Memorial Park Meditations

Kaitlyn Wintermeyer

I park my car at the gate, near the stone that reads "Oregon Township Cemetery" and step into the frigid air and blustering winds of November in Iowa. I'm here to take a walk I haven't taken in a long time. Nanny and Grandpa Max are in the far corner of the park, so I make my way down the slope via the gravel path, avoiding the puddles from the recent rain. A few headstones are decorated with plaques and small tokens. The only flowers to be seen are artificial. When Nanny and Grandpa's comes into view, it stands out among the crowd. Their plot shows a lot about who they were in life. A wind chime hangs from an iron hook; their back porch was always filled with the tinkling of such treasures. At the base of the hook is a sculpture of cowboy boots, one slumped over at the ankle, weakened by wear, just as Grandpa Max's could be found at the back door of the house. The marker is surrounded by flowers and statues; the mailbox from their house was brought here after Nanny died. Over the years, it has filled up with wedding pictures, graduation announcements, and grade school art projects. A small journal is kept inside so that each family member and friend may share what's on his or her mind. Everything in the book is public; reading each other's entries is a way to stay in touch and understand the feelings we all have in common. The other tokens left here seem somewhat inappropriate; the family always had a hard time convincing Nanny and Grandpa to accept gifts in life. Aunt Norma wrote on Mother's Day "You never expected anything grand from any of us. Just a kiss and a hug would make your day."

The frosty wind shoots down the collar of my jacket. Is it the rush of air at my face making my eyes water? I reach into the mailbox and open the notebook to a page written in April by my own mother: "The grass is greening up, I have some flowers blooming. Dad would be itching to get in the field." I look up and take in the view from Nanny and Grandpa's place. Rolling hills of farmland expand to the horizon in one direction. Through the steam of her morning coffee, Nanny always watched the farm machinery rolling along outside her kitchen window. Adjacent to the well kept grass of this place is a pasture for cattle. Grandpa can watch over them like he did in his young farming days. The well kept grounds remind me of Nanny's dedication to her flower beds and to tending the park across the street from their house. They both followed Mary Blew's philosophy that "Opportunity lies in the teeth of the sickle bar." Working was an important part of daily life for them.

Sour green spring to
gilded gall, the perfect place.
Watch time pass from here

As I reach again into the mailbox, a stack of photos slides off the mound of sealed cards and notes in the back. My cousin Marcy has left them here, judging by the handwriting on the back. The one on top shows my second cousin Sarah on her grandpa's lap. She's so lucky. Grandpa Max was gone before I knew him; I was still in diapers. My older cousins each have their favorite story of him, and when I was little I swore I shared their memories. Not because I wanted to fit in, but because I'd heard them all so many times that I thought I really was there. He walked with Elicia and Will near the railroad tracks and they stopped to watch deer dashing into the trees. I've heard this story so many times from my sister that I can see the deer, feel Grandpa's strong hands pressed against my infantile tummy, comfortingly powerful. Maybe my need for nature walks comes from him, a little grain of Grandpa Max that is stuck with me.

In the old albums are pictures of each of the grandkids having a turn on Grandpa's lap in his old brown recliner. There aren't any photos of his lap overflowing. He made each child feel special for the time they got with him, like they were the only tow people in the world, even though the house was bursting with family. Grandpa Max time was sacred. I must have had a turn, too, but I have no snapshot to pretend to remember it by. I want to remember cuddling up to him, watching a toe poke through the hole in his gray old sock, squirming from the stubble on his chin. Surely he must have played patty cake or told me a story or just lulled me to sleep with the rise and fall of his chest. I'll go on remembering it that way, assuming that's how it happened.

Gentle green slope
gravity pulls everything
running down to this place

How often did Nanny take this walk, before she came to join Grandpa here? I came with her once, helped her hang a new basket of flowers from the shepherd's hook. I never saw her cry. She must have; she loved him since they met at the age of fourteen. I've seen pictures of them together, she in a tweed skirt and a cardigan, deep lipstick and hair perfectly assembled, standing in heels with a love struck grin while he threw an arm around her neck, his face smudged with dirt and his pants ill-fitting. They were so young then, before the three generations that grew from their love. Even the photos that are printed in color, taken decades into their marriage show that look of deep love. Nanny and Grandpa understood what Thoreau meant when he said "What is the singing of birds, or any natural sound, compared with the voice of the one we love?" They always had fun with each other; their children never saw them fight although they teased each other constantly. I carry a letter he sent to her while serving in World War II: "I'm sitting here at the window making eyes at the gals as they pass. Ha, Ha, Ha, No I was just joking, there is some passing by but I just looked once." Mom told me that she never saw Nanny cry after Grandpa died, that she made sure the rest of the family was okay before she took care of her own grief. After she passed away, my aunts found her journal and read the pages after Grandpa's death. Her tears had dried between the pages, leaving their indelible marks. She didn't write about being angry or confused about his passing; she wrote about the smile he gave her when he left the house that day.

