I blame Aunt’s high school frenemy, “Big D,” for calling during the storm to tell Aunt that someone was buried in her cemetery plot. I also thank her. Monsoon June. My father, dead six months. My mother, splitzies to pursue her education. Me, her youngest niece on college break, and the Aunt’s only relative willing to visit the farm that summer. Aunt and I seated on the sofa viewing a family photo. The call that interrupts Aunt’s resurrected memories of self-sacrificing Ma, and genius Pa’s seven patents for gate hinges, jar lids and barrel hoops.
When Aunt hangs up, she asks me to climb Cemetery Hill despite the intense weather. She places a hand over her heart. She offers a graveyard map and sinks into an heirloom rocking chair. All she’s done for me, in exchange for this one tiny request. I’m used to Aunt’s heart attacks. I’m also at home with storms and admire a rain like this one that falls with such purposeful intent. I fetch her nerve pills along with a bottle of TUMS and put her to bed.
In swamp boots and raincoat, I trudge the half-mile up Cemetery Hill wondering why graveyards had to be placed on 10% grade hilltops or, in this case on the slope itself. In the cemetery, I slog through bunchgrass, mud, and eroding gravestones to our family plot. Our village burial ground is a dying enterprise, more often visited by school marching bands on Memorial Day than by any of the neighborhood’s diminishing residents.
My aunt’s spot has indeed become a final resting place for a disliked cousin. They share a last name and first initial. But that is minor. In the rain softened ground, the ancient oak that overlooks our plot has uprooted, fissuring the soil in its final death throes. The ground cover has peeled back leaving a water-filled depression. My swamp boots suck turf when I step closer to the hole’s mush edge. I’ve read about sinkholes in graveyards. Horror books mostly. I fear sliding in but can’t look away.
In the murky waters, I spot what I think is the end of Grandma K’s steel casket. Grandma K, dead thirty-three years before my birth. Grandma K, my namesake, a legacy I shun. Once a proud schoolteacher aspirant, her college plans were dashed when she, the eldest daughter, was recruited to care for my great-grandmother allowing her brothers to pursue their college dreams. Her self-sacrifice celebrated by my father and aunt.
I conjure the family photo. Grandma K, black-garbed, her left hand bandaged. Tight-lipped, to hide missing teeth or the spark of an original thought in a family that revered the patriarch inventor and the brilliance of the youngest son, my father. Her silted dreams hidden in the shadows of her eyes.
I inhale and introduce myself. It’s easier to talk to a coffin if you can hear the person answering back. Grandma K tells me she’s happy to hear a real voice as she’s sick of the whisper of worms. I slide closer and ask what it was like to live in a family of self-proclaimed geniuses. She tells me she rarely had time to reflect on such questions as geniuses are impatient. Her laugh is like the scrape of rusted nails. I return laugh, as lightning flares above us. I ask what she used to read as a girl, and she says her favorite book was Little Women. I tell her mine was The Dairy of Anne Frank. She asks if I’m happy and I say I’m more interested in getting a Ph.D. I feel the pressure of her broken hand in mine. The downpour intensifies and ground shifts beneath me.
Again I study the sharp edge of her coffin. I step back from the hole, but not before I thank her. For my name, for her youthful aspirations, for her unacknowledged wit.
At the farm, I find the family album. I ignore Grandfather Will, ramrod stiff beside Grandma K and look at my grandmother’s eyes. Behind her oval specs, I detect an echo of smile. She gazes directly at the camera. I nod and smile back. We are not martyrs.
Kate Marshall is a freelance writer living in Boulder, Colorado. She writes poetry, short fiction and memoir. Her work has been published in the Raven’s Perch, 50GS, The Selkie, Mused, Bella online Literary Journal, The Chalice, and other online venues.