"On the plains of Oklahoma, with a windshield sunset in your eyes like a watercolor painted sky, you'd think heavens doors have opened."
Fly Over States

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Gone But Not Forgotten

I am an orphan. No one in my direct family line that is older than me is still alive. Except for my stepmother, every single adult I knew as a small child is dead. I tell my kids that when it comes to dying, “I am on deck.” Personally, I think that is a marvelously witty phrase but they have yet to even crack a smile when I say it.

But where I am going with that is to say that until my mother died, I never particularly concerned myself with maintaining the family headstone, which is in Oklahoma City. Way back in the day, my grandfather bought a 6 person lot and at this point, five plots have been filled. But when it came to putting out flowers and the like, not only was it not my job, I simply didn’t care. They were dead, therefore, they didn’t care, was my reasoning. Life is for the living, after all. As long as the lawn was mowed it was fine, blah, blah, blah. Besides, Mom did that stuff. Moreover, when Mom died, I was still living in Virginia and it is not like I could do very much about the cemetery, anyway. But the real reason I didn’t do anything was because I didn’t care. It is just a rock, after all.

So a week or so ago, I swung by the cemetery to pay my respects. This is not new. When I lived in town, I used to go by, regularly. Sometimes I would breeze in and out with no more emotional reaction than if I was ordering a cheeseburger from the local drive-through (in Oklahoma, that would be Sonic, preferably – although that might not be a good example when you consider how hungry I get, at times). Other times, I would stand and bawl. There is absolutely no rhyme or reason for it and I gave up trying to understand why that is so, decades ago.

But last week, as I stood there and looked at the grave, I suddenly felt the weight of being the oldest girl and the oldest family member with the attendant responsibilities. I stood there at that stone and it positively chastised me for not putting out some spring flowers. Honestly, I found myself muttering, “Okay, OKAY!!!” to no one in particular. So I drove home and since then have twice wakened in the night thinking about graveyard flowers. Not in a resentful way, but in a manner akin to how I think about quilt designing. “Peonies would be nice … no, my grandmother liked Irises so she would appreciate those this time of year. But the Oklahoma sun would bake them so maybe I should set out something yellow so if it fades, it won’t look too bad before I can swap it out. Yeah, yellow would be nice - Mom loved daisies and Debbie (my sister) loved yellow roses…” I was having those sorts of thoughts.

I am not sure why, but all of a sudden, with no warning, I went from not even considering doing such a thing to being on a mission that was, actually, a labor of love.


So, yesterday, after going out to vote in my first election since moving back home, I saw where Hobby Lobby had a half price off sale on artificial flowers and that was as good an excuse as any to shop there. I wandered through, picked at the flowers (looking for the ones that were: 1) pretty; 2) sturdy; 3) light colored to not immediately look tacky if the faded in the sun; and 4) would stand up to the Oklahoma wind. It took awhile but I found several that appealed to me.

Without planning to, I wandered into the area of Hobby Lobby where they keep the artificial flowers intended to go in your home. Good Lord. Have you seen them? They are GORGEOUS. Some look exactly like dried flowers. Maybe they are dried flowers. And some look so fresh and real you’d swear that, but for the lack of aroma, you just picked them from the earth. When did they start making stuff like this?? I got lost in that section of the store for, I kid you not, almost two hours. It was very similar to how I feel when I am picking out fabrics. I loaded up a small fortune’s worth in my cart but before I could pay for them, a kind clerk whispered that they go on sale for half price, next week.

This is Oklahoma, after all.

What a sweetie.

So I abandoned the idea of buying flowers for the house (until next week). 

After I left Hobby Lobby, I drove over to the cemetery and shoved in the flowers.
Never let it be said that I am not sentimental.
I am not particularly proud of how I arranged them but think my Grandmother would like the irises, and Mom and Debbie would enjoy the yellow tulips. I hope they don’t blow out.

While I was there, I saw the most precious arrangement for a little baby girl.
The little touches just slayed me.  For example, the angel wings were a little girl's gloves - maybe this little girl's.  And look at the handprints of the parents.
Daddy's Little Girl.  Oh God.  I feel so bad for them. 
It brought tears to my eyes. Someone put love and thought into every single thing in this. There were even little notes written by what appeared to be a small child. I am not sure about glorifying the whole graffiti thing but setting that aside, it was heart breaking and unexpectedly adorable.

