August 10 found my daughter, grandson, and myself heading north on a field trip of sorts. Armed with a plethora of supplies, our mission was to spiffy up the family gravestones on the twenty-eighth anniversary of my biological mother’s death. The last time we’d visited the memorial markers of my bio mom, her brother, and her parents, we found the stones possessed varying amounts of dirt and grime as well as mossy-green gunk—the usual kind of muck found on headstones in place for decades. The family plots lie under the partial shade of a large tree that, although it makes for a picturesque setting, it also creates an ideal environment for the gunky stuff to flourish.
We zipped along toward our destination, no GPS needed, until road construction in my hometown had us back tracking and using creative navigation skills to make our way to the just-past-downtown cemetery. For a few moments, I thought we’d have to carry our crates of gravestone-cleaning paraphernalia a considerable distance. “How can you close a cemetery?” I pondered as my daughter maneuvered to a street that finally gained us access to the well-cared-for cemetery. But before the van came to a complete stop next to the plots, the perfectly unblemished surface of the family’s main stone caught my eye. I stared at words and letters that stood out plainly, even from a distance. Word that not-too-long ago were barely visible. The light gray stone gleamed as if it had been bleached.
Someone had beaten us to the task.
After driving eighty plus miles, we couldn’t very well tell my young grandson that his grave-tending services were no longer needed. Because this is what we do. It’s a part of our normal routine to visit family plots scattered across numerous cemeteries and counties to tend to their upkeep. As a one-week-shy-of-his-sixth-birthday young lad, you’d be surprised how much headstone-cleaning time he’s logged. And he loves it. So, he donned blue plastic gloves, chose several different sized brushes, grabbed the green spritz bottle, and commenced scrubbing. He dug in, undeterred by the lack of grime, attacking each little speck, whether real or imagined, with a vengeance. So focused was he on the mission of our trip, he appeared unaware that the stones required little if any attention.
There’d be no need for “before” and “after” pictures. Yet take pictures we did. Of a young boy cleaning his great-grandmother’s flat grave marker and that of her brother’s next to hers. Of he and his mom cleaning his great-great-grandfather’s and her great-grandfather’s flat gravestone. Of him scrubbing determinedly on the large stone that memorializes all four family members: his great-grandmother, his great-great-uncle, and his great-great-grandparents.
When he moved onto the stone next in the line, my daughter shook her head. “No, that one’s not ours.”
“But I want to,” he insisted, unfazed by the label “not ours.” After several purposeful strokes with his brush, he grudgingly helped to load up the supplies.
We didn’t offer our young worker any explanation as to whose stones we’d traveled a fair distance to tend. Not because it’s a secret or something bad. But for reasons quite similar to why my parents left out the doorstep detail when telling me I’d been adopted. He’s too young to grasp the complexity of the issue. Someday I expect we’ll tell him the entire story. When he’s older and better able to process the reality of how complicated life can be.
A few days later, because the barely-used maintenance supplies were still in the van and the desire still keen, I took my grandson to the cemetery where many of my husband’s ancestors are buried. Others in the family see to the annual Memorial Day decorating of these graves, yet I presumed these stones could probably use some TLC as well.
He got right to work on these markers that benefited from being in a wide-open space with no shade. While a bit dirty and strewn with grass clippings, they had only a few spots of mossy green. I explained how these folks related to him. One a great-grandfather and a set of great-great-grandparents. Next to them, a 3x great-aunt and uncle. As the scrubbing continued, I explored, looking for family surnames. When he finished, my helper followed me to an area where many stones bore illegible writing due to years of exposure to the elements. He spied one such stone in need of considerable tending. To his delight, its surface was streaked with a goldish-yellow growth and ample amounts of hard, crusty stuff.
An approaching storm helped me bring his endeavors to a close even with little progress on the stone. He prided himself on making a small dent in the enormous task and gathered his tools. Experience has taught us a stone in this condition would take repeated scrubbings over a number of days, even weeks, to erase the decades of accumulated debris.
Only one person could have seen to the cleaning of my birthmother’s family stones. The only member of my maternal family that I’ve met. The only one I’ll probably ever meet. Whether said relative undertook the maintenance project before or after learning of our intent to visit and tackle the job on this particular day is of no consequence. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.
Was I disappointed? No denying that yes, I was. For months I’d looked forward to this day. Anticipating the physical gesture I could extend to the family I’d never have the chance to meet. A tangible acceptance of them as part of my life, as folks just as important to my existence as the generations of my adopted family whose graves we tend each year. Whether a by-chance circumstance or a symptom of the strained relationships on this side of the bio family, the fact is, the stones fairly gleam now, as well cared for as any markers in that or any other cemetery. Fine testimonies to the affection still harbored for those buried in the tree-shaded corner plots of the hometown cemetery. And that’s what really matters.
In October when we embark on a family excursion to Maine, to the area from which my birthfather hails, the young lad will get to meet more “new” kin. We’re anxious for him to meet a second cousin near his age as he’s quite familiar with the relationship of second cousins. Technically, she’s a half second cousin. But this side of the family’s not big on the half part. So, we’ll leave it at second cousin.
Other introductions may require some explaining. You see he’s quite astute for a lad of his young years when it comes to the dynamics of family trees. He’s the son and grandson of genealogists, you know. But that’s okay. We’ll find an age appropriate explanation to go along with those introductions. And if time permits, this adventure may involve a trek through a cemetery, to visit the graves of more great- and great-great-grandparents. But I doubt there’ll be room in the suitcases for a spritz bottle and cleaning brushes.
If you’re just tuning in to this wild, adoption-reunion adventure, catch the beginning of the story here.