Oakwood Cemetery Changes as Life Changes
“Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was…. I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner.” – Henry Scott Holland
Like my taste for Grandma’s homemade Southern Christmas fruitcake, my taste for Oakwood Cemetery has matured with age.
Growing up, I always hated having to visit the cemetery. When you’re five years old, the last thing you want to do is go visit a gravestone of somebody you’ve never met, especially when the lure of Christmas presents or Easter egg hunts await you at home. But every holiday–Christmas, Thanksgiving, even birthdays–before Grandma allowed the fun to start, we had to go visit Grandpa’s grave and leave flowers.
“Why do we always have to visit the cemetery?” I whined, as we pulled up at Oakwood Cemetery. Grandma, coifed and lovely in a new dress, knelt by the Alexander headstone, while mom tried to entertain me by showing me the other Alexander plots. “See? That’s your aunt Nancy. A lot of our family is here.”
“Who is that one?” I pointed at another grave in the Alexander section. Mom had to confess she wasn’t sure — some of the family was too distant or old for even her to know.
At last, Grandma finished with Grandpa’s grave, and we could go home and have Christmas presents or Thanksgiving dinner.
However, as I got older, I began to appreciate the visits to Oakwood. The older I grew, the longer the years had been since Grandma had seen her lost husband. Seventeen years. Eighteen years. Thirty years. Time passed, and with each year my appreciation for her eternal devotion deepened. Even after thirty-five years apart, she never failed to visit him, even as her own body grew frail and weak. Her joints aching, she’d still get out of the car and make that trek down to his grave in the grass.
Until the year she could no longer do so. Once she reached her 90’s, it became difficult for Grandma to walk to his grave. Instead, mom and I drove her as close as we could, then we took a photo of the flowers we left on his grave and showed it to Grandma. I’m certain it was a sad day for her. But by that point, she didn’t realize how soon she would join him.
For over thirty-five years she visited him every holiday. She never forgot him. She never moved on. She raised his dog, his children, his grandchildren — and she made certain we never forgot him either. In fact, although I never met him, such were the strength of her stories and memories that it often never occurs to me that I never met my Grandpa.
Alive in Stories and Memories
My grandpa passed away a month before I was born. I was his first grandchild, and my cousin followed me six months later on Christmas Day. On the night before his daughter’s graduation, he suffered a massive heart attack in the hotel room, with Grandma by his side, and abruptly left all his plans behind.
He wouldn’t watch his daughter graduate. He wouldn’t meet his grandchildren. There are six of us all together now. Although we never met Grandpa, my Grandmother made sure he was present at every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, every birthday — in our family stories.
Each holiday we sit around the table and share the same stories. Uncle Joe tells about the time Grandpa’s brothers convinced their co-workers that their building was haunted, and that the trucks were driving by themselves. Kristen tells us about the antics of kids at the school where she teaches.
“When Joe and I were little,” mom shares at the holiday table, “We decided to try and catch Santa Claus in the act. We ran downstairs and hid behind the couch in the dark. After a while, Daddy came downstairs and plugged in the Christmas Tree.”
“When the lights came on,” Uncle Joe takes over, “Your mom started getting all giggly.”
“Well you were making faces at me, trying to get me to laugh!” accuses Mom.
Joe laughs, “Yeah. And Daddy just kept standing there, acting like he’s inspecting the tree. I’m sure he knew we were hiding down there. But he just kept humming and adjusting ornaments, taking his time.”
“And Joe kept whispering, ‘Shh!! Shh!!’ which was louder than my laughter. And finally Daddy looked our way and shouted, ‘Get on out of there! Santa knows you’re here!’ and we went scrambling and laughing up the stairs,” mom smiles. “He’d always pretend to be all serious, but then he’d make a joke and cut a smile.
Eventually we’d tell so many funny stories that Grandma would stop laughing and actually start whooping and hollering — something her Southern delicacies and lady-like manners often never allowed. That’s when we knew Christmas had really started.
One day I was laughing and recounting that story to my best friend, when I suddenly realized I was telling stories about a person I’d never met.
Looking back, it feels like he’s always been there, sitting at the table and laughing right along with us.
A New Meaning for Oakwood Cemetery
When Grandma had a stroke at age 92, we knew our whole family’s life had changed. She was the matriarch. Even without Grandpa, she had held the family together, cooking enormous Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for all her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Even if we didn’t see the family all year, we knew that on Thanksgiving and Christmas we’d gather around her table, eat her food, and tell those same stories.
We had Grandma for one last Thanksgiving, as she slowly slipped from the world after she became ill. Uncle Joe played the piano, Aunt Jan worried over her medical care, and Aunt Sherry and mom provided daily care. The cousins, and even her grandchildren, all came. We looked at family albums, told stories, and looked at each other through teary eyes wondering about the future of our holidays.
It was here — the Christmas we never thought would happen. The Christmas without Grandma.
She passed just a few days before Christmas. We gathered at Oakwood Cemetery and told stories about her life. Someday, even this day would be a story.
Now when I visit Grandpa’s grave, such a familiar pilgrimage from my childhood, it holds new meaning. Now, my Grandma is there, too. She isn’t around to bring the family together and to keep all the memories alive through stories.
When Grandma passed, I visited the ghost of her childhood home and tried to soak up the stories of her childhood — to pull my ancestral memories from the dirt. It’s up to us to keep those stories alive now, for her great grandchildren.
I visited my Grandma’s house the other day, where my Aunt Sherry, Uncle Joe, Aunt Brenda, and mom still gather. It’s the family’s home now. I sat down at the table for lunch while Uncle Joe told the story about how Grandma used to whoop and holler at some of our funny stories at Christmas. That’s a story I don’t want us to forget.
I smiled and felt a bit lighter. I never met Grandpa, but it always felt like I knew him. Now Grandma’s joined him, but we can keep her alive for the next generation, too. She’s not so far away at all.
For Lucille Belle Riggsbee Alexander and Joseph Edward Alexander – may your stories and names stay alive in the history of Raleigh and in the history of our family’s hearts.
Oodles of Love,