As we walked through the graveyard dusk of a late July some 17 years ago, the dead came alive to me. There as the sun lowered to the horizon and the birds settled to bed, Uncle Ernest told stories at grave after grave.
I was writing the story of my grandmother’s life that year and this visit was to fill in the facts with family “color.” I knew the names from books and letters and could recite their years and children. But I knew nothing of who they were, really, beyond the few mentions in local history books.
My great-uncle Ernest was a story teller with a slow drawl and a winking humor. People who grew up in Mayfield, Utah were like that. His wife, the snowy haired Aunt Ruth bore his stories with a patience grown over nearly 70 years of marriage. “Oh, Ernest,” she’d interject when the tales became just a little too wild for her librarian sensibilities.
“This here was Steenie,” he said in his soft voice. “My, she had a hard life.” I knew her as Stena from my notes and she’d married a man named Jacobsen. “My pa would go over to see her, stand on the street because Ras wouldn’t let them near. When Ras was gone, her brothers would bring her food. A hard life.”
He brightened at another grave, that of Zenobia. “She had a frying arm and was always making donuts. ‘Come on in,’ she’d call when we walked down the street and she’d have us in for donuts.”
Uncle Ernest chuckled as he recounted the deeds of his long-gone aunts and uncles, my great-great-aunts and uncles and we laughed along with him.
At nearly 40, I was uninitiated into final sorrow. Death had stolen through my family but twice and my maternal grandparents were 92 and 103 when they died. The forces of death were still a mystery, nothing I had experienced with savage grief.
I didn’t know that July dusk that I was on the cusp of death’s horror; my mother died five months later.
Ernest and Ruth, of course, had seen Mayfield’s cemetery fill with friends and relatives. We paused at my great-grandmother’s monolith and I recalled the sad story of Carrie’s death from childbed fever when my grandmother was a mere 18-months old.
Buried in 1906, Carrie’s death haunted my paternal grandmother and she passed it to me. The night I labored with my second child, I stayed up late reading stories and singing songs to my then 28-month-old first born. I couldn’t bear the thought he might not remember me if I did not survive his sibling’s birth.
Family stories will do that to you.
As a child, I’d always feared being lost, of people forgetting me. Thinking of death left me uneasy: the perpetual loss of personhood. Who would remember me after I was gone?
If I was forgotten, did that mean I never existed?
Uncle Ernest pointed out graves of more people he knew near Carrie and he savored the tales. As the bird calls settled and the headstone shadows lengthened almost to dark, I realized a truth that has held me well.
As long as people remember you with love and stories, you’re never really forgotten.
Fond stories told by loved ones mean the dead can come alive once more.
Uncle Ernest with his laconic wit, bowed gait, and quiet affection, gave me that gift long ago.
Whose story do you need to remember?