The morning at the memorial service had been very difficult. Saying goodbye to a 20 year old is always a challenge but I had flown into town to attend the service and hopefully bring some encouragement to a friend. My friend had lost his 20 year old daughter a few days ago after losing his wife to cancer earlier in the year. The service was over, the crowd was thinning, leaving only the pictures of a mother and daughter that are no longer with us and the family left behind. I made my way to the door, said my goodbyes and gave my friend a hug.
I walked out of the church into the warm Colorado sun and looked down at my watch. I had some extra time before I needed to catch my flight back to California. My mind began to wander about my father who I lost in 1999 and about the little town he was raised in just a few miles up the road. Memories of this town have been etched on my brain for as long as I can remember. It’s a simple place that most have never heard of but it was very special to my dad. The fact is he lived in California for most of his life, but in his heart he never left Colorado
My dad had been gone for 12 years and I hoped somehow, someway I could reconnect with his past and spend some time “with” him. Maybe this little coal mining town could help me heal and fill a little of the emptiness I was feeling. I wanted, no I needed, to visit this place again.
I pulled out of the church parking lot and looked west to the Rocky Mountains. A smile immediately came across my face. Hmmm, the “west”. As a child, I can remember my dad explaining that in Colorado, you always knew where you were going if you could see the Rockies. They were WEST of town. The Rockies were my father’s orientation, physically and emotionally. In the land of lefts and rights like California he was never really happy. He needed to be in place where directions were clear and North/South made sense.
I traveled NORTH for 20 or 30 miles before getting off the freeway onto a country road. Driving WEST through the corn fields, looking off in the distance to the Rockies, I could see why my dad loved this area. The simple beauty in the landscape was everywhere. I approached the outskirts of town and the surroundings became increasingly familiar. Not much had changed on this side of town since I was a teenager. “Baseline Road”, I remember that road. My dad’s house must be close by. While thinking about it, I drove right past his childhood home and the home of my great aunt.
Just past my father’s house I saw my first important destination off to the right, the town cemetery. I wanted to visit the cemetery because a veteran’s memorial had been erected that honored the residents that served in the Armed Forces. My dad was a veteran of WWII. As I walked through the cemetery towards the monument, I began reading the names on the headstones. To my surprise, many of the names were familiar. Names I had heard repeatedly as a child as my dad told stories of his youth and his past. As I saw the names I could almost hear his voice telling me the stories again. Once again I began to smile. I never thought I could be this happy in a cemetery. In a few minutes I found the memorial and found my dad’s name. A deep sense of satisfaction and peace came over me. My dad and so many in this small town had given themselves to something bigger.
Feeling much better than earlier in the day I got into the rental car and turned on the radio. To my pleasant surprise, Dixie Land Jazz music was playing on the radio. I literally started to laugh. Really??? This is crazy! Of all the music to be playing in the car right now, it’s Dixie Land Jazz. My dad absolutely loved this music. Instantly my mind flashed back to lazy Saturday afternoons and my dad sitting in his recliner listening to music. Sometimes when he was really stressed or frustrated, he’d stay in that recliner for hours listening, taking a nap, and listening some more until the stress went away. As I listened to the trombone solo, I smiled, looked up and thought to myself: Pops, don’t know how you pulled this off but I know somehow, someway you got your song request played for me at just the right time…..thanks. Feeling as good as I could under the circumstances of the day, I headed off to my next destination, the Miner’s Museum.
My grandfather was a coal miner and my father was raised in this coal mining town. Coal mining is part of my DNA and I wanted to connect with this part of my heritage. As I drove down the street I knew the small house that became the museum was only open a few hours a week, but maybe I would be lucky. I pulled up to the museum and to my pleasant surprise it had just opened.
I walked into the museum and there in front of me was my past. The tiny house with just a few small rooms was full of history, history of the town, history of coal mining, history of me. I introduced myself to the few volunteers working in the museum and began to explain my reasons for visiting. I started to share my stories and my memories with a soft spoken, sweet lady. With each story I shared, she went to the shelf, pulled out a binder and showed me photographs of everything I remembered. It was almost surreal as she showed me picture after picture of MY MEMORIES.
I finished up my visit at the museum by sharing a story about meeting an older lady in town when I was in my teens. The lady must have been in her 70’s or 80’s and had not changed the furnishings in her home since she was in her 30’s. As a teenager I felt like I was visiting a living museum. The house was heated with a coal heater. She cooked on a coal stove and even dumped her ashes in an ash shed in the back. Everything was exactly as it had been when my dad was growing up. I had never forgotten the experience of meeting that lady. The sweet volunteer gave me a puzzled looked as she told me she knew who the lady was and in fact her mother was married to her grandson. I thought the visit to the cemetery was amazing but now I felt like I was in a movie. This can’t be happening to me. Clearly this is too good to be true. This is way more than coincidence, this is divine encouragement.
I left the museum feeling uplifted and thankful for the afternoon experiences. Looking at my watch again I realized I needed to make my way to the airport, but as I did, I decided to make one last trip around the neighborhood to see what else I could stumble across. I started driving down a side street in the old part of town. As I made my turn I looked straight ahead and there in front of me was a middle-aged father with his teenage son. The father was teaching his son to aerate the lawn by punching holes in the lawn with an aerator. I smiled and laughed again because other than faith and family, my dad’s passions in life were his music, his town and HIS LAWN. My brothers and I had literally spent hundreds of hours with my dad working on the lawn just like the young man and his father.
I turned the corner and made my way on the main road to the highway. I looked to my right and on the new city library was a magnificent mural depicting coal miners and a coal miner family. The mural was a perfect final tribute to an incredible afternoon of memories. As I traveled back to the airport, I thought about people losing people we love. I thought about my friend and his horrible loses this year. Somehow I have a little comfort knowing that while we will never get our loved ones back, nothing can ever take away our memories.