How my grandmother’s last choice, where to be buried, was for us, not her
She always wanted to be buried with “her people.” The way she defined that term changed, and changed me.
Six months after my grandfather died, my grandmother told us she wanted to be buried beside him after all.
“I was born in Goffstown, New Hampshire,” she had reminded us regularly. “That’s where my people are. I want you to take me over there and bury me with them.”
“OK,” her four grandchildren would say. “We’ll take you there.” Sixty years into their marriage, my grandfather would listen silently.
For all the time I knew them, my grandparents lived on a bucolic piece of Maine farmland that had come down through my grandfather’s family. My grandmother never learned to drive, so my grandfather took her to her church — the Episcopal church — on Sunday morning and sat in the car at the curb, reading.
She went to church for far more than religion. She went for a chance to dress up, to see people, to shed the isolation of her life, and to remind herself that she was distinct from her husband. I know she yearned for more than the path she wore between the washing machine and the stove, a dusting of flour on her face.
“Well, tell us about the world,” she would say, sitting down at the kitchen table. She would marvel at the ease with which my sisters and I flew back and forth to college, used computers, made our way around the globe.
My grandfather’s family has a plot in the cemetery behind his church — the Congregational church. They are all buried there under a big maple tree at the intersection of two walking paths, the order of names and dates spelling out the hardship of their lives. Mothers who died in childbirth replaced by new wives who raised children who were not their own.
But my grandmother had a story of her own, hardships that had not been adequately appreciated. A father who died when she was 3, someone she never really knew but loved anyway. A mother left alone with three small children. The stepfather who raised them. The sister and brother she had not seen in years. And so she let us know that, in the end, she was going home.
After my grandfather died, my grandmother was the first to notice that my sisters and I made a habit of stopping at his grave to say hello. She was the first to see that we were building a community with our ancestors.
Then one day, she announced that she thought she could be buried in the family plot after all. She wanted visitors. She wanted to be part of the family.
It was only as her ashes were lowered into the ground in the cold light of that Maine day that I realized. Suddenly, I realized everything. The loneliness, the fear, the dilemma of her choice. A choice that ensured that her children and grandchildren would stay in touch. A choice that acknowledged that women lose their own stories in bringing their children’s stories to life.
I felt her overwhelming need to go back to her own story in death. Her story is my story, is every mother’s story. Mothers desperate to be near their own mothers as life grows short, yearning to end life as they began it, folded into the warm, loving arms of the one who brought them into the world.
Now I stand at her grave. I hear her voice, I smell her cooking. My memories all take place on the farm. So I am careful to reach back through the years to her mother, and her mother before that — women I never knew but know well. Women who loved in many places. Women who had to choose, as they said goodbye to life, between the everlasting love of their mothers and their children, between the past and the future.
I run my fingers over her name. “It’s OK,” I say. “It’s OK. We are all here.”