I was only two when my grandfather died, so I never knew him. But I know his grave. I’ve visited it probably every year since he died. I know I’ve been there practically every year I can remember, even the year my brothers had to stay home with chicken pox. Memorial Day in Lewiston is a funny thing. I see relations I don’t see any other time of year, and the whole town turns out at the cemetery. My grandma’s there, and she used to talk for hours when I was little, back when hours were longer. My dad sees old school buddies. And we go grave to grave, trying to make sense of who is related to whom and how.
Only my grandma knows it all. She could probably tell you something about everybody in the cemetery, or at least their families. And all day I hear stories about the people I came from. I know I’ll wish I remembered these stories someday. They’re supposed to be a part of me somehow—whether I know them or not.
We start on the east side of the graveyard, at my grandpa’s grave. We have roses from our yard, and there’s columbine from out front of my grandma’s house in a glass jar. My aunts have a nice store-bought arrangement and a wreath in fall colors. Somebody else has left lilacs.
The wind’s blowing, and if even it weren’t now, it would be, so we anchor everything down with little shepherd’s crooks bent from hanger wire. They’re always too long or too short, and the ground’s always hard. But we finish, and everything stays up.
Then we start the loop. We pass a row of faded white stones along the east side for children who died in Decembers and Januaries. Dad says a Rawlins might have been the first newborn in Lewiston, but it was too cold, and the parents wintered in a warmer house in Richmond.
My aunt points out the grave of one of my uncle’s best friends. She tells me someone in the family had a fit about his grave being so close to his mother’s—I don’t know why. And he was a tall boy, she says, and he should have a flag. He was killed in Vietnam, stepped on a Claymore mine. It was one of those things—the point man got through.
We stop by the grave of Mom’s dance teacher. This is new; she’s never mentioned it. Barbara Monroe. A beautiful lady. Handsome husband. She died in 1968, the year my youngest brother was born. I’ve seen a picture of my mother sitting out front of the old house on Liberty Avenue, her ball grown spread around her on the lawn like a pond. Barbara Monroe wasn’t living in Lewiston when she taught my mother how to dance. My mother isn’t from northern Utah, but everybody knows somebody from Cache Valley.
Maybe that’s what my dad means when he calls it God’s country. It’s some kind of Eden, a source. Dad insists on being buried here. He comes as close to looking forward to it as you can without being morbid. He talks about being buried under a tree for shade. My mom says he’ll have to have his heavy cotton sheets or he’ll be complaining about the cold. Maybe a reading lamp. He says he’ll come back and haunt us if we leave him in the city cemetery down in Ogden. Too much traffic, too noisy.
Most of the direct family is over to the west, with Harvey M. and Margaret Elzirah, my great-great-grandparents. There’s Jasper Alfonzo and Cora Mae Burbank, Dad’s grandparents. And a string of small cement squares. They’re numbered, and they sink and get lost in the grass along the roadside most of the year. They mark babies’ graves, babies my great-uncles lost. They don’t have headstones, only these little numbers, but every year my aunts hunt up the graves. They tug back overgrown grass and talk about whose child each was and how they died.
Ruth is here, too. For years Ruth’s grave always got a little metal basket of flowers, but the silver was starting to show through under the paint, and this year my aunts have a new arrangement. They never miss her grave, though nobody here ever even saw her, not even my grandma. Ruth was my grandpa’s baby sister. She died on Armistice Day, “while the rest of the world was celebrating,” my grandma tells me.
We make our way back to the car, gathering up stray members of the family, finishing the loop. “I know more people here than I know alive,” my aunt says. I guess time will do that to you.
* * *
My grandma’s gone, too, now—I wrote those words more than 20 years ago. But I’ve been to that same graveyard and walked that same loop almost every year since. I know a few more people there myself, now. We make a few more stops. It’s my nieces and nephews who tote the flowers and listen to the stories. I’ve learned that you need to hear those stories more than once, need to walk that loop again and again, if you’re going to learn what they have to teach you. You don’t do it in a day. It takes a lifetime.