Both sets of my grandparents are buried in the same cemetery in suburban Salt Lake. The two graves are literally a stone's throw from each other, on two patches divided by the narrow cemetery road. Because the cemetery in question does not allow raised headstones, driving past it most of the year makes it appear like a set patches of grass. Yet a few weekends a year, it becomes a hotspot of activity, the graves attracting flowers, flags, pinwheels and other tokens of remembrance.
Every year, for Memorial Day weekend (generally early evening on the Sunday), we would go visit these graves. We took irises and, in years past, gallon milk cartons that had been cut open as makeshift vases. The irises would be propped up in the carton and the carton held in place by a bent hanger staked to the ground. Part of this ritual is also the sprucing up of the headstone. My dad would get down on his knees to cut back the grass and brush aside the clippings that have obscured the names.
Because three of my grandparents passed away prior to my memory, these annual trips is the most concrete interaction I have ever had with them. Because I do not remember them being around, it's hard for me to feel much at visiting their graves. These stones mark, essentially, strangers that I owe my existence to. Yet, I know little of them. The one grandparent I do remember, my mom's dad, raises more complicated feelings for me. I remember him well. Visiting his grave does not make me sad or wistful, particularly. But it does call to mind frequently random memories. One of the more frequent ones that appears in my brain is the time my family and he were in the small mining town in western Colorado where he oversaw a mine during his working years. One night, he called us all to the front room. When I got there, he pointed out the moon, how huge and bright it looked that night, a full moon in a place far from city lights. That was the whole reason he called us in. When I say a sense of wonder is one of the most important personality traits, this is the kind of wonder I mean: being so struck by something that you must share it, even if it's the moonrise.
Without fail, we would run into some other contingent from the extended family also visiting the grave at the same time. There are usually a brief encounter, but it's always rather cheerful, a strange juxtaposition with the setting, I think. I mean, is the annual trek one of mourning? One of more positive remembrance? I'm not sure what my parents and their siblings, the children of the bodies lying beneath our feet are feeling. But the habit holds a comforting marker of time for me. Like all traditions, it feels right simply through repetition. Before leaving the cemetery, we take a photo of our group. (How many of these pictures do we have? 10? More?)
This year, I was not in Salt Lake for the holiday. It's not the first time I've missed the cemetery trip. But, I know my family went. And, they took irises, a change from recent years when pre-potted flowers were carried in. Being away, I'm glad to know that the tradition continues. Especially with the irises.