes a heifer she “befriended” amble up to her, rear up on its hind legs like a walking dog, place its hooves gently on her shoulders, and lick her face.
The ambulance came on a Thursday, second day of a wind arch over the Sawtooth Range twenty miles to the west, signifying rain. The hearse was a pickup truck loaned to the small funeral home by the county coroner.
Official cause of death: pneumonia.
after the hailstorm
a rusty scythe
shadowing a toy ranch