My heart is heavy with ache sometimes in the summer, when memories of my maternal grandmother are as sharp as the juicy wild berries we picked from the overgrown lots near her home.
Summer memories are a mix of sweaty neon-colored metal cups filled with root beer floats; the hum of the oscillating fan perched atop her ice box; the creaking wooden swing in her yard that made our stomachs flutter; and the bulbous concord grapes dangling from the vine on the back fence.
The deep-purple bulbs fooled us into tasting them every time and then, repulsed by the thick skin and hidden seeds, we leaned over the wooden fence and spat skin and guts into the alley before she caught us. At a certain point in the season we moved into her cool basement, where there was a chalkboard on the wall and an extensive comic book collection to keep us away from the boiling pots on the gas stove. It was canning time, when grandma magically transformed those foul grapes into sweet preserves.
Tradition is the only explanation for the basement kitchen, a standard feature in my Polish/Italian neighborhood. Although my house did not have one, the hub of many a friend’s home was the basement kitchen, often ruled by a wooden-spoon wielding matriarch who spoke little English, stood about five feet tall, and was universally feared. My grandmother was one of those diminutive matriarchs guided by family tradition.
Although grandma probably never heard of the Confucian practice of filial piety, she devoted herself to ancestor worship. She lighted votive candles in church to pray for the sick and the dead, created alters in her home for the departed, dedicated Masses on death anniversaries, and much like the canning process, once a summer we accompanied her to the cemetery to tend to the family plot.
Edged in wrought iron fencing and shrouded by a forest of mature trees, the cemetery’s clipped green lawns and upright tombstones are an anomaly to the urban ruins outside its gates. On those summer mornings, before the full heat unleashed its wrath upon the concrete and brick landscape, my grandma coaxed us into her air-conditioned Chevrolet jammed with flowers, gardening tools, and a tin of cookies and card games to keep us occupied. She navigated those winding cemetery roads that rolled past rows of tombstones and mausoleums until we reached the right spot on the hill. There, grandma spread out an old towel, kneeled, and whispered several rounds of prayer before she began gardening. I waited, swatting flies and squinting against the sun, staring up at the spaces between the branches, where blue poked through dappled green, and wondered what it was like to be under the ground, inside a box.
We talked about the people under the stones, their lives, how they died, and how we all were part of a long, interconnected network. This is where I first learned of the concept of a “half sister.” No matter how many times grandma explained the same mother, different father thing to me, I envisioned a girl sliced own the center, her bones, muscle tissue and guts exposed. That was no kind of sister I ever wanted.
Seventeen years ago this week, my father’s funeral procession followed the curves of those same roads, past the hill where my grandmother tended to her family plot, and stopped near a massive elm so tall it poked at the clouds. It occurred to me that every stone in this place was the bookmark to a story. I fingered the anti-anxiety pills wrapped in tissue that grandma handed me at the hospital a few days earlier. “It’ll help you sleep,” she whispered. I kept them in my pocket, the inner stoic smirking at my ability to rise above pharmaceuticals. I thought about taking them during one of these long days between death and burial. Would I fall asleep and remember everything?
I stared up at that big tree over the open grave, tilting toward the heavens, bearing silent witness to an endless parade of sorrow, and remembered all those summer afternoons swatting flies while grandma planted petunias and hummed to herself.
Following the graveside service, I turned my back on that tree and the hole beneath it. I got in my car and drove away. In 17 years, I’ve never been back. I think of my grandmother and her traditions. She rests under that hill, almost seven years gone.
I’d always followed the philosophy that our legacies are in our progeny, and the things we owned and created and sometimes neglected. My father doesn’t live under that plot in the cemetery, he lives in the starry night sky he watched with interest, along the river beds where he fished, in the travel journals he kept for decades, and the silly cartoon drawings that revealed his political leanings.
I stay away with the excuse that the cemetery is in one of Detroit’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Even with an armed escort, do I want to come upon that untended marker? Would the weeds and dust trigger guilt and a sadness I’ve tucked away for 17 years? Would I feel nothing? Would I search for pills like those rolled in the tissue paper that I ultimately threw way? Would I wonder why tradition means so little to me?