Scout groups clean up after Christmas--all the wreaths and pine boughs and fake poinsettias and so forth that sit on graves through December and by now look generally awful. They come out in late January and clean it all up. We were going to do it regardless of weather and attendance, but it was nice that it was also a good walk through the national cemetery and satisfying work. We had a section to work on with several other groups. I touched base with some boy scout adults who aren't quite ready to make the switch (essentially come out of the closet as something or someone the BSA doesn't approve of--it's hard to leave an organization that gives you and your kids so much even if they think you're sinners--hmm, know of any other large organizations like that?).
Our instructions were to clean up everything autumn or Christmas related. We could leave things that were spring flowers, we were to leave all American or military flags, and not bother stones or coins on top of the gravestones. I knew about stones on top but I'd never seen coins. Throughout the morning, I didn't see coins either, but some stones, mostly on grave markers with the Star of David above the name, but some with crosses too. I like that tradition. So neat and tidy and symbolic and lovely.
While we were finishing up Daisy asked me if I knew anyone buried here. Yes, I told her: a friend's dad, both my grandfathers, one of my grandmothers (the other still living), my grandmother's brother, my grandfather's brother...I sighed. My uncle could be buried here, but he's still alive. I thought through a family tree but stopped. That was enough.
"Can we visit any of their graves?" she asked.
"Yes, that would be fine, if my face isn't frozen by the end of this."
It wasn't frozen, and I went back to the administration building and looked them up. My dad's dad was in a section I couldn't find on the map until I realized it was a Memorial Section. I assumed, correctly, that this meant there was no body. It's not a marker for a burial. He donated his body to science, to the university I graduated from, and ashes were interred elsewhere. But the national cemetery still puts up a marker in a Memorial Section. Some are situations like my grandfather's, and some are situations where a body is never found--a man lost at sea, for instance, is a few markers down from my grandfather's stone.
Jake pulled the truck over and I could see the words before I got out of the truck. And suddenly I realized this wasn't going to go well for me.
I approached with Jake and Daisy--Billy was exhausted and on his way to a nap, and Fiona finds the whole concept macabre. I saw them, the first pennies of the whole day, some tradition I am not aware of, two little brown coins on top of his marker. Face side up, lucky pennies. Without having to ask, Jake dug into his pocket and pulled two out. Daisy and I added ours. I didn't know who had placed them, I didn't know when or even why, but there they were. Someone else had been here, recently, and that was comforting and eerie.
I couldn't get myself together and I kept laughing at myself while I cried. Jake pointed out that this was a normal thing to have happen in a cemetery and I agreed. We got back in the truck and drove down a few sections--past thousands of graves--to my mom's parents. I'd visited them before, and this wasn't hard. Daisy trotted over with me, chatting about the symbols on the markers, the few rocks sitting on top of one with a star instead of a cross, her voice a steady stream of commentary.
She did the math on my grandparents' stone, how old, differences in age, while I watched a doe and her two fawns trot past us like we weren't even there.
I posted on Facebook while Jake drove home, about the visit and the pennies. My cousin commented. They were his, and his wife's, put there a few months ago when he visited. "We went down there not too long after my Mom passed. A doe was hanging out by his grave, I like to think that was my Mom coming to visit and say hello."
I immediately thought about the doe and her fawns and I wrote him back to let him know they'd been there. And then I curled up on the couch and cried a bit.
Thought of you as everything
I've had but couldn't keep
I've had but couldn't keep
Linger on, your pale blue eyes