By William Garvey, Guest Author
Memorial Day 2018
I rise early, dress, eat, brew a coffee and drive alone to the cemetery. This year, unlike most, I am prepared. The flowers are bought, the shepard’s hook already pounded into the ground. A plastic bucket with hand shovel and grass clippers is in the back of the Escape, as are the tiny American flags, and the one Canadian, along with several old towels from the garage, the cigars I use to toast my grandfather, and Pat’s garden kneeler, a reluctant concession to old age.
The cemetery is two miles away, in the heart of the once outer-ring suburb of Detroit we have called home for 30-odd years. The house my parents had built for them in 1959 is likewise two miles away, but in a different direction. I drive by the house now and then. Occasionally the new owners are on the front porch. I wonder if they wonder who it is that drives that car back and forth so slowly.
The cemetery has some nicely treed acreage. But my parents and grandparents were laid in a treeless spot near the ring road, which misses by several dozen yards the shade of the ancient oaks, and turns to desert brown every July. In recompense, there is a water spigot pounded into the ground several hundred feet away, with a big ‘Do Not Drink’ sign. I take that advice. There should be another sign that says ‘Raise Handle Slowly Or You Will Drench Every Piece Of Clothing Beneath Your Knees’, but there is not. I think that is a joke the staff plays on visitors.
Our usual flowers are geraniums, which do fine in May, but crumple and die in late June. I try to tend to the cemetery plots every summer day, but usually fail. This year Pat bought moss roses for the shepard’s hook. They are reputed to be drought tolerant. Reputed, not guaranteed. I assume they could use some water. Since I need water for my grandfather’s flowers (more on this later), I traipse over to the spigot, carefully raise the handle, and dowse my jeans and shoes. It is now part of the tradition, so I don’t mind.
My father and mother share a plot and a grave marker. Mom has been gone almost 13 years, Dad nearly seven. They were high-school sweethearts – separated like so many by World War Two. Dad joined the Navy. He spent two years on a cargo ship in the Pacific. I have a set of his winter blues in a box in the back of my closet, along with an old cardboard box of letters and photos.
My maternal grandfather was Canadian, and fought with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in World War I. I have his medals in a steel box in the basement. My grandmother was a small town Pennsylvania girl he met on a wild swing through the US after the war. The story was that he and some friends went to New York, ran out of money (who could believe that?) and went west to find work. ‘West’ ended up being southwest Pennsylvania, where grandma worked in a coal mining company’s store. They married and had a family just in time for the Great Depression. Their wedding present, a fake Tiffany lamp, sits on our living room desk. Apparently these were quite the rage back in the early ‘20’s. The glass shade has a few chips, but still looks elegant. My wife, Pat, tells me it is a reverse hand-painted lampshade. I doubt I will have another opportunity to write ‘reverse hand-painted lampshade’ in an essay or story, so I have included it here, twice.
Grampa merits his own flowers. His metal grave marker has a vase you can pop out of the ground. I see those only on older graves, apparently the vases interfere with grass cutting. For the past several years I’ve made an arrangement for him. This year it is red and white flowers for Canada, with a bit of blue for accent. Grampa smoked cigars. I place two in the vase, along with the flowers and a small Canadian flag. I brought two cigars to smoke graveside. Unfortunately, these are big, strongly flavored cigars bought at a tobacco shop from a young man dressed in black. He invited me to sit in a special glassed-off section of the store and savor a cigar, but my time was short and Pat hates tobacco smoke, so I just bought the cigars and left. I manage to smoke about an inch of one cigar, but it burnt my throat. I douse it in the spigot – drenching my shoes – before throwing it away.
I walk around the cemetery, introducing myself again to the inhabitants. The Crowes, husband and wife, lie to the right of my family’s graves. Someone had given them potted geraniums on shepard’s hooks. I hope they last. Helen Kern lies alone and apparently forgotten in the grave to the left. She died in 1957, her grave marker is a weathered gray. I have never seen a flower or hook. I get the sheers and cut the long grass around her marker. I am certain she was a respectable lady who kept a clean and straightened house.
As I prepare to leave, a large SUV pulls in behind the Escape. An old man – noticeably older than me – sits at the wheel. I am annoyed, it is barely nine o’clock and there are only ten, maybe eleven cars in a cemetery that can hold hundreds. The old man stays inside, engine running. I pull away, the SUV follows. The hell? I turn left, into a small loop road that goes up to the mausoleum. The old man follows, right on my tail. I speed up. The SUV heads back to my old spot, and parks facing the opposite direction, its two left wheels up on the grass. I stop and look back. The old man remains in the seat, still belted. He opens the window. There is a grave marker a few feet from the driver’s door. He stares down at it, takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. I put the Escape in gear and leave the old man to his memories.