A Tomb Keeper in the Village
Iwas really reluctant to visit Dabuzi, a village in Shandong Province that I had left in my childhood. But my third uncle always told me that I should “go back to respectfully visit” my father’s grave.
It’s 35 kilometers from the nearest county town to Dabuzi. I feel I have to mention the terrible condition of infrastructure in the past. Especially on rainy or snowy days, the bumpy and muddy road just made it an incredibly long journey.
Anyway, I did go back there at least once a year, mostly before the Chinese New Year.
Visiting the grave was like a solemn ceremony for my uncle. On each day we were going to do this, he would have his wife make dumplings and stir- fried dishes. He made some paper-cuttings (a kind of paper that hangs on the tomb) himself with my help. All these tasks would take three to four hours, and this always made me burn with anxiety, knowing that I would have to go back to
town in the dark.
My uncle once said to me before my father’s grave, “You boys all have left home to somewhere far away, and don’t want to come back. Sooner or later your children will forget this place. Well, it doesn’t matter, since you can come back sometimes. As for the next generations, they won’t remember, and so be it. Anyway, I’m still here, and will be here for several decades. As long as I can move my legs, I will visit the graves of your father and your grandfather.
Tears were on my uncle’s face, and on mine as well. Since then, I have been willing to come back, and tried my best to console him.
My uncle was already in his fifties. How long could he accompany the dozen tombs? He said it was alright, as his son would take his place when he passed away.
My younger cousin ( my uncle’s son, the third oldest family boy of my generation) is a freight- driver who transports goods all around China. But no matter how far he goes away, during his vacation he comes all the way back to the village, and to his father.
Several times I suggested that my uncle and my cousin ( who was already married) ought to move from the village to the county town, where they could easily make more money, live a better life, and provide better education for the children. But my uncle just would not leave.
My uncle has lived many years in his house, in the north of Dabuzi, with a yard. Whenever I drove back to the village, I knew where to make a turn and park my car in his yard. One step into his house and a feeling of warmth and belonging would flood my heart.
The ginkgo tree I had planted in my early days has grown very tall. The water well is still in the center of the yard; the pressurizing device on the well is rusted, but it still works. When my daughter was two years old, she visited my uncle’s yard and had so much fun with the device. Now she is already seven, and still plays the same game when we go back.
Since my forties, I have often asked myself in my mind, that if there was a possibility of returning to Dabuzi in one or two decades, when I could rent a house in the village, or just live in my uncle’s house. In our spare time we would have a drink and talk about the past.
That was something I had never thought of, or was reluctant to think of, when I was younger. But finally I understood why my uncle was willing to be a lonely grave keeper in a remote village.
What he has been keeping is not only his deceased families, but also a precious feeling in his heart, and a warm place that he calls home.
( From CaixinWeekly , Issue 46, 2017. Translation: Wang Xiaoke)