The practical side of me wonders if they will maintain it in the years to come. This is really a high maintenance type of monument. And I wonder if the parents/family members will end up suffering horrible pangs of guilt over the years if they cut back on the decorations, allow them to grow a bit sloppy, or otherwise decide to scale back. But I could tell that putting this together, at this point in time, gave them perhaps the only comfort they could find, god love them.

I spent more time standing in prayer at this site than I did at my own family’s grave.  After a moment's hesitation that I shouldn't touch something so clearly precious to them, I went ahead and straightened some of the items, tucked in the notes so they wouldn’t blow away so easily, and walked away feeling both sad that that family hurts, and warm to recognize the love that must have existed in that family. I hope they are doing okay. I strongly suspect that I am not the only impromptu visitor who has straightened things up and said a little prayer.  Their grief is new.  Please remember them in your prayers. 

Not far from the little girl’s grave was the grave of a young man, who apparently died when he was about 21. I lost a brother at that age and remember well the shock of a vibrant young soul suddenly just... gone. They had laid a skateboard and a variety of other things at the site in his memory.  I am sure they feel the loss as a hole in their hearts, every day. 
I wonder how his dog is.  I wonder what his dog's name is.  I am glad his family have the dog. 

I was struck that someone even left car keys and they hadn’t been molested. Later, I mentioned to my husband that people tend to respect the dead. He said that if it was widely known where the car that went with those keys was, those keys would be history.

That man.

And here is a grave that I always visit. Always.
One time, in late January 1975, several months after I lost my 18 year old sister in a car accident, I left school at lunch to visit her at the cemetery. There was a tall, elderly man tending this gravesite and he saw me crying. My life was pretty much a mess at the time and, in fact, I was pregnant with my son and not sure what in the world was going to happen next (I was sixteen). The father (who I ended up being married to for nearly 24 years and with whom I had three wonderful children) was six years older than me. My family was beside themselves over the whole situation. I was madly in love but they kept telling me that I was too young to know what love was.

Anyway, this kind soul listened to me tell him how much I missed my sister and how my family was mad at me and how much I loved my boyfriend and how they didn’t approve. I didn’t tell him I was pregnant but suspect he had figured it out. After hearing me out, he stepped aside to show me the date on the headstone. He was 8 years older than his late wife and they’d married when she was 16 years old. They’d been happily married more than fifty years. And he said, ‘The age difference never made the slightest bit of difference! We never even noticed it.”

To this day, I think that man was angel sent to offer me comfort.

So I always looked for Mr. Moore when I went back to the cemetery but never saw him, again. For years, I would see fresh flowers on the grave but then a few years went by with no flowers, then I saw where he had passed in 1990. He was 96 years old at the time of his death. Maybe I should remember him with flowers the next time I am out there.

We all like to think that people can make a difference with a simple kind word or gesture but it is pretty rare. Mr. Moore appeared at the right time and said the right words to truly help a young girl. I expect he never knew that he made such a difference in a stranger’s life – but he did.

Thank you, Mr. Moore.

So when I got home from the cemetery, Husband announced that he had been reading up on bluebird houses, including standard lore regarding what the bluebirds were looking for in a house. He said that I should look it up.

Thankfully, the Prednisone is not really causing me much emotional upheaval at this point - but that was a bit irritating.

I counted to five and told him I already have done my research, which is why I had such rigid ideas on how the house should be set up. He glossed over all that. Instead, he said he “knew” I was not going to be happy unless that new birdhouse faced east (never admitting that it was a good idea!) – so he’d shifted it around.

Sometimes I don’t know whether to hug him or roll my eyes at him so I just smiled and said, “Thank you, dear.”

Truly, I am a saint.

While I am at it, here are a few photos:

The darling little church where I cast my vote:
The girls:
Pearl is quite sleepy:
That Evelyn is sassy!

They're fake.

Happy Quilting,

Penny, Evelyn and Pearl


BilboWaggins said...

What a lovely post - you do write so nicely. I think this is saying you are "home", back where you belong, that's a wonderful thing.

And yes, next time you visit, take some flowers for Mr Moore, he sounds like a good man.

ranette said...

Oh my gosh Penny, you've got me crying my eyes out....sob....seriously! Your writing really touches me and I appreciate it.

I am the oldest person on my Dad's side that is alive except for my 96 year old grandfather and I'm not sure he counts and I do feel a sense of responsibility for this family and for grandpa.

Is it okay for me to tell you that I'm sorry you've lost two siblings...because I am sorry, that's so sad. I agree, you should take Mr. Moore some flowers the next time you visit.

tisme said...

