Memorial Day: Remembering Our Loved Ones
- Wednesday, May 26, 2010
When I made plans to visit my grandmother in Oklahoma over Memorial weekend last year, it was simply a good chance to road trip with my mother and spend some time with much loved family. I didn't realize that meant both dead and alive.
In honor of Memorial Day, it's tradition among my grandmother's generation to not only decorate the military graves, but those of anyone and everyone we ever knew. It was time for my initiation into that sacred custom.
I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I found the entire affair somewhat humorous. Grandma, despite recently having her own foot in the grave before recovering, agonized over appropriate silk flowers for each person on her list. Would they get the wisteria or the roses? In particular she focused on Grandpa Jay, her own precious deposit in heaven. She conferred with my mother about this important decision.
I on the other hand, was not yet ready for the responsibility of flower selecting. Instead, I was handed a broom and given the task of cleaning off the tombstones. I dubbed myself the "Grim Sweeper."
On our way to the graveyard, the conversation naturally turned to cemetery plots. Apparently, Grandma and Grandpa planned ahead. They owned eight plots, of which only one was occupied. It seems they got an insider's tip back in 1963 from the funeral director that prices were going up, so they got in on the ground floor, so to speak. With inflation and high demand, grandma made a killing on her investment. She has the priciest per-square-inch land in the whole county. Consequently, we told Grandma not to expect to be buried next to Grandpa. Widow Jones down the road always thought he was cute; she might pay twice what it was worth for that spot. Grandma, we teased, would be quite comfortable in the back yard -- she wasn't amused.
She was kind of tickled at her own joke, though, when she pointed out that the new section of the cemetery was filling up fast. With spunk she quipped, "People are just dying to get in." She also noted with some reflection, "I think I know more people under the ground than above it anymore." And in one afternoon we visited them all.
We stopped to leave flowers for Aunt Melva and Uncle Clyde, Cousin David and his mom Aunt Wilma, and of course Aunt Faye and Uncle Harry. We paused where Little Grandma and her scoundrel husband were laid to rest, remembering how she once said that she wasn't too bothered about being buried beside him since she was quite certain they wouldn't be going to the same place for the long haul. Lots of stories were shared too, at the gravesite of the matriarch and patriarch of the Hembree clan. Mayward and Ludie homesteaded in that very county at the time of the Oklahoma Land Rush, begetting a slew of other gone-but-not-forgotten loved ones we visited that day. Well, most of them were loved. When Aunt Betty stopped by her mother-in-laws grave she refused to leave flowers. She said she the woman was crazy as a loon and as long as she lived there would be no flowers from her. All people die, but I guess some grudges never do.
As we wandered from grave to grave, paying respects to family and friends, telling old stories, and leaving silk flowers, the scene was both absurd and touching. I watched my grandmother painstakingly arrange each stem, then crouch her stiff and unbalance body to place them just in the right spot only to have the brisk Oklahoma wind whip them out of place. Yet the futility of it was also touching. It's something to do when there is nothing left to do.
Others must have felt the same way, for the entire cemetery was a kaleidoscope of color; a final attempt to connect and pay tribute to those who are no longer here to receive our more personal tokens of affection. For all the hilarity we shared that day, it was as close to a homecoming as I have ever experienced, especially at Grandpa Jay's grave. There, a hard granite marker was my last connection to a man who taught me what unconditional love looked like wearing skin. As I swept his tombstone, taking care to brush away every stray piece of grass, death stopped being a laughing matter. Instead, as I looked beside his stone to the one bearing my grandmother's name, I was reminded of how intrusive death is. The dates were blank, but the grave was calling out her name all the same; and one day I would stand there and place painstakingly arranged flowers on her resting place too.
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