Clay earth mound, eerie
reminder, a new neighbor
joins her husband here

Inside the mailbox is a small brass trinket depicting an eagle with spread wings. No words are found to explain its reason for being tucked so carefully inside. None are needed; we all understand the meaning. I was twelve when I followed the cemetery trail as part of a procession. On the ride from the funeral home to this place, a bald eagle soared overhead, and I tried to concentrate on the field trip my class had scheduled for the next week to watch the raptors over the Mississippi. Mom saw the bird, too and somberly recalled how Grandpa had lover to watch them fish. "Maybe that's him, coming to bring her home," she said misty-eyed. We all smiled to ourselves, wishing, but not believing that her notion could be true. As we stepped out of the parked car, the bird still circled above us. I recall behind my parents to the gravesite, longing to hold my father's hand, but lagging behind as he comforted my mother; she needed him more than I did at the time. I plodded over the ground beside my older sister, feeling absolutely empty inside. The walk that day seemed so long that I thought the cemetery must have expanded away from their plot since the last time I had been here. The eagle we had seen earlier rested in a tall oak nearby. I think the burial service was short; all I remember is my mom's face as she placed a rose over the casket before it was lowered into the earth. Afterward, as the whole family was walking to Norma's for some quiet time and comfort food, another eagle joined the first, and we watched them sail higher and higher into the icy February sky. Uncle Rich put everyone's thoughts to words: "Look, he came to get her." The walk was much easier with the two of them watching from overhead, reunited at last. They couldn't stand to be apart from each other, so the war was hard on them. He wrote "Darling have you got any of my letters yet? I hope so. I got a letter one day from you this week. Baby it sure makes me feel good to hear from you, it sure gets lonesome when you don't hear from the one you love. Boy I am getting home sick. I'm getting tired of this stuff over here. Wouldn't it be something to get off in New York."

Scraggly old tree, don't
fall, though you want to; they may
perch on you once more

My cousin Jackie wrote in the notebook on a summer day. "Savana is singing to you while write. So sweet. It makes Madison sad to talk about you, but Savana loves to hear Nanny stories." Maddy is part of a tradition that makes Memorial Day so special for our family. Every year, we sit together in the gym at Ainsworth Elementary on the edge of town, listen to others speak, try to keep the babies quiet. Aunt Sandy nods along in agreement with the veteran at the microphone while tearing open a snack for Jacob. When it's over, we cross the street to the cemetery. Everyone seems to have a hand to hold; mine is always Madison's. She'll be eleven this year; I hope she doesn't think she's too old for this, because I need her little squeeze more than she needs mine. We stop at the old women distributing carnations and pick one up, looking for a grave with a marker before the salute begins. always say a little prayer for the man I'm standing over, wondering why his family isn't here to show their appreciation and love for him. When the horn begins playing Taps, I drop my blossom. Next, Maddy will come back and we'll walk hand in hand to join the rest of the family with Nanny and Grandpa. Norma and Sandy always make their way around the group giving hugs to each family member. They're the best at that; Dad even hugs back and says "Love you, too." when they get to him. We all join hands, creating a huge ring around the headstone, and Sandy prays, giving thanks for the circle of love that Nanny and Grandpa created, sending wishes of health to the few family members who are missing, and asking for the protection of all those serving the country. Next, Norma reads a short poem or letter she's written and congratulates the new graduate and tells the expecting couple how excited the family is to meet the new baby. hardly and eye is tearless after Sandy's prayer, and by the time Norma's finished, everyone is giggling. The circle is broken and we hug our neighbor and talk about the news in our lives. On the way back up the path, Madison and I stop at the flag the ladies auxiliary has raised in remembrance of our grandfather. She has the same false memories of him as I do, and we talk about our grandparents as we head through the gate.

Rows of flags look like
the soldiers they represent
guarding the path, proud

Today's walk is easier, just stopping in to say hello. I want to talk to them about college and see if I'm making them proud. I've never done this alone, but I'm glad I came by myself because I also need to explain some of the mistakes I've made lately. I want them to know I'm trying to become more like they were while they were here. As I kneel down, pen in hand, I read the last entry in the book, written by my cousin Michelle, after hearing of her father's diagnosis of cancer. "I worry about the grandkids in that they will (not) know him the way we have - kind, caring, relaxed, and so very sentimental. Smile down on us and pray a prayer with us for Dad to live beyond his prognosis and enjoy those around him much longer than expected." That was just a few weeks ago, but it doesn't worry me too much, because I know how the story ends. I begin my own entry: "Kenny and Norma are off to Mayo Clinic again today, everyone was so glad to get the news that the damage is reversible. Everyone was so worried when the doctors gave such a grim outlook; it's great to know that everything will be ok. I know I've let you down a little lately, but I guess I've got to make some mistakes in order to learn from them, right? I hope you're proud of how I'm growing up. The family you built has shaped me into who I am. Thanks for watching out for me in my new journey. We're all still thinking about you, like Proverbs 10:7 says 'The memory of the just is blessed.'"

Late autumn; nature
tries to hold out, stay alive
still some life left here

 

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