I Love your Stories, please don`t ever stop, you give me your memories, and remind me of mine.
I cry everytime at the cemetary where my family is buried. I have lost my brother, and my sister is ill. Soon I will be the only one left, but someone told me (very wise person), my life is in the future, not in the past. I feel close to you through your writings, I think of you, and smile!

Penny said...

Thanks. Tisme, I am sorry your sister is ailing. That's so hard. I think one of the things that can mellow older people is that we end up losing so many that we end up having far more in common with people our age than differences. Losing those we love, ill health, heartache, the joy of love and new beginnings are such amazing experiences and everyone over the age of fifty has experienced some or all.

Shogun said...

I absolutely love to read your blog, I can't even express what it means to me.
Today I worked at the hospital and helped out two couples in their 80s. One couple had been married 60 years. I work with many people who are approaching death. I love my job, wish it were more than just contingent.
I could write so much more about what I see at work or my own experiences, but I won't. Just know how you always get me thinking and how much I enjoy your content and writing style. Ali

Penny said...

Ranette, thanks for your condolences. You're so right - it is hard to lose two siblings, especially when they were so young (five years separated their deaths and one was 21, the other was 18). In between their deaths my grandmother died so it felt like my whole family was dying while I was 11 - 16 years old. I so miss not having them here to go through life with, especially my sister who I expected to have around to share raising our families. But when I think about what my mother must have suffered, I can't even bear to think of it. She insisted that she had to keep living - even if she didn't want to. My mother and I didn't always agree on things but she sure loved life and I admire her for that. If she had laid down and died, I believe I would have, too.

Stephanie D. said...

I have to say, I pretty much feel the way you have felt about tombstones--my loved one's soul isn't there anymore, so why go? Though I enjoy visiting graveyards and imagining or putting together a bit of history, I don't even know where my dad is buried. I mean, I know the cemetery, and I was there when we buried him, but I couldn't find his plot even if I still lived in Alabama.

And I think about how I don't want my family to feel tied down to a certain town just because I happen to be buried there, or feel obligated to make sure someone mows the lawn. It's one reason I want to be cremated and my ashes scattered somewhere pretty--don't really care where.

But I understand how it is comforting for some to be able to have a specific place to go, something tangible on which to focus their grief. Which is why I will probably tell my family to do with my body whatever they wish--whatever gives them comfort.

Suzanne Kistler said...

What a beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.
I was recently in the town where my parents lived and it crossed my mind that I'd never been to my mother's grave. It was with a shock that I remembered she'd been cremated and my dad never said what he did with her ashes. I tell myself, "That's what she wanted," but it still doesn't seem right...It's like the link is not only severed, but there's nothing to remind anyone of her existence...like the way you remember your Mr. Moore. There's something to be said for maintaining cemeteries...

Applik said...

You've got me crying too. It reminded me of visiting my mother's grave on my 40th birthday. She is buried at Quantico and I live near Solomon's MD-not any easy way to get there. I was in Fredericksburg for a soccer tournament and we had gone out to dinner. It was a miserable cold November night. When we found a place to park there was a scraggly rosebush growing out of the sidewalk with a perfect bloom on it. I figured it was a sign so I picked it and placed it on her grave the next morning.

Anonymous said...

You've got me crying too. It reminded me of visiting my mother's grave on my 40th birthday. She is buried at Quantico and I live near Solomon's MD-not any easy way to get there. I was in Fredericksburg for a soccer tournament and we had gone out to dinner. It was a miserable cold November night. When we found a place to park there was a scraggly rosebush growing out of the sidewalk with a perfect bloom on it. I figured it was a sign so I picked it and placed it on her grave the next morning.

Sherry said...

Hope you feel better soon.

Paula said...

I also love your stories. The thoughts and feelings you so beautifully put into words. I often think of my own Mother and the worry she lives with, since I have a terminal heart condition. It is true that our lives are in the future, which is why this condition won't define who I am. I figure God's plan for me is to make people laugh and help them to not worry about what we can't control. Thank you for your lovely stories, I look forward to them.


Penny said...

Good heavens, Paula. A terminal heart condition? I hope it is something that is very long term and treatable and that doesn't cause you pain. I am really, really unhappy to learn that. Of course your mother worries.

MamaT said...

Odd...today I talked to my sister about shopping for a headstone for my mom's grave. She died Aug. 1 and Tues. is her birthday. The following week I will go to her home for the first time since Aug. to start cleaning out (she lived in MO). I used to feel the same way as you about graves. I didn't like to visit them. But when I go back, I will go to mom's grave. Tuesday is also my dad's birthday. He died in 1978. I'm an orphan, too. I miss them so much.