When I was a child, the Saturday before Memorial Day was always reserved for going to the cemetery. Grandma would be up at dawn and waiting for us on her front porch. By the time our car rounded her street corner and rolled to a stop in a cloud of dust, she’d be out the gate, smoothing her crisp, cotton house dress and adjusting her starched sunbonnet. Her thick heeled shoes were no nonsense, her stockings sturdy. Though she was thin there was nothing sheer about Grandma.
Yellow peonies, red geraniums and purple pansies spilled from the large wooden basket on her arm. She’d stow the basket and a variety of rakes and gardening tools into the trunk before climbing into the front seat beside mother.
I didn’t know then about measuring love with rakes and flowers. But Grandma did.
As the car snaked its way along winding country lanes, the somber mood in the front seat failed to inhibit my behavior. Hanging out the back seat window, with the wind rushing in my face, I’d laugh with delight and grab at the long stemmed wildflowers that slapped the sides of the car. The world was mine: the tall white farmhouses, the lush green fields, even the blue sky overhead.
Eventually I would settle down, push myself primly into a corner of the back seat, and breathe deeply the scent of fried chicken drifting up from the car trunk. Occasionally, I’d look out the window to see a farmer with a horse drawn plow cutting furrows in reddish brown earth.
The minute the car stopped I jumped out into the gravel driveway of the little country church and cemetery, scrambling to see if everything was the way I remembered.
The old metal money box was still there, securely fastened to the cemetery gate with a piece of wire.
“That box,” Grandma would say, “is to remind folks who come to visit but never to mow or clean that a cemetery has an image to keep. Besides,” she’d add, “the old caretaker has to eat.”
Pushing open the rusty gate, I could hear coins rattling in the box.
Inside the fence I’d stop, overwhelmed by the sight before me. Tombstones covered the little hillside. Some were huge and ornately carved. Others were small and simple. A few had been hand hewn from ordinary rock. It’s too bad,” Grandma said, shaking her head, “that even in death, money sets people apart.”
When my eyes found our family plots, I didn’t have to count. I could tell by looking. All our graves were there.
While the grown ups unloaded the car, I scurried over to the little white steepled church. On tiptoe, I’d stand at one of the dusty windows, and peer inside. I liked the purple attendance banner with the gold lettering that hung near the altar. Black hymnals were neatly lined in racks at the back of each polished pew. The church was ready for the next day’s memorial service.
I’d wander out back of the church to the old oak tree. There, I’d sit at the picnic table, swinging my legs and watching the cows graze in a neighboring field.
“There’s work to be done today,” Grandma’s voice would ring out, drawing me back to the cemetery.
The old caretaker had been there with his mowing machine. Great sweeping paths had been made around the hillside. Yellowed bits of newspaper and debris had blown in from the roadway below and wedged against the tombstones. Weeds stood tall in every corner. Winter had, indeed, been long.
Mother was in charge of the planting. She patted rich, black dirt around each plant. Then, she’d water all the flowers, old and new, from the Mason jar she’d brought from home. No matter how many flowers mother put on a grave, Grandma always came along and added one more. To her, there was no such thing as “over-decorating.”
While Grandma raked, I carried baskets of twigs and leaves and dumped them into a rusty barrel by the fence. Sometimes a strong wind would swirl around us and the leaves would blow away faster than I could scoop them into my basket.
Grandma’s bonnet would fly off her head and tumble pell mell down the hillside. Running between tombstones, I’d capture it in a corner.
“Be careful,” my three aunts would cry out, almost in unison, “you’re going to step on someone.” My aunts always joined us early in th afternoon, bringing their own rakes, their own flowers, and their own ideas.
“Will you pleeezzzeee be quiet!” They’d scowl at me. “You’re making enough noise to wake the dead!”
In between the twig carrying, bonnet chasing and aunt dodging, I’d pause frequently to study two graves. They were the ones I got to put fancy floral wreaths on. Relationships were spelled out in red satin ribbon. FATHER. BROTHER. Mother became unusually busy during the time I arranged the wreaths on those graves.
At last, Grandma put down her rake and wiped her brow. Mother would walk down by the fence near the road. Her hands shaded her eyes as she looked back up at us standing between the graves. Finally, she waved. Grandma smiled. Our decorations could be seen by everyone who traveled the little country lane.
After loading the tools into the car, the adults slipped some folded bills through the slot in the metal money box on the fence and carried the picnic boxes to the table under the shade tree. There, the conversation took on contest form. Whose fried chicken was the crispiest? Whose pie crust the flakiest? Grandma’s blue eyes twinkled as she winked at me. We both knew; every morsel was delicious.
On the way home I slept, my head resting in Grandma’s lap.
Now that I’ve grown up and moved far away from the little cemetery on the hill, there is no set time to go back to clean and decorate. Vacations don’t coincide with Memorial Day. Or the Saturday before for that matter. But when I do go back I take rakes. And flowers. Lots of flowers. For Grandma. And now for mother.
This story was previously printed in The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) and The Charleston (WV) Gazette.
Writer retains all rights.