My father died on the summer solstice in 1995, the day after my 43rd birthday. He was a veteran of World War 2, serving overseas as a meteorologist the first four years of his marriage to my mother. A fact that did not define him, but it is Memorial Day.
He is buried outside of Centralia in the historic Claquato Cemetery in the section that doesn’t have headstones, just uninteresting slab markers flush with the ground to make for easy upkeep. Yesterday I joined my mother and sister Rebecca on their annual Memorial Day weekend visit to clean the marble marker and put flowers in the urn nested in the slab.
Rebecca and I cut rhododendron and iris, red hot poker plant and azalea, bracken and sword fern, Douglas fir with spring green new-growth tips, salal and vine maple. The ritual begins with scrubbing Daddy’s marker and that of my mother’s mother, who died in her 100th year and is buried nearby. My mother’s name is on the marker next to Daddy’s, a custom that creeps me out. Conservation of effort and expense I suppose. I tell Mama we aren’t leaving flowers for her, because she’s not there. She says she is glad not to be.
I loved walking in Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh. It is a beautiful spirit-filled park where I visited markers that intrigued me and wondered about the lives of those whose bodies are buried beneath them; people I knew only from the choice of tombstones and what was depicted on them. Early in the morning, as the red sun rose in the east and the gray fox crept out of sight, I could imagine the spirits drifting with the fog among the graves and singing with the birds in the branches of the huge old oaks and magnolias.
Daddy’s stone, appropriately, has an evergreen tree sketched into it; my mother’s side a trillium. It is a lovely marker. But the thing is, I don’t find my father in the cemetery.
I smell him when I open the door of his workshop; I know him when I pull open the drawers of nails and screws organized by size and type in uniformly cut-down Darigold milk cartons. I see him pushing the old wheelbarrow that rests as art now against a tree, carrying topsoil and compost and mulch to the gardens that my mother planted. Each evening I sit under the dining room light fixtures he crafted when the house was built, along with other creations that erupted from his innovative mind and skilled hands, and he is there.
He is there in my basement bedroom that he finished years after we moved in, the walls repainted with a color similar to the one I chose in junior high that he called sick cat green, but painted for me anyway. I sense him when I sit at the desk he brought home when he retired from his beloved career as a forester. I walk down the brick and concrete steps he constructed around the house and feel him under my feet. I hear him in the patter of rain on the roof as I sit writing this in the window of his beloved home, with I hope perfectly correct grammar.
My father is here in the damp woods on the side of the hill into which he and my mother carved a home. He is not under the marker in the cemetery lawn. Cremate my body when I finish with it and scatter my ashes to live where my spirit will be: on this hill and in the woods by the South Bay of Puget Sound; in the alpine meadows of Mt. Rainier and among the driftwood and round stones at Ruby Beach; in the cherry blossoms on the UW quad; in Oakwood Cemetery and at Pullen church; in my garden at 609 Edmund Street and at Montreat campground site #29; and in places yet to be discovered. Don’t create a new place for me. I won’t be there.