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Twenty Minutes

“Where do you suppose Granny is now?” Ben asks. And because this is my logical husband, I know he is wondering where the casket is that we left above ground at the committal service, and not something more metaphysical.

Ben, his sister Elizabeth and I stop by the cemetery before leaving for the airport to check up on his grandmother, Marjorie. Manchester, Michigan —“Home of the Famous Chicken Broil”—is only big enough for one cemetery, with a sign halfway up the hill informing visitors they are leaving or entering the Catholic or Protestant section.

We can see that her casket is gone and a man is using a crowbar to maneuver the Bentschneider family headstone back into place. We walk over, still in our funeral clothes—too black, too dressy, too East Coast fancy compared to the rest of the family—and the man explains that the headstone won’t be in its final position for another week or so.

“I’m Mike,” the man says. “I take care of the cemetery.”

Mike is a large, heavyset man with curly brown hair. He is sunburned from the work outdoors and has none of the professional solemnity of the funeral home staff.

I glance over at a dark granite marker in the next row bearing the image of what appears to be a Scottish terrier.

“Is that a dog on that headstone?” I ask, half-smiling at the incongruousness of it. “It looks like a photograph.”

“Oh,” he replies, “That’s an etching of a photograph in the granite. That woman took her own life, and apparently the dog was with her when she died. I guess that dog meant everything to her.”

I stop smiling.

Mike remembers Marjorie, Ben and Elizabeth’s grandmother, and talks about how she used to come to the cemetery after her husband died and tell him how bothered she was that every time she came the wreath on the grave was tipped over.

“So I stuck a couple of pieces of wire in it and just kind of jammed it into the ground, and she must’ve thanked me about twenty times after that.”

Ben and Elizabeth smile. This sounds like the Granny they remember, back when she still remembered them.

We look around at the nearby plots.

“The flowers are planted in the ground,” I observe with surprise.

“Oh, yeah,” says Mike. “You can plant anything you want as long as it’s not a tree or a bush, and I’ll mow around it.”

I think about the small-town cemetery in Connecticut where my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents are buried. It sits atop a rise next to a road that used to be a rural route connecting farms and is now a two-lane state highway. The cemetery is composed of small family plots, with an upright marker in gray or rose granite with the family name. Decoration, if any, consists of engraved flowers or tastefully scrolling ribbons. In my family’s plot there are footstones for each individual grave—light gray slabs that list only the names and dates:

Charles F. Pobuda, 1872–1936
Agnes Luxa, his wife, 1879–1906
Elizabeth Moravec, his wife, 1872–1961
Charles F. Pobuda, 1901–1970
Charles F. “Chucky” Pobuda, 1933–1936
Mary M. Pobuda, 1906–1989

The footstones are flush with the ground so they can be mowed over by tractors, and there are only a couple of times a year when flowers of any kind are allowed—a week around Memorial Day and again around Veterans’ Day—and then only in containers that can be thrown away.

I stop by whenever I’m driving down Interstate 84. I usually have the place to myself. There’s an austere serenity about this cemetery, a dignified stillness beyond the breeze and the cars rushing past, and I sit on a little granite bench for a few minutes and let it wash over me.

I used to talk to my grandparents during those visits. Hi, Grammy. Hi Pa. It’s me. How are you? I felt compelled somehow to be polite, to keep up their spirits, to distract them from the terrible thing—death—that was happening to them. But I came to realize that the person to whom their deaths were still happening was me. Loss reverberates through the living, but for the dead it’s a onetime deal.

Now that my grandparents have been gone for 20 and 40 years—half a lifetime—their deaths are finally in my past as well as theirs, and I can leave them undisturbed by inane chitchat. I sit in silence and notice the quality of the light. Sometimes it feels like I can breathe in the quiet.

These days when I think of my grandparents, it’s not when I’m at the cemetery. I’ll see a daddy longlegs climbing up one of my tomato plants and remember how Pa used to pick them up out by our garage, holding them out by one leg.

“Which way’s north?” he’d inquire of the flailing creature as my sister and I watched in fascinated horror as he touched a bug.

When I think of my grandmother it’s most often in my kitchen, cooking paprikash or pork and sauerkraut, which she learned to make as a new bride, following her mother-in-law around the kitchen in Connecticut, measuring spoons and index cards in hand. My mother has those index cards now, and I have the copies that she wrote down for me.

I have index cards in Marjorie’s handwriting as well—a sloppy joe recipe that I raved over the first time Ben took me to her house is now a winter staple in ours. Someday I will make copies for our kids.

The same handwriting, a little shakier, spells out “Benjamin” on the little cardboard jewelry box that Ben’s mother sent after she moved Marjorie into assisted living. It contained a stone arrowhead. Ben rolled it over in his hands and told me how he and his grandfather found it together in the garden when he was little. Marjorie must have held on to it for almost 30 years.

I see that the photo etching in Michigan is a popular technique. We pass graves decorated with tractors, trucks, and one—apparently that of a hunter—that has three separate images: a deer, a fish, and a boat. It strikes me as terribly sad that somebody thinks their life, or their loved one’s life, could be summed up with a picture of a tractor.

I tell myself that it’s meaningful to the person who chose it, that I am being a snob.

Who thought that all there was to you was a tractor? I wonder.

We pass graves decorated with photographs, toys, relentlessly cheerful flowers in plastic baskets, and one that is maxed out: teddy bear, flowers, dream catcher, and multiple open letters attached to stakes in the ground.

I don’t look for the name or dates on the stone. I don’t want to feel sympathy for the person who created this tacky monument to her own grief, which looks like a dollar store exploded in the middle of the cemetery.

And yet.

Those letters are only a more concrete expression of the need I felt to make small talk with my grandparents. This is a death that is still happening.

Someone spent his entire life at the backbreaking labor of running a farm. Someone lost hope and died in a suicide, alone except for her Scottie. Marjorie used to worry about the wreath on her husband’s grave, but then she got Alzheimer’s and died. The stones tell the facts, but the real monuments are recipe cards and arrowheads. Only the people who loved you can tell the story.

– K. T. Landon is a software engineer at a research institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and lives outside of Boston with her husband, Ben. She is a Pushcart nominee and her essays have appeared in The Dos Passos Review, The Fourth River, The Journal, The Rambler, and Red Cedar Review.