Z and I had a family reunion of sorts the other day; both hers and mine.
Generally, I’m a little wary of such kinfolk adventures, but we’ve participated in this particular exercise for quite a while now.
The best thing is, unlike other such family events, there’s no squabbling, no judgment, no sage advice or stealthy, butinski information gathering…for the most part.
No…Z and I just drop by and say our hellos, maybe provide an update of interest like the current baseball standings, or the state of this year’s rhododendrons, and basically do what we have to do.
By now you may have guessed that this particular family reunion starts out up on the hill, in the little village within a village, otherwise known as St. Mary’s cemetery.
And, also by now, you might understand why there is very little in the way of familial friction…like I said…for the most part.
It’s a Memorial Day tradition that Z and I sort of inherited in that we were the “chosen ones” of our respective families, who accompanied our predecessors to the cemetery every year for the mulching and weeding of gardens, planting of flowers, trimming of bushes and even the spreading of grass seed to fill in the occasional bare patch.
For a kid, the idea of death is somewhat foreign; something relegated to an “alien distant shore” to quote Mr. Springsteen.
“Hey, I’m just getting started…you want me to think about the end already?” to quote 10 year old me.
My first tangible memory of this sort of thing was back in 1964, when I had been selected to serve as an altar boy for the annual Memorial Day Mass conducted right in the cemetery itself, down where the Mausoleum is now, in front of the big monument.
It was a grey, blustery day and my primary function was to hold the pages of the liturgy in place so the priest could read it without jumping from Peter to pay Paul and confusing everybody…or everybody who was actually paying attention. We weren’t far from where a large plot of nuns took their eternal rest, and even in death I could hear their admonishments for me to stand up straight without schlumping my shoulders.
Anyway, as I stood there, back straight, shoulders high, I looked out at all the solemn faces standing in the cold and wondered what the big deal was. What was this all about?
Then the priest kicked my foot and I remembered to turn the page and that was the end of that.
Right after the mass, my dad and I walked up the hill to visit the grave of my Irish grandfather— my dad’s dad—who had died just a month or so before. It was the first time I was seeing the newly installed headstone and I have to admit it kind of shook me a little to see my last name carved into the granite, and then my gramps’s first name, below, with those tell-tale bracketed years that define a lifetime.
And then I began to understand what this was all about.
My dad, being my dad, didn’t come with flowers. Instead he pulled from his jacket pocket a can of Rheingold beer, cracked it open and took a sip.
He nudged my shoulder and to my surprise, offered the can to me.
“Really?” I said.
“Just a sip…and don’t tell your mother.”
Which I didn’t…I guess until now.
Then he took the can and placed it by the freshly carved monument to my gramp’s life…and we walked back to the car.
Now, Z and I return every year, without the beer, but instead with flowers, to honor those who lived before us, including my dad who was gone a few short years later…but not because my mom found out about the can of beer.
Z’s the gardener, so she jumps right in and claws through the sun hardened earth while I fetch water and obediently pick up the discarded debris. We work our way down the hill, to my Irish grandparents, to my great aunt and uncle, who never had kids of their own, and never figured to be remembered nearly 50 years later with red geraniums, let alone a nephew who knew them for less than a decade.
Then on to Z’s never met grandparents, then my grandmother’s best friend, then Z’s great aunt and finally a stop to visit with my Italian grandparents and yet another aunt and uncle in the building situated right on the spot where this story began.
I don’t know…but as I pass through that solemn space it always reminds me of some sort of ‘Hall of Fame” with all those familiar townfolk names carved into its echoing halls. Perhaps that seems somewhat irreverent, but in a way isn’t that what it really is? Not a shrine for ballplayers, for a game well played, but a shrine for those that left before us, for a life well lived.
And as I look back up the hill at the village within a village, I don’t see row after row of granite stones. Instead I see row after row of graduates. They put their time in, lived, loved, thrived and suffered. Whether at 5 or 25…45 or 105…soldiers and civilians, young and old, family all…they accepted whatever this life had to teach them and moved on...to what, I have no idea, but I think to something. Their stories, written…their lessons learned….their legacies remembered.
There’s peace in that…and that’s why we honor them...and learn from that as well; those of us who have so much more to learn and hopefully so much more to live…whatever that may bring.
Then it’s on to the White Plains Rural Cemetery where Z’s mom and dad await a red white and blue patriotic display.
But not red geraniums…anything but, because Z says her mom would rise and die all over again if she ever put a geranium on her grave.
I don’t argue, even though we have half a dozen red geraniums left in the car and I think Z s being a little melodramatic.
But it’s Memorial Day… we just do the things we do and don’t ask questions.
Though if anyone could pull off that trick it would be Z’s Mom.
Just to prove me wrong….