By Jacob Neu
Children’s children are the crown of old men, and the glory of children is their fathers.
“We going see fam’ly?” he asked again, looking at me from the toddler car seat in the back of the electric blue rental car.
“Yes, we are.”
“Oh. We going see fam’ly, and then we going eat and then we going nap.”
“Sort of. Not quite in that order. You’re going to nap after we eat, and then we’re going to see family.”
“Oh.” This seemed to satisfy him. We left the airport, and he babbled about airplanes in the sky. Down the highway, we pulled into a Chik-Fil-A for some nuggets and waffle fries. He smiled his 2-year-old smile and started asking questions again.
“We going see fam’ly?”
“Yes, we are.”
“Well, we’re going to see Aunt Stephie and Uncle Joe and Cousin B.”
“And you know Grandma and Granddaddy are Mommy’s mommy and daddy?”
“Well, we’re going to see Daddy’s mommy and daddy, too.”
“Oh.” He ate another fry. “Daddy has a mommy and a daddy?”
I smiled. “Yeah.”
“Oh.” He finished up, and we went back to the car. I strapped him in the seat and pulled out of the parking lot. He asked about the signs along the highway, and the cars we passed. Soon, he quieted down. In the mirror, I saw his head dropping back, eyes closed. On I drove through the hills west of Austin, Texas, to my hometown of Fredericksburg in the December afternoon.
My son had gotten to know my wife’s parents well. My father-in-law had retired over the summer and moved from California to be near us in Tennessee. They stayed in our house for a few months before moving about 20 minutes away. But this was the first time he would meet my parents.
It’s not like we were distant, or that I never saw them — I was in town last about eight months before. But they didn’t leave Fredericksburg these days, and I had not had a chance to get the boy down to see them. With the nearest airport an hour and a half away, it took a dedicated weekend, and my job provides few of those. But this year, the family Christmas weekend was in Austin, and it was the perfect chance to bring him down a day early and take him to Fredericksburg for a visit.
He woke up a few miles outside of town, and we sang Christmas songs, as we went over the Pedernales River and through the cedar and oak woods to grandmother’s house. He pointed out some “gray and black and white and black” cows in the fields and the “letters” strung over the road at the city limit reading, “Merry Christmas.”
“Where we going?”
“We’re going to see family, remember? This is where Daddy grew up.”
“Daddy lived here?”
“Yes, he did.”
“I live in Nashville, Tennessee, and you live here,” he said in a staccato monotone, as he did with any declaration of fact. He had recently learned that Nashville was his home.
“No, I used to live here.”
“You live here, and I live in Nashville, Tennessee.” I looked in the mirror and saw him watching the passing buildings on Main Street. He didn’t quite understand past and future tenses, so he often spoke in an eternal present. Whether I once lived in Fredericksburg, now lived in Nashville, or one day hoped to live in God’s house, it was all the same to him.
“Yes, that’s right.”
We drove along Main Street past the shops and restaurants. Ever since we had moved to Fredericksburg when I was 8, I was aware the little town was really two towns. Over a million tourists a year flock to the shops, the attractions, and restaurants. They keep the little German town alive and bustling, making it a household name throughout Texas. But underneath tourist Fredericksburg is an older Fredericksburg, one dotted with frontier ranchers and German families, who cut their livings out of the limestone hills. Their Omas and Opas still speak an obscure, 19th century, German dialect to each other on occasion. The two towns coexist in a mostly amiable but somewhat awkward tension. The old town relies on the tourist town to keep it alive, while the tourist town needs the old town for its authenticity.
It was still early on Friday afternoon, and the tourists had not quite arrived for their weekend getaways. The feel of the old town would remain for a few more hours. Christmas lights were strung across the street and garlands decked each storefront. I turned off Main Street and went one block down to swing by St. Mary’s Church, the parish where I grew up. The church is a little gem of limestone and stained glass in 19th century Gothic style. Inside, dark pews and rich blue carpet lay beneath a green and gold vaulted arch ceiling. The old pre-Vatican II high altar still stood in the sanctuary, along with the communion rail, even though neither were routinely used today. I crossed myself as I drove by, then turned back up on the next street and back to Main Street to drive to my parents’ place.
