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We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down

We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down
    Book Description:

    Rachael Hanel's name was inscribed on a gravestone when she was eleven years old. Yet this wasn't at all unusual in her world: her father was a gravedigger in the small Minnesota town of Waseca, and death was her family's business. Her parents were forty-two years old and in good health when they erected their gravestone-Rachael's name was simply a branch on the sprawling family tree etched on the back of the stone. As she puts it:I grew up in cemeteries.And you don't grow up in cemeteries-surrounded by headstones and stories, questions, curiosity-without becoming an adept and sensitive observer of death and loss as experienced by the people in this small town. For Rachael Hanel, wandering among tombstones, reading the names, and wondering about the townsfolk and their lives, death was, in many ways, beautiful and mysterious. Death and mourning: these she understood. But when Rachael's father-Digger O'Dell-passes away suddenly when she is fifteen, she and her family are abruptly and harshly transformed from bystanders to participants. And for the first time, Rachael realizes that death and grief are very different.

    At times heartbreaking and at others gently humorous and uplifting,We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Downpresents the unique, moving perspective of a gravedigger's daughter and her lifelong relationship with death and grief. But it is also a masterful meditation on the living elements of our cemeteries: our neighbors, friends, and families-the very histories of our towns and cities-and how these things come together in the eyes of a young girl whose childhood is suffused with both death and the wonder of the living.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8683-4
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-[xi])
    (pp. 1-7)

    I grew up in cemeteries. My summers weren’t like the ones that other kids lived. My friends played in Waseca’s parks on playground sets or swatted baseballs around diamonds or swam near Clear Lake’s sandy beach. Instead, I ran around the necropolis, the city of the dead, taking in the fresh air, living and breathing and laughing as those below me no longer could. Spending so much time in cemeteries didn’t bother me. I was there simply because that’s where my parents’ jobs brought me.

    Dad and Mom made a living from people’s inability to keep on living.

    Dad controlled...

  4. Chapter 2 DIGGER O’DELL
    (pp. 9-21)

    It is a summer evening on Waseca’s Main Street. Dad is driving our 1979 powder-blue Cadillac, guiding the wheel loosely with his right hand, holding a cigarette between the two fingers of his left hand, and occasionally flicking ash out the window. Mom is in the front seat, us three kids in the back. As the youngest, I’m sandwiched between Andy and Renee on the white, buttery-smooth leather seat. Dad drives south on Main Street, approaching the town’s only stoplight. We’re headed toward the Yellow Mushroom restaurant for a couple of thin-crust pepperoni pizzas and root beer.

    Half a block...

    (pp. 23-35)

    Mom graduated from high school in the spring of 1962, like Dad. But unlike Dad, whose path could be easily traced from high school to work at the experiment station to marriage, Mom had a missing year between graduation and the fall of 1963, when she met Dad.

    I asked her once about that year, when I was seven or eight. I stood next to her in the kitchen as she washed dishes.

    “Mom, what did you do right after high school, before you met Dad?”

    She paused a moment, then said crisply, “I went to college in Washington.” She...

  6. Chapter 4 STORMY WEATHER
    (pp. 37-55)

    In one of my first memories, I clutch Mom’s hand hard as she pulls me through the strong wind, back hunched, face shielded from the driving rain. The dangerous weather forces us from our flimsy trailer house to the safety of Grandpa Zimny’s farmhouse with its stone foundation. I dared to look up, and when I did, I saw a sky painted with beautiful colors I had never seen before—pea greens swirling and mixing with soft pinks and bruised yellows. I hesitated, wanting to stare forever into the miasma, but Mom tugged on my hand and forged ahead.


    (pp. 57-63)

    In 1980, dad dug uncle harold’s grave. Harold was only fifty years old, but years of hard drinking had taken their toll. The Hagers liked their booze, and Uncle Harold, who married into the family, fit in well.

    We got together often for holidays and weddings and graduations. These gatherings flowed with the Hager version of milk and honey—beer and whiskey—and the slurred words that went along. Drunken uncles, about a dozen at any given time, huddled over card tables, playing euchre and pfeffer in foursomes. Smoke wafted over their heads like mist. Cigarettes were balanced between their...

  8. Chapter 6 BREAK THE PLOW
    (pp. 65-79)

    From the kitchen window of the house where I lived as a child, I looked out on Grandpa’s farmhouse. I spied on Grandpa as he walked down his front steps, stooped to feed his mutt, Barney, and ambled toward his weathered barn. Beneath his trademark Oshkosh pinstripe overalls and chambray shirt, Grandpa’s upper back rounded, and he pitched forward from his hips when he walked. His leg joints moved in a rhythm different from the rest of him, as if controlled by an amateur puppeteer who didn’t know when to pull the strings. One day, I asked Mom why.


