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"My World is Empty Without You Babe"...Losing Loved Ones - Paying Homage
Andrea Langworthy's newspaper column appears in the Rosemount Town Pages, a Minnesota weekly, and is also posted on her website. She believes every one of life's moments has the potential to become a column or a story and admits she is not above stealing the words right out of her husband's mouth. www.andrealangworthy.com
I was getting nowhere. My mother and I had the same conversation we had last year. And the year before. She insisted on driving from her home in northern Minnesota to Minneapolis (two and a half hours each way) on Memorial Day to place red geraniums on her husband’s grave and I tried to talk her out of it.
“Mom, now that Larry’s gone, don’t you think he realizes all this driving, to put flowers at the cemetery, is unnecessary? He’s not really there, you know.”
I could tell I’d gone too far. “No dear. The last time we made the trip to his sister’s grave, we promised if anything happened to either of us, the one left would continue the tradition. Case closed.” She said a quick good-bye and I said a quick prayer that she’d be safe.
That last Memorial Day of her life, Mom zipped down to Sunset Memorial Gardens in her blue Oldsmobile to pay tribute to her dead husband and his sister. I can see her as if I had been there. So small that only her curly white hair was visible, she looked like a q-tip behind the steering wheel. In a cardboard box in the trunk would be a brown whisk broom, a small gardening shovel and a pair of scissors. And candy-coated peanuts and butterscotch bits, “Just in case.”
She’d be wearing jeans with an elastic waistband, her sweatshirt with American flags embroidered across the front and white Ked’s tennies. She’d have a hankie tucked into her sleeve, “Just in case.”
She’d cut the dead grass from around the grave and make an edging around the stone. She’d plant the geraniums in green tin vases and place them at the top of the marker. She’d gather the grass clippings into a plastic baggie.
I see all this because I accompanied her the first two years after my stepfather died. After that I wasn’t allowed back. Maybe I didn’t take it seriously enough.
Memorial Day was sacred to our family. Every year our parents took the five of us children from Minneapolis to St. Peter to put flowers on the graves of my mother’s parents. Both had died before I was born.
After being cooped up in the car, we children scrambled to the grave site, running between the headstones. “I think it’s this way,” was followed by “No, it’s over there,” before we ended up at the right place. Mom knelt, then Dad, then the five of us. I never knew what to say to these strangers buried beneath the Elmquist stone.
Years later, after Dad’s parents died, we stopped in St. Paul on the way back from St. Peter, to put flowers on their graves. I was thirteen and felt foolish kneeling on the prickly grass. Should I pray to God? Nana and Papa? I clasped my hands, bent my head and moved my lips around. Three years later my parents were divorced; our traveling cemetery show ended.
Mom passed away five years ago. A heart attack. It happened so fast I never got to say good-bye. We drove to Brainerd twice that week. Once to make funeral arrangements and again for the memorial service.
“It’s not that long a drive,” my husband said. “Why didn’t we make it more often?”
“It seemed farther.”
We cleaned out Mom’s car and found the cardboard box with the cemetery tools. “I’ll keep those,” I told my husband.
“I’ll put them in the trunk of your car,” he said. “And some of her candy,” just in case.”
The Memorial Day tradition has fallen to me, the oldest. I buy the red geraniums and head to the cemetery, the box of tools rattling in the trunk. It’s my way of saying everything I would have said in the hospital.
Last year I called my sister. “I’m going to the cemetery tomorrow. Want to go with me?”
“She’s not there, you know.”
“Why go then?”
“It was important to Mom.” I really wanted to tell her that, as second-oldest, she’ll need to carry on when I’m gone.
Our conversation is still bouncing around in my head as I brush the dead grass from the grave marker the next day. I stuff the geranium into the metal cone, stab the pointed end into the ground and add an American flag.
I notice a small woman, about eighty, kneeling not far from me. Her white head is bent as she trims grass away from a headstone. Next to her are a single red flower and a box with a yellow whisk broom and a little shovel. Wearing jeans, a white sweatshirt with an American flag on the front and tennis shoes, she slips a Kleenex from her sleeve and wipes her face.
You’re wrong, I silently tell my sister. She’s here. She’s everywhere.