That is what I remember most about that day; the vastness of the empty space, the long trudge to the grave site, and the green lawn sprawling out in all directions. What a lonely place, I remember thinking, for my grandfather to be laid to rest.
I was seventeen years old and had just experienced my first real loss, the first death of a close family member in my then young and innocent life. The man who had bounced me on his knee, introduced me to the sport of fishing, and instilled in me my love of baseball – was now dead.
After the services at the church, the funeral procession slowly proceeded to the outskirts of town and wound its way through the tree filled cemetery. At the west end of the acreage overlooking the river, the cars stopped next to an empty section of green grass devoid of any headstones.
Car doors slammed. A light breeze blew through the trees. And the small group of mourners which included my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and several other people, most of whom are now dead themselves, silently followed the pallbearers as they carried my grandfather’s coffin over the thirty or so yards of empty green lawn to his grave.
As I walked along with them, head down, eyes watching my feet take one step in front of the other on the soft grass, it seemed like we would never get there. I remember thinking that this trek, the first of many such similar treks that I would take in my life, seemed so long, so empty, so lonely and so sad.
A couple of months later I went with my family to the cemetery on Memorial Day. It was the first Memorial Day on which I had visited a grave of someone who had been so close to me. We took lilacs from our yard; purple and white. My brother and I had spent the morning cutting them from the bushes around our house.
The cemetery was filled with cars, people and flowers. My father maneuvered around the vehicles parked on the side of the road and we slowly rolled to a stop next to the lonely, empty spot overlooking the river. The walk didn’t seem any shorter and the occasion didn’t seem any happier. But my grandfather had a headstone now, standing alone in the wide expanse of grass, like a sentinel guarding the empty lawn.
About ten steps in front of my grandfather’s burial plot and slightly to the left was a fresh grave. It was covered with an abundance of blossoms and flowers. I walked over and looked at it. You could still see the tire impressions of the backhoe that was used to dig the grave deep in the grass.
At least, I remember thinking, my grandfather would not be out here by himself anymore. The lonely expanse of lawn now had two graves.
As the years sped by, I soon became totally immersed in life’s fast lane; marriage, family, career, responsibilities. Every so often reality would come crashing down around me with a phone call or an obituary. Life then gave way to yet another funeral, another hearse lead procession, another slow walk behind a coffin. I would sometimes find myself sneaking away after the graveside services and wandering alone to my grandfather’s grave, as if a magnet were pulling me there.
Memorial Day became a special day for me. Following in my parent’s footsteps, and my grandparent’s before them, I made it a point to set aside that day as a day to remember. Every Memorial Day a trip to the cemetery was made and the morning was spent scrubbing headstones and setting out carefully chosen flower arrangements. That would be followed by a flag lowering ceremony with an honor guard and a twenty- one gun salute.
This last Memorial Day, Diana and I made the two-hundred and thirty mile drive to our former hometown. On our way out to the cemetery we were greeted with an impressive display of American flags lining both sides of the entry lane. We stopped and set out many pots of beautiful flowers at several grave-sites throughout the cemetery. Finally there was one last grave to visit. At last, we made our way to the west side of the acreage overlooking the river.
We got out and retrieved the flowers from the trunk. The thirty yards between the car and my grandfather’s grave was no longer a vast, empty space. Time has made its mark on the sprawling green grass, making the once lonely grave site hard to spot among the fifty years of headstones. This section of the cemetery appeared to be completely full.
We stepped around the headstones and made our way to my grandparent’s grave site. Placing the pot of red and white flowers in front of the marble marker, I stood up and took a few steps back.
The morning chill was beginning to wear off and I could feel the warmth of the sun on my back. I took off my jacket folded it over my right arm. The air was calm. The sky was blue. And my thoughts were fifty years behind me.
I often wondered what it was that drew me to this spot. There were other graves, other family members to remember. But this grave, this spot always held a special place in my heart.
Maybe it was because it was the first. Maybe it was because it was the most jarring. Maybe it was because it was the one that opened up the flood gates … and introduced me to life.
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