Friday, May 19, 2006

"Life's Little Day"

"Life's little day" was 9 years and 5 months less than a century for George Mackay. I calculate this while standing outside his house crammed full of family and close friends staring at the card in my hand:

George Mackay
26.10.1915 - 14.05.2006
Funeral Service
From his home
Friday 19th May 2006
George died suddenly and so the card was a simple one with that plain front and only the words of the two hymns to be sung on the inside. This death is literally closer to home than any of the other funerals I have experienced; George Mackay was a neighbor. He was also a character and typical of the people up here who know more than they say unless prompted. George's 15 minutes of celebrity came when the BBC recently interviewed him on T.V. about the nearby nuclear plant. His no nonsense manner and clear insight won the hearts of all those who watched him.
When I met him he was long retired and walked slowly leaning heavily on two sticks. His eye was sharp and his smile was warm. I will miss him. I concentrate on the words of the second hymn. I like to sing them even though the language is often stiff and the melodies wander with the voices of those around me. "Abide with Me" shows up often on the funeral sheets. The second chorus of the second hymn must be the cue for the undertakers to move forward. I see them approach out of the corner of my eye and my hard-won equilibrium is lost. My voice quavers and the tears roll quietly down my cheeks.
The houses and fields up here have names. The names are often the only traces of the men and women who lived on them and took their names briefly from the land. Westerlea is the tiny house to which George retired. He is known as George Mackay of Buldoo. George's son now farms Buldoo and perhaps his grandson will follow after him. And then perhaps the heather or the rushes will reclaim it and even the name will be lost.
When we called on the family before the funeral, his son Sandy was regretting that he no longer recalled the details of his father's arrival in Caithness. "And now there is no one to ask," he said simply with his hands upturned and the lines around his eyes quietly betraying the loss.
And so for George's sake as well as our own, I will share here a story I know about him.
George was getting his barley in and there was a delay in getting Johnny Mackay's combine to the field. Morris finished his own fields and saw that George was getting behind.

Morris went down to George's field and set about getting the job done. And then George's wife came down to the field with home made scones and jam and rich farm butter and hot tea and they had a "half-yoking" - a picnic - in the field they had just finished together, sitting with their backs to a stook of sheaves.
Long after Morris had forgotten the day, he was reminded of it because a little kindness is often long remembered, and stories of home made scones and jam and butter after a hard day's work in a neighbor's field are worth telling and retelling and thus remembering.
Each day contains so many stories, so many heartbeats. How do we measure a life at the end of the day? The number of people standing in the cold grey afternoon in and around his little house are one measure, but more telling for a farmer are the fields who gave him his name and to which he gave his life. As we drove past his farm, Morris pointed with pride to the fields that contrasted sharply in their lush greenness with the rough ground adjacent to it.


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