Families, like religious organizations and corporations, have their own languages. Outsiders hearing certain well-worn expressions may have little clue as to the actual meaning. The Nichols family members, offspring of “Pop” and Perditia Nichols, often speak of taking someone “out on the hill.” That sounds like an outing in the woods, possibly a snipe hunt or a picnic, but certainly something that seems enjoyable, right?
Though the house is long gone Google Maps tags the street where Pop and Grandma Nichols lived as Mountain Street in Clay, West Virginia. Their mail arrived via the tiny box in the post office wall downtown, and I never knew their street had an official name. Directions were handled with landmarks such as “turn by the Dairy Queen” or “across from the court house.” About the time I entered college I learned their physical address was High Street though recent renaming to support emergency services moved High Street down the hill and changed Pop’s street to Mountain Street. Nevertheless the Nichols home stood a good ways up a steep hill, and Pop’s front porch offered a panorama of the town of Clay and the Elk River beyond.
And the hill never stopped its ascent at Pop’s.
The adventurer can climb higher on a narrow road that begins as Church Street near the Clay Elementary School. That ribbon of asphalt takes a serious hairpin turn and adopts an alias, Cemetery Road, as it soars above Pop’s street. After a second switchback the road shuffles past the Big Cemetery and changes names again to the Clay-Maysel Road.
The squiggly ribbon seems unable to decide its direction which is sometimes downhill, mostly uphill, and always deeper into the wilderness. The trek seems hours long though the distance from Main Street in Clay is only a couple of miles.
At the top of the last climb, as one prepares to begin descending toward Maysel, stands the sign marking the left turn to the Nichols Cemetery. In days past there was no sign, and the traveler either knew where to turn or likely had no business there in the first place. Through the cow gate, along the two rut trail with weeds slapping the undercarriage of the car, across the field, and up a steep climb rests a special place, the spot where we say good-bye to folks in the Nichols family. I’m not sure if it is the highest spot around but I guess out on the hill is pretty close.
My breathing grows labored as I pass the chain link gate and walk to Pop’s section on the far side of the cemetery. I’ve been there most of those times when we took someone out on the hill though I have missed a few. The first for me was a full military funeral for my uncle, Phillip Larry Nichols, killed in action in Viet Nam. Images from that dreary November Day in 1968 seared unforgettable memories. The most recent trip out on the hill was Mom’s send off in July 2018. After the service we blew bubbles that bounced and tumbled around the cemetery. That seemed a fitting tribute as Mary Nichols had blown bubbles with most of us at one time or another.
Statistics show that the death rate per capita is one. None of us escapes. Death for some is tragic, violent, unexpected. Death for others arrives after a full life though the last mile is often difficult.
Our wealth, power, and prestige won’t accompany us when we go, yet people claw at one another as though those combine to define the meaning of life. When our soul leaves this earth our stuff remains behind, and someone else will sort through the pile to determine the disposition.
Solomon pondered that reality and penned his concern over the possibility that the next guy would be someone whose antenna never picked up all the channels.
Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity. Therefore I completely despaired of all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 2:18-20 NASB
As King David neared the end of his life and passed the reigns to Solomon the aged king looked backwards and marveled at the speed with which life had passed.
We are here for only a moment, visitors and strangers in the land as our ancestors were before us. Our days on earth are like a passing shadow, gone so soon without a trace.
1 Chronicles 29:15 NLT
James, the half-brother of Jesus, warned his readers that life is as transient as morning fog.
How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. James 4:14 NLT
OK, so what do we do? Take up a position on the porch rocker and wait for the undertaker? Of course not.
Make an impressive bucket list, pick an item or two, and get started. Take advantage of every moment like a child whose summer vacation ends in a couple of days.
This life will end. For all of us. Someday. In the meantime we can determine to utilize the minutes.
But let’s aim for the right goals. Here are some questions I am pondering as I look to the future.
- Who can I help?
- What do I have that I can share with another?
- What can I learn from my current experiences?
- What steps am I taking to continue my education?
- Am I practicing the habit of thanksgiving or perfecting the art of complaining?
- Have I spoken a word of encouragement to someone today?
- Am I counting my blessings or numbering my aches and pains?
The clock is ticking, people.