It is early morning, a soft fall day that promises to be sunny but not too cold; just enough for a sweater. I sit at the kitchen table having my first cup of coffee as my eyes take in the small rooms of my lakeside cottage in central New York. My Grandfather has passed this week. Even though I know he is not here with me, I envision him sitting in his favorite chair, the brown overstuffed one with the pheasants in flight under his hips. He is reading the newspaper while occasionally watching the Canadian geese from the window next to his chair. Eyeglasses are perched upon the bridge of his nose, though he doesn't really need them for reading. His white disheveled hair falls around the neck of his plaid shirt collar and over the tops of his ears unnoticed by his eyes in the mirror.
His hands once smooth, strong and without age spots are now wrinkled and soft, something he sees but doesn't really think is too important. He will tell me he knows he can still throw a hammer if needed; hell, he could still rope a horse and break him if he had to. Might take a little longer but he still had it in him.
I can see him sitting there, thinking about the past. His head will lay back on the chair, his eyes half closed and he will tell me of the old days when he was rough and ready to conquer his world.
His world was a horse ranch in northern Montana on one hundred sixty acres in 1915. His world was his wife and partner, the mother of his children born and unborn, and his world was work. He ran horses over those acres, fed his family from the land, made some cash now and then. He was small, wiry and tough, one hundred percent Irish. His hands could be gentle as he pulled a foal from her mother and stern with his growing boys. He gave much of himself and expected more from everyone he knew, especially his children. He wasn't disappointed.
He will tell me of how his father fought in the Civil War. His hand will shake and wave vaguely in the direction of the graves of his twin sons lying near their grandfather, dead in the first winter of their lives. The graves are thousands of miles away, have long turned to dust unmarked and uncared for but he will not remember this as he speaks. He is not with me as he tells me these things. He is walking the land, his hands loosely holding reins of the ranch pony as his boots kick dust of the past.
I know him as a young man from the pictures I found recently in a long forgotten box stored in the attic. Musty album pictures are neatly tucked into black paper points to hold them in place for the future. There he is in a beat up wagon, two huge horses pulling him towards an unknown destination. He is next to his wife in another, standing just close enough to touch shoulders. They look worn and tired.
I turn the large heavy pages of black and white photos until I find more recent images of my father and his brothers. All are perched happily and manly looking upon large earth moving equipment at the building of the Fort Peck Dam. The date is 1938, proclaims the handwriting under one of these many photos. It is plain they are full of youthful vigor, proud to be a part of this immense undertaking.
I rise from the chair and pop an English muffin into the toaster. While I wait for the toasted treasure I think about the day's coming events. It will be quiet as I will be alone preparing for the trip to Montana.
I will drive to the airport, sit still through the four-hour flight to Billings, find the Rent-A-Car dealer and make the three-hour drive to northern Montana. Passing by Fort Peck Dam, I will see the town of Wheeler now long gone, but I will see it as he saw it, in its prime. I will hear the heavy machinery grinding and see my Dad working the levers of the Cat he drove so long ago.
I will turn into the town of Glasgow with relief. I will be exhausted and need a meal, a shower, sleep.
The next morning, dressed in jeans and boots, a sheepskin jacket over my shoulders, I will drive to the site of the old ranch along the Milk River. There are no buildings left, nothing marks the place where a family homesteaded but I have visited before and know the land well.
I will walk along the old fence line and turn into the treeless fields hearing the soft whinny of ghost horses all around. My eyes will turn to the horizon barely making out the lines of an old two story ranch house, the pitch of a barn roof, a water tower.
As I walk, my fingers will tug the round wooden lid from the ceramic container and my full hands will toss ashes to the wind. I will run and trail a handful of these ashes through the air, watching them spread and fall to the earth. When I approach the old lane that drew next to the house, I will empty the jar of his remains onto this dirt road he built.