The Laying of Flowers

When my sister and I were young, one afternoon around Memorial Day we would help our grandmother load mason jars of peonies and black-eyed susans, roses and sweet peas into my mother’s car and go to the cemetery.

There, along with my brother, we would lay on our bellies and watch the fish in the pond while my mother and grandmother brushed grass clippings off the tombstones of my great-grandfather and my mother’s sister, who died before my mother was born. My grandmother would send us to a nearby faucet to fetch the water with which she would fill vases set deep in the earth before dividing her flowers between the graves.

Today my sister and I made our annual trip to the cemetery together. Now there are many more graves to decorate: my great-grandmother, my grandfather, and my grandmother herself, as well as my mother and my step-father. As we work, my sister and I, to brush clipping off the tombstones and fill vases with water and flowers, my sister tells me family stories. I listen, marveling that she has collected the lives of people I only vaguely remember.

Before we leave, my sister offers to show me the grave of my grandfather’s stepfather. I don’t remember ever visiting it before. We find it finally, on the far side of the large tree rather than the downhill side. It is a simple white stone with his name and dates of birth, 1860, a year before the outbreak of the civil war, and death, 1913 (of an accidental overdose of morphine).

A few feet away we find a stone marked simply BABY, a family name, and the dates June 25, 1925, and August 25, 1925.

After the heat of the afternoon pushes us toward the car, my sister tells me that there was an epoch in which she and her husband spent the summer traveling from cemetery to cemetery, to visit the graves of the hundred or so relatives in the area.

One of the cemeteries is so old, she says, that almost no one remembers that it exists. At this cemetery, she continues, she and her husband had learned of the grave of a small child and had adopted it, visiting it and decorating it with flowers. “No one but us even knows it’s there,” she said, getting into the car.

In the newer part of this cemetery, behind us now as we drive out, there is a section reserved for babies. Wind chimes hang from trees, pinwheels stuck into soft ground turn furiously in the breeze. Balloons tug at their strings, straining for the freedom of the sky.

I think this way of people, the living and the dead. Both anchored to the earth and heaven-bound. And that we all, the living and the dead, like to have the clippings brushed from our gravestones, and to have our lives, however brief, remembered.

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