I never celebrated Memorial Day. It was a holiday without any real significance to me, just a Monday that I didn't go to school, and my parents didn't go to work. Instead, I slept through the morning and my dad made pancakes, finishing the crossword puzzle before anyone else even woke up.
Three states north, my grandparents observed the day alone and quietly, and perhaps not in the way the holiday was intended. My grandfather loaded two gallons of water, a watering can and a double rack of geraniums into the back of his SUV. Last year, he loaded my mother and I into the back seat as well, promising us breakfast after "a quick stop." Five minutes later, he pulled the car into the first cemetery.
I hadn't spent much time in cemeteries. All four of my grandparents were still alive and kicking, as was my great-grandmother, who was 106 and sharp as a tack—a prickly, thoughtful, irritable and much-loved tack.
Whatever I might have expected from a cemetery, this sunny square of hillside was not it. No one had been buried here for decades; there were no fresh wounds, just an uninterrupted swath of lawn. The dead here had passed almost out of memory; their lives and the way they quitted them (abruptly, painfully, reluctantly), had become something benign. Numbers, dates.
All the headstones looked the same, but my grandfather knew exactly where we were going—straight, left, right—stopping in front of a headstone with the same last name as his. The carcass of last year's geranium wilted at the base, and grandfather exhumed it, tossing it into the woods to make room for the new one. This seemed wasteful to me, and slightly cavalier. Geraniums are perennials after all, and ought to have a longer lifespan than May to May. Already I could tell the replacement flower would fare no better than its predecessor. I envisioned a secondary grave site just past the tree line, a sorry mound of geranium compost, casualties of my family's remembrance.
But it wasn't the flower that mattered to my grandfather, it was the art of planting it. He bent laboriously down on one knee, digging into the ground with his fingers, patting the soil down. He was a tall man, grown spindly with age, and the act of stooping looked painful. He watered the geranium enthusiastically, almost drowning it.
This grave was his grandmother's. He told us about her. Where she lived (Maine), how she died (illness), where her siblings were buried (he pointed—a row sideways, there they were, three headstones in a neat line).
My mother stayed graveside, nodding along to the story, but my grandmother started to wander.
"Look at this, Gerdie, look at this!" She pointed at a grave. "I knew her." She nodded. "She was a nice lady. Her son—" she broke off, forgetting the rest of the story. "Her son—" she tried again.
"Wayne?" she hollered. "Do you remember that woman's son? He was—I forget what it was. It was something interesting."
My grandfather trudged our direction, looked at the headstone. "He was a writer."
"A writer!" My grandmother slapped her thigh. "That's what it was. And he wrote—" She looked to my grandfather for help.
"He wrote travel guides," my grandfather said.
"Yes. Yes." My grandmother nodded. "You could write travel guides," she told me.
There was a stuffed animal lying in one of the early rows, atop a child's grave. A lion. "Will you leave me a stuffed kitty?" My mother asked me, only half-joking. "I want a kitty." She had two cats at home, both mean. I gave her a look that said I had given no thought to her funeral arrangements.
We had seven more graves to visit, spanning two different cemeteries. Cousins, uncles. Several names whose relationship to me was too difficult for me to parse, and my mother had to interpret for me: "She made clothes for your barbies." And, "He lived across the street from Tyler. You know, that white house on the hill?"
My grandfather steered us from headstone to headstone, leading a zigzag tour across the endless lawn. We skipped haphazardly between plots as he planted and recited family histories. Too late, it dawned on me that he was passing on the mantle. Someday soon, grave duty would be my mother's. After her, it fell to me.
My mother had come to the same realization. "Are you listening?" she asked me. I shrugged, because I'd been lost for a while now. She, at least, recognized some of the names; these were the knees she was bounced on as a child.
Obediently, we trailed my grandfather to the next headstone. A great aunt's. My mother looked at the grave, memorizing the name and location; I looked at my grandfather. Was it the first time I had ever looked down at him? The top of his head was unfamiliar to me. He had taken off his hat upon entering the cemetery; without it, his hair was wispy and baby-fine.
There are things we don't like to think, about those we love. Such as: my grandfather is tired. Or: my grandfather is sick. Even: my grandfather is dying.
Last Christmas, he woke up short of breath. My aunt rushed him to the emergency room, where an MRI revealed a fuzzy spot in his lung. Could be something, could be nothing. Several months later, a doctor said the word "cancer."
I was under the impression that my grandfather already had lung cancer, that he had in fact had lung cancer for years, but this was not the case. The truth was lung cancer was something we'd long been expecting to happen to us. My mother and my aunt grew up in a house that reeked of smoke. Tobacco permeated the furniture, the curtains, even their clothes when they went outside. It got into the wallpaper, turned the whites a dingy yellow. My grandfather was always quitting, or trying to.
As a child I understood these two things: that smoking was bad; and that it was going to kill my grandfather. This was a story he told himself, as related by Someone Who Knows. He was his own cautionary tale. But it was a tale that I knew the ending to. The ending was: my grandfather did not die. Because there he was, in front of me, narrating.
Now, he led us through the family dead. There was only one flower left. We stopped at a headstone on the far side of the graveyard. "My older brother, Kerry," my grandfather said, although this older brother did not survive past infancy and my grandfather was now well into his 80s. He knelt stiffly, cracking the last geranium out from its plastic casing.
Kerry's name was the first one I recognized on that day's macabre tour. An amateur genealogist, my grandfather periodically made us elaborate family trees. Kerry's name was always printed neatly beside his. The brother my grandfather never met, who he has never forgotten.
Next to Kerry's grave was his father's. My grandfather scowled at the second tombstone. There was bad blood here: a nasty divorce, uneven custody, and the kind of racism that made visits unpleasant and infrequent. Kerry was supposed to be buried with his mother, but last-minute politics maneuvered him into his father's plot. For a while, there was a scheme to relocate him, but the graveyard balked: the baby wasn't even buried in a proper coffin. What was there to dig up? So Kerry remained with his father, and my grandfather only planted one flower there. Someone else, he said, could remember his father.
Later, as promised, he treated us to breakfast.