When my uncle died in September 1990, our whole family was stunned. This simply couldn't have happened, as he had entered the hospital for what was supposed to be a relatively simple procedure. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and he had died following a massive hemorrhage in his brain--the result of a deadly reaction to a supposedly "safe" drug. We were all devastated.
As much as we would miss the man, we also knew that this marked the end of a way of life for our family. My uncle, a bachelor, had lived in our "homeplace" all of his life--a house that had been in the family for over 100 years. At one time or another, almost all of us had lived there, at least for a while, and during the summer months family members would often spend part of their vacations there--visiting my uncle and enjoying the fresh country air and the incredible mountain views.
While it might be hard to imagine in this day and age, part of the appeal of going to the homeplace was its..."unspoiled"...nature. There was no indoor plumbing--a "modern" convenience that my uncle chose to forego!--and all of the water had to be drawn from a well in the front yard; there wasn't even a hand-operated pump in the house.
Six generations had drawn water from the well, and it was almost like a "rite of passage" when a child was considered to be old enough to safely do this. It took strength to pull the heavy bucket up from the bottom of the well, but the reward was fresh, cold water that tasted better than anything that ever came out of a faucet.
My uncle died on a Saturday evening, just minutes before we arrived at the hospital, and it was with incredible sadness that I returned home that night. Feeling the impact of loss, I slept fitfully, and when I awoke the next morning, a thought riveted into my mind: "Paint the well."
Paint the well? It was a Sunday morning, I had no paint, I had two young children to care for and a family to gather with, but nonetheless the thought was insistent: "Paint the well!"
I called my parents and told them that the boys and I would be going out--that we were heading to the homeplace to, uh, paint the well. When they asked why, I said I didn't know, but it somehow seemed "Important." Over the years I'd learned to follow my instincts when I'd felt something this strongly, so I got my sons dressed, packed a lunch and some snacks, and left the house shortly before noon.
We drove to a department store where I purchased white latex paint and several brushes, then we drove on to the homeplace. It was so sad to round the turn and see the beautiful old house on the hill, and I thought of the song I'd written just a few days before about the house as it adjusted to my uncle's absence. It almost seemed like our homeplace was now mourning my uncle's death, too.
As we got ready to start painting, my boys both asked to peek inside of the well. This was another "rite of passage," in that at some point children were allowed to open and look into the well by themselves; mine, however, at ages 6 and 3, still had to have their shirttails held on to by mom!
I moved the rock that sat on the lid, opened it up, and both boys looked down, down into the darkness, trying to get a glimpse of the water, so many feet below. Sometimes when the angle of the sun was right, you could see the water sparkling in the black depths of the well; other times you couldn't. And while throwing anything into the well was taboo, as a kid I remembered the infrequent pleasure of being allowed to toss in a small pebble, and waiting, waiting for the satisfying plink it would make when it finally reached the surface of the water.
After my boys had had their look, I closed the lid, replaced the rock, and we began to paint. (And I say "we" because both of my sons wanted to "help" with this project....)
It was a beautiful, warm day in early September, and I decided that I liked being there with my sons on the day after my uncle's death. It was peaceful and quiet, and memory after memory washed over me, like a gentle surf. I also decided that painting the well was an appropriate thing to do; my uncle hadn't been much on home maintenance, and it seemed that the house--truly a grand old lady--would like to be looking her best when all the family and friends would gather there after the funeral.
As we painted, I told my children about all the things that made this place special to me. I told them about how on summer nights the "cousins" and I would lie on blankets on the hill below the well, looking at the stars. I told them funny stories about my uncle, and shared memories about my grandmother, who had died when I was fourteen. Talking about these things was healing, and while I knew that there were difficult days ahead with the funeral and all the changes that would result from my uncle's death, I knew that I was exactly where I needed to be that day--painting the well and sharing my memories with my children.
As we continued to paint, my oldest son asked where the water came from that was in the well. I thought for a second, and then answered, "There's a river underground, and the well sits there, above it."
As soon as I said the words, chills swept over me as I began to "hear" a choir singing a beautiful song that I'd never heard before. It started with a strong male "voice"--similar to that of a black minister's, who was a friend of mine--quoting a verse from the Bible, and then the singing started, sounding very much like a "spiritual," with rich, deep harmonies. I wasn't hearing it with my ears--and I wasn't exactly hearing it in my head, either. To this day I'm not sure where it was coming from, but it was so clear and so beautiful that I went to the car to get some paper and a pen to write down the words. I sat on the front porch steps of the house, writing down what I heard, as my sons continued to paint.
The song arrived "intact," requiring virtually no "crafting" or revision, and as I read over and sang through the words, I felt a sense of calm settle over me. While the changes that were to come would be difficult, deep inside I knew that my family's love and memories would continue to flow, just like the river under the well....
Please click here if you would like to read the lyrics to the two other songs that were written during this time. I call these three my "Gen Songs," as it was shortly after my uncle's death that I became interested in genealogy. Researching my family's history has become my way of making sure that this place, these people, and these times remain more than a memory, and that the "river" continues to flow....