Go Visit the Dead

It's a left turn off the main drag, past the house with the high stone foundation, up and down a couple of green hills that get greener and shadier. At the dip in the road is the entrance to Riverside Cemetery, headstones spread out on the hills on both sides of the road. The main entrance is an always-open wrought iron gate next to a white shed with hand-written signs posted on the side listing the little rules. No planting flowers. Pots left after the season will be upturned. Cemetery workers will not water the plants. You must do this yourself.

When my mother died, my father filled a large urn with big artificial flowers, fake geraniums mostly. I was baffled by this, why he made this choice for her. And then figured that he had been overly intimidated by the emphatic signs at the gate. Better to have artificial flowers year-round than have live things die for lack of watering. He lived 90 miles away and though he could still tool his Lincoln Continental over the two-lane roads of western Michigan, sometimes going so fast over hills that he'd go a little airborne, the Steve McQueen of Hastings, he was 89. He was 89 and he was widowed and after sixty-four years of marriage, he was a very lonely guy. He told me going to the cemetery made him feel worse but he needed to go to make sure Mom's headstone stayed looking nice.

So when my father died, I resolved to tend the artificial flowers.

But how does one tend artificial flowers? I thought they should be changed every year. I'd look around at the headstones with artificial flowers and could tell right away which ones hadn't been visited in a while. The reds had faded to pink, the blues to gray, the good intent to next year. I didn't want their graves to be so obviously forgotten.

Not an artist or decorator or even a decent dresser, I'd stare at the bank, the sea, of artificial flowers at the Hastings Walmart, not having a single clue about how to put a bouquet or arrangement together that would look nice in the big urn my Dad had planted to the side of my mother's headstone. All of this looks like shit, I thought, year after year. My husband would wait in the car, napping. He didn't care how long I was in Walmart. I wondered to myself, why have we driven all this way so I could pay my respects to Walmart?

So I would take the new bunch of artificial flowers and try to arrange them. This year purples, next year yellows and orange. As a tribute to my bird-loving father, I'd scatter a full bag of thistle seed on his grave so the finches would come hang out. It wasn't one of the rules on the signs but it still made me feel renegade to do it, toss those seeds all over.

Last, I'd gather up a few rocks and put them on my folks' headstones. It's a Jewish thing, my son told me one year, to let people know you were there. So he told me and I did it. And then, every year, when no one was looking, I would bend down and kiss my parents' headstones. I'd tell them I love them, something I never did while they were alive, and I would smooth away the little fine twigs and wipe away the moss. When we drove away, I'd feel glad that I'd come but unhappy about the flowers. A good daughter would have real flowers, tend them, water them.

So after a few years of the artificial flower gambit, I decided to go live. I filled the urn with dirt and planted real geraniums and marigolds, plants I remembered from when I was a kid, plants I thought could take a lot of neglect. I felt good about this. I felt like I'd taken ownership of this job. I wasn't doing the headstone decoration task like my father had decided to do it. I decided my folks deserved the real deal so I made it happen.

Then I figured out that I could pay the cemetery folks to fill a can with water and walk up the hill to water my folks' plants. So I did that. They send me a bill on a postcard that looks like it was written in 1956 and I send them a check. I assume the plants get watered; I don't really know because I only visit once a year. I leave with the pot nicely planted and come back when it's overturned. So I have to take it on faith, as they say.

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