Well, folks, the family came to Here, Kansas, from all over for Memorial Day. They drove all morning from Kansas City and Topeka, from Amarillo and Denver and Pueblo.
They stretched their legs for five minutes, then climbed back into vehicles to spend the afternoon visiting all the little country cemeteries where this and that family member lies in eternal rest.
Usually, I lead the caravan because I'm the only one who can find my way to the cemeteries: New Dawn, to Sunrise, to New Day Acres, then to Center Township Cemetery, All Saints Burial Ground and finally to Mount Hope. You've seen these small cemetery plots, surrounded by cedar on three sides, with an iron archway set starkly over the entrance. Dirt roads, volunteer maintenance crews, ants and peonies everywhere, and room to spare. These cemeteries witness the existence of communities you can't imagine from the sparse farmhouses, dead and dying towns you drive through to find your family tombstones.
Now, on Memorial Day we remember our loved ones who have passed on. I like to hear my children and grandchildren explain the family relationships to their children: "great-aunt," and "second-cousin-once-removed" and "your uncle's-sister's-husband's-stepfather." But, memorial, or memory, also means we have to remember just how to get from one little cemetery to the other efficiently--that is, before dark. There are no signs; some can be reached from only one direction; sometimes, if a little one-lane bridge is out, you have to dig deep into your memory for an alternate route.
Which brings me to this year. Folks, I know I'm getting old. For years I've been leading the caravan from cemetery to cemetery, nosing my way by instinct to where I've made so many Memorial Day pilgrimages. This year, I thought it was time to let someone else find the way, give someone else the same map in the head, the same feel for the back roads that I've spent years creating. So my son drove, and I sat in the passenger seat of his van, trying to stay quiet, as though my headstone was in one of these little cemeteries, and my son had to find it on his own.
The boy took out north, jogged east along No-mile Creek, climbed the rise next to Jenkins' hog farm, and nestled the caravan right down to New Dawn Cemetery. He found his way from there to Sunrise, and only made one wrong turn on his way to New Day Acres; he realized his mistake before I said a word--but you can imagine trying to back five vehicles down a one-lane road with no turn-around. Then, on his way to Center Township Cemetery, he missed the one road with the one bridge over There Creek, and took us ten miles out of the way. I had to speak up. And when he became hopelessly turned around between All Saints and Mount Hope, I could not tell him what to do. I had to take the wheel, because I had to feel the road under the tires, and sense the landmarks--get there by instinct. Way past dark we stood looking at my father's grave. "Thanks for getting us here, pa," said my son. "Maybe next year I'll figure out the way."
"Until then," I said, "I guess I'd better stay alive."
"Or draw a good map on your deathbed," he said. Everybody laughed, out there at Mount Hope, the sky busting out in stars.