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by Wayne Faust
© 2010 by Wayne Faust
All rights reserved
We drove through the imposing iron gates of the cemetery on a Sunday summer afternoon. My little girl sat next to me in the middle of the huge front seat, snuggled up against my leg like she always did when we borrowed Grandpa’s car. I held her hand as she cuddled her cheek against the shaggy stuffed dog I had just bought her. She had named it “Spots,” although there weren’t any spots on it; I guess the logic of five-year-olds is sometimes lost on the rest of us.
I had stalled for time by taking her to the toy store to get the puppy. I hadn’t really wanted to come here at all. This was my first trip back to the cemetery since I had gotten back into town. All I could think of was that last week at the hospital, the helpless feeling of watching someone die, and the gut-wrenching grief that came later. It was just a lot to face all over again, so I had stalled and stalled. Now, here we were, two years later, my daughter and I going to see Grandma.
My little girl had only been three when her Grandma died. That was one of the things that seemed such a shame, the fact that Mom would never get to see her granddaughter grow up, go to school, get married. I thought of a video I once took of my Mom and my daughter strolling down the sidewalk together. My daughter had been wearing pink, heart-shaped sunglasses that my Mom had just bought for her. Mom’s smile lit up that movie. She was so proud to be showing off her first and only granddaughter.
I pulled the big Ford into the parking space in front of the cemetery office. I suppose I should have known where the grave was, but it had been two years. We got out of the car and went inside, my little girl still clinging to her new toy puppy. The cemetery office smelled fresh and nice, not like I had expected. The summer sun shone through cheerful, white curtains. There was a little glass container full of hard candies on the counter.
“Are those free?” my daughter asked tentatively.
A young man behind the desk said, “Help yourself, young lady.”
“I’m goin’ to see my Grandma,” said my daughter. She reached for a piece of candy and unwrapped it methodically while I pored over a map of the gravesites.
A moment later we were back in the car, counting left turns and right turns and forks in the road. I began to recognize things as I tried to ignore the knot in my stomach and the trembling in my throat.
I made a final right turn and eased the car over to the side of the road. “Here we are,” I said softly.
A warm, summer breeze blew across my face as I opened the door. I helped my daughter out on my side of the car and I closed the car door behind us. I took a deep breath and grabbed my daughter’s hand. No use delaying any longer.
Our tennis shoes made soft, crackling noises as we left the pavement and headed across the August-dry grass. My daughter sensed something in my step and held back a little. She clung to her stuffed dog and looked up at me with blue eyes – her Grandma’s eyes.
“It’s okay,” I said, but my voice sounded weak and far away. “It’s just over here.”
I remembered the maple tree from the funeral. My Mom was buried at the base of it, next to my Grandpa and Grandma, and across from my brother. There were no tombstones in this quadrant of the cemetery, only brass plates at the head of each grave.
“Look,” I said quietly. “There’s Grandma.” I was seeing the plate for the first time. It seemed so final, her name cast in metal like that. The years were there, too. Born. Died. Just like that.
“Is she under there?” my daughter asked.
“Oh, no, Grandma’s in Heaven. They just put her leftover body in the ground so we can come and remember her.”
My little girl let go of my hand and bent down to touch the marker. “What’s this?” she asked, her hand caressing a musical note, carved underneath my Mom’s name on the brass plate.
“That means music. Grandma was very good at music. She played the piano and directed a whole choir of people. In fact, Daddy got his music from Grandma.”
“You took her music?”
“Not exactly. Music is something everyone can share, and when you give it to someone, then you both have it. Grandma gave music to a lot of people.”
And it was true. When I was young, I used to belittle my Mom’s work with the church choir. They had seemed old and off-key to me. But they had all come to the funeral, and had all gone out of their way to tell me how much they were going to miss my Mom. Mom had meant something to all of them, something important. I heard piano music echo inside my head. It was “Silent Night,” a song I hadn’t been able to listen to since she had died.
“Grandma loved her music,” I said, as I knelt down to run my finger over the note on the marker. My throat tightened up and I worried about crying in front of my daughter. “And she gave the music to me. Whenever she came to watch me sing and do my show, and people would laugh and sing along, she would say, ‘Music makes people happy.’ And she was right about that. And now I play music for my job. All because of your Grandma.”
“That sounds nice,” said my daughter. “I like it when you sing to me.”
