OralMemory

cemetery
I understand that in the Irish tradition, marriages were proposed by the hopeful groom asking his prospective bride if she would consent to being buried with his family. This strikes me as both audacious and entirely appropriate, since my own family’s history can be plotted by clusters of gravestones in only a few, very distinct locations. Whatever the vagaries of westward migration and modern rootlessness, this tradition shows every promise of surviving even this century.

In more ancient times, of course, cemeteries were largely family affairs, a corner of pastureland, perhaps atop a hill, set aside for this unwanted but necessary service. Visiting the old home place included a trek to that hilltop to remember the prior inhabitants, too. But as we began settling into and around cities, it became fashionable to set aside community park land for these purposes.

My Memorial Day tradition was to cut some of those prodigious iris and peony, wrap them in newspaper, then fill the car with as many of the living as would consent to come. We’d drive out to the cemetery then, where I’d tell the stories of the people whose graves we gifted with that little taste of temporal springtime. We’d visit my great great grandparents who lived in that little house they bought when the War Department bought out their asparagus farm on Hanford Reach, where their many tempestuous children and grandchildren and great grandchildren gathered to gossip and complain. Her daughter, my great aunt Dora, recalled that her mother could ride anything with four legs, saddle or no, but I remembered her as a swollen eighty-plus year old wearing an apron, carpet slippers, and clacking dentures.

Her daughters were mostly hellions. One distilled gin in her bathtub during prohibition. Two of the kids ran almost respectable hotels. One tried to climb a tree at a family reunion, though she was in her fifties by then and tipsy, I’m told. I was impressed with their fire, and all were nothing but kind to me.

My great great great grandmother’s planted there, too, resting after crossing the Oregon Trail three times and outliving two husbands. Her first excursion, as a fifteen year old bride, was on horseback, beings as she and her new husband were too poor to afford a wagon.

Not all of them were tough people. A couple were dedicated recluses. Rumor has it that Great Aunt Violet was a mail order bride, which resolves how Uncle Curtis ended up married, I guess. One lost a daughter, then a wife, and hid out in his small apartment for the next sixty years. My grandmother Ruby rests in the mausoleum, a building that smells of damp roses, for which I was entrusted with the key. I never knew her, but I know some stories about how she’d make cottage cheese by sitting a pan of milk out in a thunderstorm.

These excursions were never morose, and we’d mostly dissolve into laughter, a kind of joy, I suppose, as the stories unfolded before us. The trip was part treasure hunt, for the hand drawn map showing grave locations required no little interpretation, and was heavily and illegibly annotated. We’d find ones we knew and others we’d just heard after, but enriched our own stories in so doing. I’d always find a grave or two I hadn’t expected to find. My first grade teacher. A high school acquaintance I hadn’t known had passed. These would hush me up and get me to considering what sort of divot I’d leave in my passing.

After, we’d find some excuse to stop for ice cream or some other small splurge, the weather already promising a long, hot summer, and us, by then, ready to get on with it. We were not hungry then, sated on the stories nobody will ever write down, but fulfilled, I guess. We left that place as members in reasonably good standing of a family tree that rivals any shading that lovely cemetery, with some crumpled, damp newspaper in the back of the car.

My nephew called this morning to wish me a happy Memorial Day, which I questioned at the time. Nobody ever calls to wish anyone a happy Memorial Day, except these memories of past ones leave me feeling happy enough. Maybe memorial means oral memory, and this day comes to remind us to tell those stories one more time, knowing some will just have to stick. Being buried with a family means that your stories get included, too.

©2014 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved









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