Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The cemetery trees

It's nothing grandiose.  Sitting on the littlest of hills, surrounded by a chain-link fence, just far enough away from everything so that you can barely hear the cars from the nearest paved road.  A few trees watch over irregular rows of hewn stones, and the bones of those dearly departed.

I have come here at times alone -- to think, and to talk.  To my grandma (mamaw), or maybe just to the wind.  But I have not been here in a long while.  Too long.  Usually it is quiet.  I find a peacefulness here.  But not today.

Today is Decoration Day at the cemetery where most of my mom's family is buried.  It's a day for socializing.  I speak to relatives.  Most I know and recognize.  Some I remember after they introduce themselves.  A couple I pretend to know and wait until I can grab the arm of an aunt or uncle later to ask who that was.

"There's fewer of us every year."

My youngest aunt says this to me, perhaps verbalizing what others are only thinking.  I give a resigned nod.  Though I'm not certain about every year, I definitely notice it this year.  Of twenty-nine first cousins, I only count ten of us there, including me.  Five of my mom's seven living brothers and sisters are there.  This is often the only time of the year I see my one uncle and aunt.  They have a grandson that looks to be twelve or thirteen that I probably haven't seen since he was a baby. 

Don't get me wrong, there were still a lot of people there.  Just not as many as I remember.  The sparseness perhaps exacerbated by the presence of two giant barren trees in the midst of the cemetery.  For as long as I can remember, those two trees provided ample shade near most of my family's graves.  They played the songs of the wind.  But something has killed them since the last time I was here.  And as I stand there in the unrelenting sun, I realize like too much of life, I have only come to truly appreciate them in their absence.

One highlight of the day is my 86-year-old great uncle.  He is the last one living of his siblings, the last link to my mamaw's generation.  And he has no kids, so it has been left to my mother and a couple of her siblings to see after him.  On this day, my youngest uncle has gone by to get him and rolled him out to a shady spot.  There he sits in his wheelchair as people walk up and talk to him.

I get into a conversation with an uncle and a cousin about my great grandmother, who was half-Cherokee.  My uncle did some genealogy research a few years ago and tells us that during the Indian Removal my great-grandmother and her family identified themselves as "black Dutch," denying their ancestry in fear of being sent West.  These are the stories I love, and crave.

But it's a hotter-than-normal May morning, and with the lack of much shade, we are not long at the cemetery.  After maybe an hour, several of us head over to fave aunt's for a cookout and more family time.  My great uncle is there, too.  I watch him eating and I wish all his days were this good.  He was recently diagnosed with cancer and decided against treatment.

Later I see that he has just about dozed off.  One of the kids runs by and bumps his chair, jolting him awake.  He smiles at her and nods.  And in that instant -- the kind eyes, the almost sad smile -- I see my mamaw, so clearly it scares me.

Eventually, after everyone has eaten, another uncle sits down at the piano.  My mom and two of my aunts join him to sing, mostly old gospel hymns.  Like so much of the rest of this day, this is a family tradition.

During one of the songs, I start to feel overcome with emotion.  Maybe it's thinking about my aunts and uncles getting older, or maybe it's just the culmination of the entire day.  Whatever it is, it hits me out of nowhere.  I hurry to the bathroom so no one will see, close the door, and I sob.  For thirty seconds.  Then I'm OK again.

I get a moment away from the others to speak to one of my older cousins.  I tell him I wonder what will happen to Decoration Day once our parents' generation is gone.  He says it will be up to us.  I know "us" may only mean a few of us.  But I feel better knowing it matters to him.

Tradition, family, the future -- I ponder these things often the next several days.  And I decide I should see about planting a new tree.

"On the other side / Do you ever see me cry / Do you know how much I miss you / Wish I could have said goodbye..."


  1. As a genealogist, I would recommend bringing along a recording device (to they still make tape decks?) and recording conversations with your older relatives while they are still above ground level. I wish I had done that more when I had the chance.

  2. I think it is so nice that your family still gets together for decoration day. I think that if a few of your generation are still willing to plan the event the others will come. The biggest thing to traditions is sticking with them.
    So it will be up to you if one day they're pushing your wheelchair out to the cemetery. ;o) Just be sure there aren't any empty graves for someone to accidentally push you into.