“Grandma used to sing to you, too, when you were a baby,” I managed to say. “She loved you so very much.” In my head, Mom’s voice was singing a lullaby. I swallowed hard.
I knelt down and looked at the marker for a minute or so, my little girl caught up in my arms. “Grandma would be very proud of you,” I said. “You’re getting so big.”
My daughter held her puppy up over the marker, as if to show her new toy to Grandma. I eased my daughter down onto the grass and stood up. I looked away, blinking.
So many thoughts rattled around in my head like old bones. Once the grief over Mom’s death had subsided, all of us in the family had been hashing things over. Mom should have done this. If only she had done that. How come she had been so organized? Maybe she was too strong-willed. Maybe she should have given us more space. Why couldn’t she see things our way? I don’t know why, but we all seemed to feel the need to analyze her life, to try and put it into a nice, neat package. But now I had grown tired of analyzing. I didn’t want to hear it anymore. I just wanted to remember.
I looked out over the gravestones. There were so many. All those people lying in the ground, all of them born, living out their lives, and now gone. They probably all had families that came out here and hashed things over, and then hashed things over some more after they got home.
I looked into the distance and saw a man standing over a fresh grave. Even from far away I could tell he was hunched over with grief. By another grave a few people stood in a circle and talked in low voices. I wondered what they were talking about. Was it about all the little habits their loved one used to have - things that used to drive everyone crazy? By another grave a woman sat quietly on the ground, not talking, not grieving, just sitting. I felt most like that woman. I just wanted to think about my Mom, to remember her. The little things we had hashed over so many times had begun to fade, because they were, after all, little things. I thought of the big things, the things we took for granted. Now they were the most important things of all.
“As much as your Grandma loved her music, she loved all of us even more,” I said to my daughter as I again pulled her up into my arms. “She would have done anything for us, anything at all. She used to wait for us at the door when we came to visit, and her whole face would light up when we came up the stairs.”
I felt a catch in my throat, but it seemed okay. I looked down at my little girl in my arms. “Do you know how I said that because Grandma could play music, that now I can play music too? That she gave music to me, because she loved music . . . but she loved me even more?”
My little girl nodded.
“Well, just like that, because Grandma loved me so much, now I can love you.” And I hugged my daughter as hard as I dared.
My daughter smiled then, her blue eyes bright and clear. “I’m glad she loved you so much,” she said.
“Me too, Sweetheart,” I answered, and decided I was through hashing things out. Through forever.
My daughter pointed across the road at a large, white tombstone. “What does that say?” she asked.
I carried her over to it. “It says Harold Kaputsnik,” I answered.
She giggled. “That’s a funny name.”
She pointed to another stone. “How about this one?”
“Horn Blossom?” She giggled louder. “That’s really silly. How about this one?”
“Did he have a white head?” She laughed so loud that I had to hold her tighter to keep from dropping her. I looked around uneasily, knowing my five-year-old was laughing at the names of deceased people. But there wasn’t anyone close by and somehow it seemed okay. And I had started to chuckle a little myself. And I began to look for some names that she would think were funny.
“How about this one?” I asked. “Tom Twiddlebum.” The name was actually “Thomas Templeton,” but I knew that Twiddlebum was a lot funnier. My daughter thought so too, because she kept on laughing.
For the next ten minutes we wandered around the graveyard, with me “reading” names on headstones, and my little girl laughing hysterically at nearly every name. And pretty soon I was laughing too. For the first time in two years, my heart felt light. It was a classic, late-summer day and everything seemed right with the world. It would have made Mom happy. Maybe it was making her happy.
Finally we tired of the game and I said, “Let’s go say good-bye to Grandma, and then we can stop at McDonalds’s on the way back to Grandpa’s house. Your Grandma used to take me there.”
We took one more look at my Mom’s grave and my daughter held up her puppy one more time for her. I knew then that it had been the right thing to come here, my little girl and I. Even if we never came back, it really didn’t matter. Mom wasn’t actually here. She was living in my heart, and there was finally peace there.
Again I heard the piano version of ‘Silent Night’ in my head. It was a strange song to be hearing on a warm, August day. But it was one of the songs that made me think of my Mom. And I knew it always would. “Sleep in heavenly peace … sleep in heavenly peace,” I whispered, as I gently took my little girl’s hand, and turned away from death toward the rest of our lives.
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