My mother has become the tender of graves, the oldest daughter who dutifully changes out the fake, Valentine’s roses for fake, Easter lilies, who wipes down the granite headstones, who rakes the leaves and clears away the weeds.
We go to Lakegrove Cemetery where my grandfather and my uncle bud are buried. My grandmother goes with us. The three of us crowd into the front of my mom’s black pickup truck, me in the middle, with my legs folded up in front of the staticky radio. The truck winds down a single lane dirt road. We rumble over ancient bridges, past dilapidated old vacant barns and churches, past grazing cattle, and tractors left rusting out in overgrown fields.
My grandmother clearly remembers a story of my uncle Billy cutting down a Christmas tree one year, and a woman named Mable who stopped and questioned him, but after learning he was my grandmother’s son, said he could cut down any tree he wanted.
My mom interjects and says, “I’d have told that old bitch where she could stick it! It wasn’t her land! They weren’t her trees anyway!”
Unfazed, my grandmother points out a ramshackle, old, windowless church that she used to go to on Sundays as a child.
“That church was mentioned in the bible.” She says.
My mother grips the steering wheel tightly, but says nothing. It drives her crazy when my grandmother makes things up.
When we reach the cemetery, I wander around, looking at dates on headstones of strangers who were born and who died a century before I existed. My grandmother wanders around, lost in memory, I guess, or whatever memories she can cling to momentarily. My mother is planting Bermuda grass over her father’s grave.
I wonder if, years from now, I’ll go back to Iola, to change the flowers on her grave?
When my grandfather died, they purchased a joint headstone with my grandmother’s name on it as well.
My grandmother stands in front of her future grave and stares at her own name, and asks my mom, “When did I pass away, Jean?”
My mom breathes in deeply and exhales before saying, “You’re still here, mama.”
“Oh.” My grandmother says. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard her ask this. The past, present and future are all jumbled up for her now.
Moments later she’s already forgotten, and asks if the date on her grave is her birth date, or the day she passed away. Because my mother has forgotten the clippers we have to go back to my grandmother’s and come back to the cemetery again.
On the way back to the cemetery the second time my grandmother tells the same story. “I’ll never forget when your uncle Billy was a teenager, he was cutting down a Christmas tree, and…” Then she pauses because she can’t remember how the story ends now. “Who stopped him?” She asks.
“Mable.” I tell her.
“That’s right.” She says.
My mom starts laughing.
Later we sit around her table and eat lunch, and for a little while, my grandmother almost seems like her old self, and then she asks,“Who’s going to take me home?”
“You are home, mama.” My mother says. To me, she adds, “If I ever get like this, I want you to put a bullet in my head.”
When my aunt comes by to spend the night with my grandmother, my mother and I go back to her house. The five sisters take care of my grandmother in shifts, they leave notes letting her know what day it is, what time to take her medicine, who is going to be spending the night. They have a system, but it’s becoming overwhelming.
In my childhood bedroom, my dad has had the carcass of a deer he murdered stuffed and mounted on the wall like some grizzly trophy.
“He wore me down.” My mom says. “Technically it is his house too.”
I am unnerved by the unblinking, furry head of my new roommate.
“Couldn’t he just take a picture?”
The next morning we head back to my grandmother’s. My aunt Shirley has already left, and when we arrive, my grandmother is sitting in a chair in front of her open doorway, just waiting. She is hardly ever left alone, and then never for more than an hour, but still enough for my mom to worry that she’ll wander off.
“There’s something wrong with the phone.” She says when we get there.
“What’s wrong with it?” My mom asks.
“I called Linda and no one answered.” My grandmother says.
My mother assures her that there is nothing wrong with her phone.
My grandmother stands holding a list of the names and phone numbers of all of her children. My aunts have had it laminated and placed it by her telephone.
“Are these the wrong numbers?” She asks.
“These numbers are all correct.” I assure her, but she’s become fixated on the numbers.
“I just can’t figure it out.” She says, sitting on the loveseat beside me. She’s been going over the list of phone numbers for nearly an hour.
“What are you trying to figure out, Maw Maw?” I ask her.
“This can’t be right.” She says. “Why are all the numbers different?”
My mother starts crying. “I just can’t keep doing this.” She says.
Seeing my mother cry destroys me.
My aunt Linda comes over then, and my mom wipes away her tears, and my grandmother is distracted from the phone numbers. I am relieved that my mom and I are able to get a break again.
I’m made uncomfortable by the knowledge that when I’m not here, this is what my mom deals with on a daily basis. I know that I could never give her the care that she gives my grandmother. This knowledge is a heavy shadow that sits between us all week long.
When my week at home ends, my mother drives me to the airport. We get up before sunrise even though my mom is afraid of driving in the dark, and sit beside one another in her little black car, the one she uses to drive to the city. It rains the whole way.
“You don’t have to go.” She says. “You can stay here.”
I don’t know what to say. I’ll never be the dutiful son. The son who stays. The son who’ll takes care of his family when they get old and feeble. The son who’ll tend their graves. I’ll always be the son who leaves.
At the airport my mom gives me money, even though I tell her that I don’t need it. (I don’t put up much of a fight.) She hugs me and tells me that she loves me. That she wishes I didn’t have to go.
I tell her that I love her too, and then I turn and go to catch my plane.