Each year, my grandmother would plant bulbs around the periphery of her house, and one of things I always looked forward to was monitoring their growth. Few things were as satisfying in my young life as the day when we’d inevitably pull into the driveway to see that their green stalks had started to poke through the soil. As a child, it felt as though I was racing against nature to see which of us would grow the most in the long, dark days of winter.
Grandma spent months preparing to plant, waiting for the reward of the first signs of color on a tulip’s head or the yellow faces of her daffodils shining out in a ring around the light pole or by her back door’s stairs. She tucked away coffee cans, stockpiling her supplies until it was time to make her pilgrimage, just a few miles away, to finish her planting season.
In my father’s family, we are taught at a very young age to respect and honor our dead. Gravesites are sacred, and no stone should ever be left unadorned. This rule is so nonnegotiable that when I lost a cousin a few years ago, my aunt dispatched me at the crack of dawn to ensure that every other family grave in the plot had fresh arrangements on it because she did not want anyone at the gravesite to see faded roses or dirty ribbons among our family’s lost members.
Although no one wants to openly admit it, we all understand that this family principle is a little unorthodox, especially now that we are scattered across city and state lines. Yet, we have been so indoctrinated with its importance that we do not hesitate when we are called on to carry out the task, even when we—okay I—would never be confused with a florist.
At its core, my family believes that in honoring those who have come before us, we are also reminding the world that each and every person whose timelines are now etched in stone was loved. That with daisies and potted Christmas poinsettias, we are sending out a subtle message: here lies someone who mattered, who existed, and who left behind some form of legacy. With each moment spent at the base of yet another headstone, hands dirty and knees coated in grass and mud, we are remembering a life even when we did not know the one who lived it.
Spring has always been my favorite season. I love the way the long nights gradually fade into longer days and how bare branches begin to fill in with greens and pinks and whites. Spring reminds me of possibilities, of the potential it promises in its showers and impending blooms. I love the first sightings of buds bursting, the return of the wildlife that abandoned us for warmer weather or warmer beds, and the smell of growth on the air.
Yet for every reason that I love this time of year, there is one that overshadows them all and replaces them with an emptiness so profound that I have struggled to describe it for over two decades. Twenty-seven years ago, I lost my father. It was April, and I was barely 14 at the time of his accident; it would take years before I fully comprehended what that loss would mean for me. At the time, I simply did not understand the depth of my grief or the glimmer of comfort I would eventually seek to find at the foot of his grave.
Each visit home, I stop by Trinity’s cemetery to pay my respects. Most of the time, I bring fresh flowers from Food Lion’s grab-and-go options with me. I pause to say hello to an aunt I lost to cancer, the woman who made me laugh and who showed me the value of a good stash of make-up and skin care products. I lay a mix next to my grandmother’s name, always choosing something bright as a reminder of the days when she and I would play a guessing game of which color would appear once the blossom unfolded.
I save my parents’ graves for last, and as I pull weeds or brush off leaves, I silently fill them in on my life. Sometimes I laugh as I share a story or a bit of gossip with my Mom; more often, I cry tears of memories—for the ones I was able to share with them and the ones they have missed making with me.
As I tidy up their plot, I always worry that a high wind or torrential downpour will destroy the flowers I leave before they have a chance to wilt and fade on their own. I spread the flowers out, keeping their stems together in the hopes that the cumulative weight will help keep them in their place, even if it is for a short time. In my heart, I know that these roses and the greenery are symbolic only to me, but I was raised never to disobey or disappoint my Grandma, and even though she’s been gone almost 14 years, I am not willing to test the fates.
I carry out my grandmother’s tradition not so much for me but for her and the lessons she worked to teach me in her quiet way. Along with how to make a bed, how to scrub a floor, and how to make a fruitcake, she believed I should know how to make the hole lost loved ones leave behind feel less hollow. That legacies are worth tending, and time spent in remembrance is never wasted.
In those days spent scooping dirt and dropping seeds, she showed me that grief will never go completely away, but it will fade into life and laughter and long days where the sun will shine even when it feels like there is nothing but the darkest of skies ahead. Most importantly, she taught me that those we pause to remember were real; that each and every one of us matters; and that I am loved.