    (pp. 81-87)

    This is inscribed on the front of my parents’ gravestone:

    As you think, you travel; and as you love, you attract. You are today where your thoughts have brought you; you will be tomorrow where your thoughts take you. You can not escape the result of your thoughts, but you can endure and learn, can accept and be glad. You will realize the vision (not the idle wish), of your heart, be it base or beautiful, or a mixture of both, for you will always gravitate towards that which you, secretly, most love. Into your hands will be placed the...

  10. Chapter 8 WHEN BEAUTY DIES
    (pp. 89-103)

    If i were andy, I would have been at Corpus Christi cemetery the day Dad dug his brother Davey’s grave. But I was neither old enough nor a boy. My brother was fifteen years old that summer and sported the same sandy hair and brawny build as Dad. Andy packed a force behind a shovel that I lacked. Between the two of them, they had the grave dug in less than an hour.

    Dad dug most graves himself. Ordinarily this would have been a job he could have handled easily. It was a sunny July day, the sky clear and...

  11. Chapter 9 A GOSSAMER WORLD
    (pp. 105-117)

    Mom drives the car to St. Jarlath’s, where we’ll meet Dad and the mowers already parked there. We head north out of Waseca on County Road 5, the road snaking and undulating through creek-carved hills.

    Just outside Waseca, we follow the blacktop’s curve that turns sharply to the west. I wonder what would happen if once, just once, Mom didn’t follow the curve and instead drove straight ahead on a little-used gravel road. What if, just once, we parked the car by the patch of trees so thick they appear black? What would it be like to walk through the...

  12. Chapter 10 HELTER SKELTER
    (pp. 119-129)

    A summer day, like any other. The door opens, and Dad walks into the house. I can’t see him from the living room, where I’m watching television. But I know his moves; they’re the same every day. He pauses in the entry-way and takes off his heavy Red Wing work boots. Then, into the kitchen where he stops at the refrigerator, digs through his pants pockets, and clears out the front pocket of his shirt. Loose change jingles. He sets the coins on top of the refrigerator, along with a lighter, his pocket watch, and whatever is left in his...

  13. Chapter 11 OPENING NIGHT
    (pp. 131-145)

    Dad asks Mom to bring the car to the back of the house. He can no longer bear the pain in his stomach, and he doesn’t think he can walk the fifty feet to the garage.

    Mom pulls the car onto the back lawn, just a few feet from the door. She walks up the steps to get Dad. He leans heavily on her, hobbling down the steps one by one. I had been waiting with him in our entryway, and there I stand as he slowly makes his way to the car. Mom eases him into the passenger seat....

    (pp. 147-173)

    When I’m alone at home, I walk into Dad and Mom’s closet, where Dad’s clothes still hang. In the closet, work shirts, polos, and Dockers wait limply for Dad to return and slip into them. I stand in front of the clothes and let myself fall forward. Their heft catches me and props me up. I bury my face into fabric arms and legs, inhaling the remnants of Old Spice, soap, and cigarettes. I breathe in his scent and exhale tears. The bulk of the clothes keeps me from falling, and I sag there, limp but breathing deeply, as if...

  15. Chapter 13 WHAT WAS LEFT BEHIND
    (pp. 175-185)

    Dad parks the pickup in the old part of Woodville. He and I will start here, where the job is easy. It is mid-June, and rainbows of flowers left over from Memorial Day, drops of blues, reds, and yellows, puncture the green landscape. Fake carnations, fake roses, fake petunias; flowers molded into the shape of crosses, circles, squares; flowers arranged into the words “Mom” or “Dad.” They all need to go.

    These arrangements make it hard for Dad to trim around gravestones. He has to cast a wide berth lest he inadvertently lop off a faux bloom and anger a...

    (pp. 187-192)

    Aunt rosanne brought a few photo albums to the Hager family reunion. The big bunch of us reunites twice a year—once in the summer at Aunt Helen’s and once for a Christmas lunch. Only three of Grandma’s eight sons survive. Besides Davey, Neil, and Dad, Donnie and Louie are gone, victims of the Hager heart. Her six daughters remain strong—none has died since Lucille and Mary Jean in 1933. Cousin Nicky is gone, a motorcycle crash in 1998; and cousin Derek is gone, too, a heart attack at just twenty-four.

    The photo albums sat unopened and untouched on...

    (pp. 193-195)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 196-196)