July 30, 2012 in Book Reviews
On the day before my grandmother’s funeral, I sat on the living room floor in my cousin’s home in New Mexico attaching photographs of my grandmother to a bulletin board. It was quiet, save for my cousin’s voice on the phone in the adjoining room, making arrangements and asking for Tata’s shovel.
My brow furrowed, perplexed, and I stopped pushing the photographs around for a moment.
Tata’s shovel? What on earth did he need that for at a time like this?
I didn’t know Tata; my grandfather died when I was very young. I knew nothing about his shovel either, but Ray was insistent that whomever he was talking to on the other end of the line find that particular shovel.
I went back to attaching the photographs and thought no more about the shovel, for there were far more pressing things on my mind: holding my grandmother’s ashes carefully in my lap as my mother drove us to the little town where my grandmother lived her entire life, greeting relatives I hadn’t seen in years, and walking down the dirt lane from the old church to the old cemetery where she would be laid to rest next to Tata.
This wasn’t your usual funeral, where a polished casket adorned with massive bouquets of flowers was lowered into the ground and surreptitiously covered with earth by a crew long after the mourners had gone.
This was old school: a simple wooden box of ashes passed from uncle to uncle and finally handed down to one of my cousins standing in the grave, who laid them gently on the earthen floor.
Hands reached down to help him out, and then the shovel appeared. My grandmother’s children took turns with it, scooping a ceremonial shovelful of dirt over the wooden box.
I started to get an inkling of why my cousin was so insistent on having that shovel there.
Two by twos, three by threes, the mourners left the gravesite to meet at the reception. I stayed, for my mother stayed, and I witnessed something I didn’t expect to see.
No magical grounds crew came along to finish filling in the grave. After the ceremonial shovelfuls of earth were done, the jackets came off. The shovel was put to use in earnest by my grandmother’s sons and grandsons. Brows grew sweaty and faces grew flushed. Thighs braced to help lift heavy loads of dirt, and arms flexed to throw them in.
My relatives filled her grave, and they did it with Tata’s shovel.
That was the moment I thought I fully understood the meaning behind it.
It wasn’t until I read Raymond Z. Ortiz’s poem “Ode to My Shovel” in his published collection of poetry We Had More To Say that I realized my experience of that shovel was only a thin slice of the history that worn, weathered handle and its blade had witnessed through generations:
“I left my grandfather
in his grave
cut by this shovel…”
“In field of dawn,
digging for new crops…”
“In deep mines of darkness,
digging for the blackness of coal.
In ditches begging hills for water…”
“In countless graves
dredging sorrow and remembrance…”
A long and storied history lives in that shovel, and in the memories of those who came in contact with it.
History, love, loss, sorrow, and joy live in that shovel, just as they live within the pages of We Had More To Say. To read this collection is to go on a journey of a life intertwined with the lives of ancestors, mothers, fathers, soul mates, and children, soaring with wonder, digging through layers of meaning and history, succumbing temporarily to the depths of sorrow and loss…but always moving forward, until even the last poem in the collection promises We Had More To Say.
Join me in an interview with the author, Raymond Z. Ortiz, about his published poetry collection We Had More To Say: Poems from Pilgrimage Road here. One lucky winner will receive a copy of his book!