Memorial Day weekends of the past found my sister and I riding in the back of my grandparents' car, fighting hard for self-control to not tap each other or poke each other or do some other annoying thing to fill the 15 minute trip between cemeteries.
The trunk of the car would be filled with peonies -- beautiful arrangements cut from Grammy's heavy peony bushes, interlaced with greenery, placed in aluminum juice cans and wrapped in newspaper, ready to be dropped into the vases on the graves of remembered relatives. The plastic bucket and wooden handled brush were there, too. And a rag made from one of Gramps' old undershirts was tucked in between the juice-can vases.
First were Grammy's parents in the old part of the cemetery in Washington, IL, then out to the country near Deer Creek to honor other relatives, then back to Eureka to tend to Gramps' parents' graves and the smallest and most haunting, the grave of their daughter, my aunt, Patsy, who had died when she was just two years old.
We'd approach the graves carrying the peonies and a bucket. Gramps would go off to fill the bucket with water and Grammy would brush any leaves or grass from the headstone with the rag. When Gramps returned, they'd wash the stone carefully and arrange the flowers. Then they'd stand for a moment in silence.
By this time, my sister and I would be running around the other graves, careful to show the respect Gramps had reminded us of on the way there. But as I grew older, I watched this ritual more carefully. Rather than running through the gravestones, I stood by Grammy's side as she paused near her parents' graves. I watched as Gramps brushed away the grass clippings from Patsy's stone. I also stood in silence pondering these people who had come before.
This year it will be me who loads up the car with peonies and iris and whatever other flowers are in bloom. My grandparents have long stopped filling the vases and carrying the water buckets and bending over to tend the graves opting instead for a slow drive-by at their parents' graves and an amble across the hill to pause a moment with Patsy.
It is a great honor to be silently passed peony-duty. I have always found myself drawn to these parting-places -- places where we leave a remembrance of our beloveds having trusted that we do not leave them at all, for we have already returned them to their Creator's eternal care. To me these parting-places are places of deep Peace.
So this year, I will brush off the stones and place the flowers. And as a mother this year, I will wonder if when tending Patsy's grave, Grammy and Gramps have brushed the grass off of that stone and thought of the way her hair lay on her head and how they used to stroke it away. And as a daughter, I will touch the cold granite on my great-grandparents' markers and wonder if Gramps and Grammy have touched the stones on their parents' final resting places and remembered what it was like to lay a hand on Momma or Daddy as a child.
Tonight my husband and I took flowers to the grave of my father in law, Harold, Dennis' dad, who passed away several months before I came to this church, far too soon. I watched as Dennis crouched in front of the marker and brushed away the grass and used a little water from the irises we brought to rub away marks on the stone. His hand lingered tenderly on the picture of the tractor his mother had engraved on the stone. And I know that as he touched that Farmall, his heart was that of a little boy watching his Daddy plow the field.
Such a small space separates those we love who live now safe in the arms of God and those of us who must be content with this earthly life. In moments like those I will encounter at the cemeteries, moments of pause, the line between "here" and "there" seems so faintly drawn.
And perhaps that's because "here" and "there" are really the same; for those who have been, those who are and those who will be are all so closely held and deeply treasured in the heart of God.
It's just that in these times of reflection we see through a mirror dimly how close together we actually are.
And that is such a great blessing and a source of such deep Peace, that I find myself praying that every place will be a parting-place where every day I will be more aware of just how close to heaven we are when we rest secure in the promises of God.
I wrote this 10 years ago on SALT for the Spirit. In the intervening years, not only my grandparents, but also uncles and aunts have passed away, and Dennis' beloved older brother died after a brief struggle with cancer. Friends have lost parents and children. I have buried a baby. Reminders of life's brevity are abundant.
And yet...there is life. So very much LIFE! I sit here holding a sleeping one-year-old- a warm, soft, sparkling-eyed reminder of how God brings forth beauty from ashes. And this morning as my husband fried bacon, and I brewed my coffee, I stepped onto the porch to breathe in the dewy morning and walked back through the door to be assailed by the mingled scents of frying meat, a fragrant brew, and damp flora and was flooded with memories of Memorial Day mornings in Grammy's kitchen on Main Street.
What a gift it is to hold gently this space between what has been and what is yet to be. Such longing is here, but also such gratitude. Such beauty. Such is the Parting-Place.