  3. I agree you should interview and record your relatives. Especially the oldest.

  4. I miss those gatherings--we have family reunions later in the summer, but I won't be there this year. btw, you will have to read Murf's comments to your comments no my recent post... The two of you may be related!

  5. Classic Bone. This is truly beautiful and makes me yearn for family--not the newly found, but the long loved mostly gone one
    I love this

  6. I think it's great that your family is buried in the same place. My paternal grandparents are buried in Washington (state)and my maternal grandfather is buried in Vietnam so I have never been to their graves (I never even made it to their funerals).

  7. That was a sweet story. I miss not having any family left for any traditions like this. Thanks for sharing yours.

    "They played the songs of the wind." That's a wonderful line!!!

    A good gospel song gets me every time!

  8. Having left my birth family in Australia when I came to the States to get married I'm glad my father took the time to write his memoirs and that my sister had them bound and sent me a copy. I came here in '98, saw my father for two weeks in 2001, and when I saw him next in 2005 he was in his coffin. Celebrate every day you have with your family as if it's the last day you have...because one day it will be.

  9. Ed - I don't know about cassettes, but I have looked at digital voice recorders before for various reasons. They're pretty reasonable. I just wish I'd been a lot more interested in these things twenty years ago.

    Renee - It is nice, especially as a couple of our other extended family traditions have kinda faded or changed over the past few years.

    And you of all people should know that if I ever get to that point, I will have a Rascal :)

    MarkD - Yeah, it's a good idea. Whether I record them or just write them down, I want to be able to pass the stories along.

    Sage - I used to mostly skip family reunions. They seem so much more important these days.

    I may be related to Murf??? Oh, I gotta see this.

    Pia - Thank you, thank you, thank you! I kinda miss Classic Bone. Have a harder time finding him these days.

    Xinh - Maybe you can visit the ones in Washington state someday? I hear it's pretty this time of year.

    Carnealian - Thank you! I thought of you when I posted this. I remembered that you liked cemeteries.

    Cap'n John - Well said, Cap'n. Thanks for that comment.

  10. Another thing is write names on the back of photos. My cousin has my Grandmothers photo albums and we can't remember who people are.

  11. Make sure you get the Rascal with the extra battery back-up so you don't have to pick it up if you're ever in a race. ;o)

  12. Well written. And I totally understand the quick cry sessions in the bathroom. I'm glad your family is so important to you. Family is wonderful!

  13. But it's a hotter-than-normal May morning, and with the lack of much shade, we are not long at the cemetery. After maybe an hour, several of us head over to fave aunt's for a cookout and more family time.

    Uh, Bone, maybe we need to teach you what "not long at the cemetery" means, 'cuz I'm pretty sure most people would consider an hour a long time - especially on a hot May day ;-)

    In all seriousness, it was nice to see you post about Decoration Day again, as your last Decoration Day still remains in my Bone Top 5 list, as I've told you repeatedly. (I'm still waiting for it to make the Selected Posts section.)

    I don't know that I quite get the social aspect, as probably the only place I always want to be alone is when I'm at the cemetery, but I can appreciate the feeling that times are changing and it's hard to let go of the tradition your family has had for so long. There are cousins of mine that I don't know if I will ever see again, now that my grandparents are gone. It's a somber thought.

  14. That was a wonderful post and so great that your family still has these traditions and get-togethers. I have nothing like that and it's sad sometimes.

  15. MarkD - Ah, yes, the original form of Facebook tagging. That's a good point. Names, dates, and even location are good to jot down.

    Renee - Along those lines, have I mentioned that I've been getting mail-outs from The Scooter Store for like the past ten years?

    Charlotta - Thank you! Family is great. I mean, they're almost required to like you :)

    TC - OK, so maybe I should have said we weren't as long as usual at the cemetery.

    There is time later for being alone. There's been a Decoration Day or two that I've driven back out to the cemetery in the afternoon just for that reason.

    Edifice Rex - Thanks. I feel fortunate in that regard.

  16. This is so sad. And sweet. I'm glad you still have family to share those moments with. And I'm pretty sure your great uncle is the jam.

  17. I have just fallen in love with every last one of your uncles. They are, to a one, great.

    The writing of this is very lovely, you. It could have become maudlin, but mostly it made me want to dash into the bathroom and weep for a quick 30 seconds. You have nailed it here, these layers of our lives.

  18. That 30 seconds really came through. I could feel it too. Whatever it was exactly, you communicated it perfectly.