A recent trip to a local cemetery for research reminded me of one of my favorite stories, although it is sad.
My wonderful grandmother had ten children. Two children did not make it to adulthood. The deaths of her children were tragic and she never got over them. But raising the other six took all the money available and my aunt and uncle’s graves never were marked with a headstone. Using my contacts in Elberton, Georgia (Tombstone Capital of the World), I was able to purchase two small footstone size markers for their graves.
When the markers were complete I traveled to Elberton to get them and bring them back. Back home in Elgin, my Dad and I asked grandmother if she wanted to go with us to place the stones. This is when I learned that visiting their graves had been something she could not bring herself to do for the years since their death. But for a grandchild, she would do anything.
Our first stop was the graveyard where her newborn son was buried. She entered the well kept little church yard and stopped. “I.. I… I don’t know where they put him,” she said. “I was sick and he was just a few hours old….”
What had I done? I couldn’t even address her or the pain in her face at that moment. “Daddy, can we just set it down here?” I said, pointing to a spot near a fence. “I’m sure somebody will know where it goes. I’ll call some of the church people.”
Daddy undoubtedly felt as I did. “Yeah. Mama, would that be all right?”
She nodded. We set the stone down. I left a note on the parsonage door and we got into the car.
“Grandma, are you OK? Do you want to go home?”
“No, I want to do this,” she said quietly.
Just a minute down the road was the second graveyard, where her daughter was buried after a terrible accident. She was just a toddler when she was killed. Here, Grandma knew where her daughter was buried, but she was surprised to see that someone had placed some landscape coping around the grave and just generally made it as lovely as they could. We placed the first stone and walked away to give her a few minutes with the spot.
“Hush. It’s good to do this. Give her a minute,” Daddy said.
A few minutes later, Daddy gently took her elbow, “Mama? You ready to go?” She nodded and he led her to the car.
In a few days, Grandma called me and thanked me for taking care of her babies. A few months later, she had the heart attack and subsequent stroke that killed her.
We gave her a beautiful stone.
I initially meant to post this closer to July 4, 2011, but I let it sit in my drafts for a while.
On September 11, 2001, I experienced extreme trauma as the attacks on our nation occurred and I watched on TV as the Twin Towers fell. I remember vividly sending my toddler son out to play in the backyard because I didn’t want him to see. My infant son napped peacefully in his crib. I was on my knees in front of the TV, begging God for mercy for those inside the Towers. I’ll never forget that I saw people jumping from the buildings, saw people running from the fiery Pentagon, heard that yet another plane had crashed in Pennsylvania.
Subsequently, I’m sure I’ve got a bit of Post Traumatic Stress from that experience. Clearly from my own making, of course. I could have turned the TV off, but then again, how could I? It seems now that it would have almost been irreverent to snuff out what was happening by flipping a switch; almost like it didn’t matter to me.
The good news is that all over the United States, the events of that day renewed our sense of patriotism and loyalty to our country. My boys are growing up to have respect for the flag and for the soldiers who fight to defend it. Their uncle and their grandfather have the standing of superheros in their eyes because they served our country in war.
The other part of this PTSD that I’m really not all that worried about is that I always cry on the Fourth of July. An American flag flapping around brings immediate tears. Mandatory gear for watching a parade includes some tissues.
On Sunday, July 3 of this year our church had a service of honor for veterans and members of the U.S. Armed Forces, along with law enforcement, fireman and medical personnel. They sat them on the front rows as we paid homage to what they’ve done.
I did great until the end of the service. Our pastor asked for a moment of silence for those who had paid the ultimate price in service to our country. During the silence, the sound of weeping was heard. I strained to hear where it was coming from. It was coming from those front rows of the church, where those grown men wept openly and tried to comfort each other.
It tore me up, but I realized it wasn’t the sound that got me. It was their tears for friends lost, for the things they’ve seen, for the things they’ve had to do. It was tears for what they know that others are doing right now on foreign soil. They can comfort each other because they alone know what it is they need comfort for.
I can’t cry for those reasons. I’ve never been in the military. But I cry too. I cry out of respect for what little I understand about what they’ve done. Their sacrifice means my children live free. These men and women daily lay down their lives for my children’s freedom and protection just as I would.
My tears and respect are the only way I can try to repay the incredible debt I owe to them.
Of all the things I quote most often in my job, this phrase is tops. It was coined by my grandfather and describes his feelings toward some pastors he’s seen. However, I see it everyday at work. Parents who are correct in wanting a college education for their child, but incorrect in making the education belong to the parent and not to the student.
It’s an interesting paradigm. As parents, my husband and I are absolutely charged with helping our children make good decisions. We base our knowledge on what we read and what we’ve been told, but more largely on our own set of experiences. On the other side, our boys must learn and have experiences of their own. They must make mistakes on their own. Their triumphs must be their own.
So while I would love for my son to listen to me and take only the classes that I know are going to prepare him for college; I can’t walk him to the college advisor and pick his classes. I can advise, but ultimately, if he stupidly takes all his electives during his freshman year – that’s his mistake. My job as a college advisor gives me knowledge to help. My job as a parent means I can only offer help, I can’t force it.
This week I listened to a fellow parent lament the choices their child had made. It was heart wrenching to hear. But my sympathy abruptly ended when they described in detail the new car, and the apartment off campus they were going to pay for while their sweet delinquent was in his third college in one year.
My question to myself: “At what point do I realize that my sons’ mistakes (and triumphs) are not a reflection on me?” To take credit or blame is not helping my boys become real men. And without a sense of independence, this world will eat them for breakfast.
Right now, I’m listening to a man cleanse his soul and prepare for death.
My maternal grandfather, my Papa is the sweetest man I’ve ever known. He’s seen it all – tragedy beyond my capacity to write here, hard times, good times, scraping and trying to survive. He’s come through it all with a genuine love for people of all kinds and receives such love and respect in return.
A few weeks ago, he gave me a handful of cassette tapes and asked me to transcribe them. So every night, I’m sitting at the kitchen table with my laptop, headphones and an old cassette player. Play, stop, rewind. Type. Repeat.
But there’s more than a mechanical process going on here. Right now, I’m the sole spectator to a person trying to come up with a way to summarize their life. What an awesome task. On tape, he keeps reminding me that he’s preparing to die. He is cleansing his mind of all the wonderful stories he wants remembered. He has become the keeper of the tales that sum up his family and he wants the world to know they existed, that they loved, and who they were so that in the future, my family can understand who we are.
It’s a special time for me, almost holy. It’s just me and my Papa, with his voice in my ear, telling me the stories of his life. There are occasional sermonettes (my Papa is after all, a minister), but even those are woven into phrases that leave me awestruck. What if I had been forced to live the way my Papa and his 15 brothers and sisters during the worst of the Great Depression? Would I have emerged a person like my Papa?
In my Papa’s words: “Well anyway, you can say whatever you want to say, but I’m somewhere around 84 or 85. God only knows the real truth about it. But that’s not all that important. God has allowed me to live in this beautiful wonderful world these many years and the best is yet to come. Oh, I may be checking out of this old place almost anytime. Not many people live as long as I have lived. Especially to see and know some of the things that I’ve seen.”
An outlook on life from a person who’s seen a lot.