We always went to the cemetery with our mother and aunt, my sister Nan and I, though it didn’t mean much to us, young as we were. We mostly danced among the graves, and dashed happily off to fill the dented metal watering can at the leaky old spigot.
Anyway, our dead had been dead for so long, the mother of our mother just letters etched on granite and never mind that I bore her name. Never mind that my sister looked just like that poor doomed girl who died so young, along with her equally doomed and stillborn child.
Then the years passed as the years will do and I guess I was around 20 when I noticed that we weren’t going to the cemetery so much anymore, though by now our mother and aunt’s father also lay in that grave.
“Is it because we moved an hour north and the place is too hard to get to on the busy holiday?” I asked our Aunt Grace one day as we she and I stood in the dining room of my childhood home. “That’s not it,” she said right away. “It’s because they aren’t there,” she went on and then repeated the declaration with a strange passion I had never before seen in her. “They’re NOT THERE!” she said again, as if to suggest that any fool knows the dead travel to a place infinitely farther than we humans can conceive of in our poor imaginings.
Was that why we weren’t going to the graves so much anymore? Because nothing was really down there but clay? Or dust? Or whatever remains behind aside from the metal hasps of the coffins? And if that were the case, then why, all these years later, do I still stand again at that grave and picture them all just a few feet below me? I see our mother in that pale lavender suit she so loved; our grandfather with his dark eyebrows; the young lady I should have known as my grandmother lying in the high-necked Gibson-Girl-style dress they would have chosen for her back in 1910.
What good can come of these vigils? Two years ago I saw a young woman sitting on the grass of a soldier’s fresh and flag-decked grave. She was there when I came by at noon and she was there when I came again at 6:00.
It seems we process death by degrees and each in our own way.
Myself I have found over the past weeks that when I think of our final elder who left us just last month, I do not think of Heavenly realms and eternal reward, in spite of the fierce faith I saw lived out in my family of origin. I think of that man as I knew him over the last six years of his life when he became in many ways my closest friend.
In the long quiet days since his passing I have studied countless snapshots of him – in Latin School in the 30s, in the South Pacific in the 40s, in college on the GI Bill in the early 50s – and am newly in awe at all that a life can contain. I even imagine that I’m beginning to understand what Aunt Grace meant that day: The dead really aren’t ‘there’ under the ground. Rather they are all around us, not farther but infinitely nearer than we humans can conceive of in our poor imaginings.
a bouquet and my grandmother, dead at 31