On Memorial Day, memories of other times
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On Memorial Day, memories of other times

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My first recollection of visiting a cemetery is a still photo image in which I am standing in a crowded circle of people on a very cold day, under a tent with no sides.

In the middle of this crowded circle is an opening in the ground and next to it is a casket. I can't see it very well because the people around me are all taller than I am.

At one point the people step aside so I can come to the front. I am handed a silver thing like a hammer and get the idea that I should shake it to sprinkle holy water on the casket. Instead I hit the casket with the instrument which seems to be the wrong thing to do, but it's OK.

I don't remember how I got to the cemetery or what happened afterward. Or, really, what was going on.

But in ensuing months and years, I understood that my mother had died.

On Sundays after Mass, we'd stop at the cemetery. We'd walk the graveled driveway to the far end where her pink granite stone stood. And then Dad and my brothers would pray, and Dad would always, always cry. 

This is why I did not like to go to the cemetery. I did not like to see my dad cry. It made the whole day sad.

How my brothers felt about this, I don't know. They were 13 and 14 years old. A very vulnerable age, I understand now. But we never talked about it. Not then, not ever.

So cemeteries became in my mind a place of sadness. And it seemed this one was always windy. My mother's grave was at a high point where one could look in all directions and see countryside — farm fields, a small town dominated by a church steeple and, toward the south, towers of a huge grain elevator.

At the very back of the cemetery there was, on a raised concrete stage, a set of four statues depicting the Crucifixion. In the middle was Jesus, hanging from a cross. An unbelievable act of torture. At his feet, three women, their hearts breaking. It wasn't until much later that I realized these women were disciples who, as centuries passed, got written out of the story.

We sometimes visited other grave sites, beginning with one across the gravel driveway and down the slope.

There stood a dark granite stone where "Papa," my mother's father, was buried. In later years, my grandmother joined him.

A little bit up the way was a smaller stone with an oval of a woman's pretty face. This, I learned, was Viola. She was my mother's sister, who died in childbirth when she was 24.

Again, it was only much later that I realized how visiting this cemetery must have grieved my grandmother, mourning two children who died way sooner than they should have.

Back across the gravel driveway and to the north, a stone belonging to my great-grandfather, Augustine. He was the man who left Germany after political violence and eventually settled on a farm just up the road from where I grew up. Another story I learned later. 

Two more stones have been added to our family plot in recent years. One is for my sister who died three years ago — the first of my siblings — and one is for my oldest sister who is still very much alive but wants to make sure all her affairs are in order.

Nowadays when I visit this cemetery, I'm not so sad anymore. Despite losses, I feel lucky to have had the family I did. And as I look at the names on the stones, I feel a sense of history and connectedness, like I have a place in this story. These are my people, generation to generation.

I also feel peace.

These ancestors lived and died and are now, as one of my sisters says, "part of the eternal energy stream." But these markers attest that they once walked the Earth as I do. They laughed, cried, worked, played, loved, fought and dreamed.

They lived, as I do. And I am grateful.

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