“Are you ready to see Grandmere and Papa?”
“Do you know what Grandmere means?”
“It’s grandma in French.”
“That’s what I called my grandma and what your grandmere called her grandma. They were Cajun French.”
“Oh.” He looked around again. “We going see fam’ly?”
“You live here?”
“I used to.”
“Oh. I live in Nashville, Tennessee.” We drove out the west side of town and turned down the block just past the new post office. It wasn’t really that new, perhaps 15 years old now, but in an old Texas German town, the replacement building is always the “new” one. The “new” courthouse is 60 years old, but the old courthouse is now the county library. “New” St. Mary’s is over 100 years old, standing right next to Old St. Mary’s, which is now used as a daily mass and adoration chapel. That’s the thing about Germans in West Texas. The pioneer sense of preservation combines with a German love of family lore to create an inexorable pull of the past into the present. Nothing ever really goes away, even if fancy restaurants follow the tourists and wineries pop up in old cow pastures and peach orchards. The old Germans let the history linger, for good or ill. I drove a few blocks onward and came up to the driveway, where I parked along the street.
“We’re here,” I said and smiled back at my boy. “Time to get out!”
I got out and pulled him out of the car seat, and we started walking up the way to their home. The grass was a little shorter than it had been in May. Some flowers remained here and there in pots and beds. We turned up the path off the drive.
“OK, come here, buddy!” I picked him up. “Let’s go say hello!”
“Hello!” He smiled, and we stood at the front. I took a breath and knocked at the marble, and said, “Hi, Mom and Dad! Guess who’s here.” And I tried to smile, but it came harder this time. The cold marble looked back at me. On the left, carved letters read, “Amy Rachel Neu / nee Jacobson / Dec. 3, 1954 / Jan. 7, 2013.” On the right in the same black font on gray marble was, “Joseph Charles Neu / July 28, 1940 / Jan. 30, 2006.”
“Mark, this is Grandmere and Papa.”
“Yes. They’re behind this wall.”
“Can you say hi?”
“Hi.” He picked at the fake berries on the silk flowers in the holders. “Berwies!”
“Yep. Can you say, ‘Hi, Grandmere’?”
“Hi, Gwammeyre.” I put my hand up on the wall, and he imitated me.
“Hi Papa.” He put his hand against that stone too,
“Mom, Dad. This is your grandson, Mark Ambrose.”
“Mark Ambwose Neu!” He chattered and began to walk around with his berries.
“We named him after Pawpaw,” I said, referring to my grandfather, William Ambrose. “We thought it was a good name.” And I tried to smile again, but it just came out as a thin flat line.
“He’s a big healthy boy. And we’ve got another on the way this spring.”
I sat down with my back against the columbarium wall as I usually did on my visits, and looked out at the hills in the distance, not quite sure what else to say.
Mark stood and looked at the wall, not sure what to do in this place. Then he began to wander around the grounds. He jumped off a rock in the cemetery yard, then pointed at the low mound next to it.
“What’s that?” I looked over, then jumped up quickly.
“Mark, back up! That’s ants.”
“Oh!” He took a couple steps back. “Ants?”
“Yes, ants. Leave those alone and come back over here.”
He ambled over in his toddler walk.
“This is daddy’s mommy and daddy?”
“Well, when people are no longer with us, this is where we come to remember them.”
“Oh.” I asked Mark if he would say a Hail Mary with me. He repeated each phrase slowly after I said them.
“Full of grace…”
“Full gwace.” I stayed a few more minutes as he wandered about the tombstones, thinking about the milestones my parents had not seen. My dad missed my marriage. Both parents missed my brother’s ordination as a priest. And they missed that crown of old age, seeing their child’s child. I touched the wall one more time, signing a cross over each square.
“OK, buddy, let’s head on out.” We walked back to the car, and I strapped him in. I called Aunt Steph and let her know I was headed their way.
“We going see fam’ly?”
“Yep, bud. We’re going to see family.”
“I live in Nashville, Tennessee. You live here.”
“I know,” I said, and I sighed. “I know.”