My father and my brother are buried in the most beautiful place on earth.
The Wisconsin village cemetery where they rest sits in a landscape of rolling hills. Alongside it are fields where, in alternating years, alfalfa and corn grow. There is also a line of pine trees separating it from one of the fields, and beyond that, the narrow county road; there are more pines that stand sentry by the driveway that visitors can take to park right near the gravestones and the loved ones they are visiting. If you look to the south you see the key components of most small rural towns in the area: the church and the tavern, sitting directly across from one another. If you look to the west you see farms, but not my family’s, although it is only a two-minute drive away. At the cemetery you are on the top of the small ridge, and our farm is just on the other side of it, hidden.
I never drive into the cemetery. I park by the church, and then I walk by the trees. I listen to the silence produced by all the dying farm communities in my state. The church, built in the nineteenth century, is no longer its own parish, but rather gets a priest from a neighboring parish for one mass during the week and one on Sundays. The residents in the forty houses or so in the village go to the city to work. The people still working on the farms are increasingly elderly and alone. All I can hear is the hilltop wind in the majestic pine trees, the same trees I have seen and walked by since I was born here forty-five years ago. There was an elementary school next to the church then, and I could look out the windows when I was bored, and see these pines swaying. The school has since closed.
My father and brother are buried at the edge of the cemetery, in its back rows. I’ll admit I prefer to visit when the field behind them is planted in corn. Especially in the autumn I physically crave proximity to cornfields. I spent a lot of time picking sweet corn in my youth, weaving between the rows in the wet summer heat, snapping off ripe ears as fast as I could, my sweat collecting the dusty corn pollen from the tassels at the top of the stalks, and bleeding where I caught especially sharp corn leaf edges across my face or neck or arms that pushed through the rows. But in the background I always heard and appreciated the comforting white noise of the corn. The leaves rustled against one another and the entire field never really stopped swaying, even in the lightest of breezes. The wind moved through the thousands of corn stalks and leaves, whispering as it passed over each one. An ocean on land.
I have seen oceans and mountains. I have seen and loved cities and stood atop the Empire State Building and wished never to descend because I could not believe what I was standing on and looking at, that human hands had made. And I know when I stand in this cemetery that it is only a few stones, some faded and written in German and some new and sharp where neighbors have just been buried. It is only a small green space, between everyday cornfields and not-so-special hills. But to me it is beautiful. I know this land, this dirt. And it will never let me go.