This last weekend I spent some time with family. We didn’t fire up the grill or gather at the lake. I was at the cemetery. That might seem dreary or sad, but it really wasn’t.
Armed with lilacs, a trowel, a brush, and a big-ass shovel we set off in search of the relatives. Last year we lost my dad’s side of the family because the tree we used as a landmark by their graves had been removed. But this year we found them easily enough on a hill in the sunshine. My mom’s side of the family is easier to find, at least until the building we use as a landmark comes down.
Cleaning off the graves didn’t seem like a difficult task. I would just use my big-ass shovel and clean up the edges where grass had overgrown the flat headstone. But the dirt was dry and hard and it was funny how quickly it got hot on my sunny hillside. So there I sat, hacking at dirt and grass on my hands and knees because the shovel didn’t work nearly as well as I thought it would. And when you are there, on your hands and knees staring at a headstone it is hard not to contemplate one’s mortality.
When would I die? How long would it be? Would it be a surprise? Painful? Would the last thing I see be someone thumping on my chest and performing rescue breathing? Or, how long would it be before I was cleaning off my parents’ graves, or would they be cleaning mine?
And yet, for all that fatalistic mortality, I wasn’t really sad because I was also thinking of the people whose mortal remains were resting—what they meant to me. I hacked and cut at the stubborn grass, ants swarming over the warm, naked stone and I thought about how many pieces of these people were still alive in memories and stories.
My Grandma Lamon was always scared that people didn’t like her cooking if they didn’t have second and third helpings. My Grandpa Lamon would compare health ailments to different foods, forever tainting brown gravy and Caro syrup by association. My Uncle Larry stayed with me the night my sister was born and was the sole witness to the absolute worst tantrum of my entire childhood, and still liked me. My Grandma Sibinski let me and my sister watch horse races on television after church. My Grandpa Sibinski would call my mom Kid. My Uncle Jerry would study people all year so he could buy them something they would really love for Christmas. I brushed the dirt and debris off the granite headstone, exposing the names and the dates.
The ground was so hard and dry I had to pound a hole into it with the trowel to get the flower holder in the ground. We filled it with soft purple lilacs from our yard and poured water in to the rim. Those flowers won’t last long and the grass will grow over the edge of the headstones again and the ants will recolonize, but for now my flowers are blooming and the headstones are clean. Sometimes you just have to enjoy that one moment.