One day recently, I found myself longing to talk with my grandmother. There was nothing in particular I wanted to talk with her about; I just wanted to have a chat: to comment on the beautiful afternoon, to tell her about the stunning view I was seeing, and to let her know what is going on in my life.
This longing came over me because I was standing by her gravestone in the Chapel Hill United Methodist Church cemetery in Sequatchie County, Tennessee, the place where she was laid to rest after she died 15 years ago this summer. Well, it was the place where half of her was laid to rest. When she died, my dad and my uncle deferred to their sister to decide where she would be. My aunt had been the one who had done the most to care for their mother in the last years of her life; she helped make the arrangements to see that Grandma got the care she needed, and she and her daughter went to see her almost every day. Aunt Susy decided that she wanted Grandma to be remembered with a grave in the small town in New Mexico where they had lived since the early 1950s. But she also realized the importance of Grandma’s connection with her family in rural Tennessee. So she put a stone and a portion of her mother’s ashes in the public cemetery in their town, and she put another stone and the other portion of the ashes in the church yard, up the street from Grandpa Hamilton’s farm where she was born 88 years earlier, right next to the grave shared by her parents and her sister, Ellen. It seemed like a fine arrangement to me.
In some sense, it was strange, though, to have this longing to talk with my grandmother. I don’t believe I had ever felt such a longing before. I knew my grandmother as I was growing up, but we never lived close to her. Every year or two, she would come to visit us, and she made a special effort to make it to big events like graduations and weddings, even when the trip was hard for her. We would go and visit her, too, for holidays or on family road trips in the summer. My dad would talk with her on the phone. My mother would write her letters, and as I got older, my mother would help me read the letters Grandma sent back. And when my grandmother sent a five dollar bill in my birthday card every year, my mother would make me write a nice thank-you note, detailing how I spent it or saved it for something special later on.
Although I knew my grandmother, I knew that she loved me and was proud of me, and I loved her as much as I could, my longing to have a chat with my grandmother did not come from warm nostalgia of memorable conversations with her. Instead, as I stood in that church yard, I felt a longing in my soul to belong somewhere in this world. For good or for ill, friendships, professional relationships, church connections, and even marriage are all understood in the postmodern world as personal choices. I felt the need to be affirmed in a connection that went deeper than that. I wanted something tangible I could see and touch and listen to and speak with to reassure me that I would be welcome whether the one welcoming wanted me there or not. Seeing that slab of granite which represents my grandmother, sharing an eternal resting place on a hill with her parents and sister, I wanted to sit and visit a while.
After I left the church yard, that unexpected longing had not gone away, so I drove the forty five minutes or so to the Bean-Roulston Graveyard, where portions of six generations of my ancestors have chosen to spend eternity, including my grandfather. He died in 1962, eleven years before I was born, so I only know him through the memories my father and other family members have chosen to share with me. A few years ago, I had a chance to ask my dad’s cousin about my grandfather. She said he was very attractive and very charming, and she always found him quite likable. But he was also never settled, and she always thought his troubles later in life tied up with his feeling of never being really satisfied where he was.
My grandfather died when he was only 46 years old, a week after his daughter’s wedding. By the time he died, he had been divorced for five or six years. He was an alcoholic, and although his younger sister had taken him in and cared for him when he had surgery to treat his colon cancer, he had alienated much of the rest of his family with requests for money and other kinds of help over many years. His only friends in town were his drinking buddies. And so it fell to my dad, at the ripe age of 24, to take care of him as he was dying and to make arrangements for his burial after he died. I remember seeing my grandfather’s death certificate in a trunk my dad keeps in the garage when I was young. It listed his place of death as a “sanitarium” in Albuquerque. I didn’t know that was just another way of saying that my dad got him into a hospital before he died, rather than letting him die in the apartment my dad rented for them with his wages working for the railroad in the last months of his father’s life.
I don’t know, but I imagine that my dad had help from his aunts and uncles with my grandfather’s burial; it is neither easy nor cheap to get a body from New Mexico to Sweetens Cove, Tennessee. He is buried in the shadow of his own parents’ gravestone. Next to their large stone, which reads “Beene: The Family of Mamie and Roy,” are his siblings who died young: his brother Lemuel, who was not yet two when he died in 1910; his brother Alton, who died of appendicitis at age 12, four months after my grandfather was born in 1916; his sister, Clara, who was what we would now call developmentally disabled, who died in 1932 when she was almost 30. In the two rows in front of my great grandparents, though, are their sons who survived: Uncle Pete, Uncle Jack, and M.C., my grandfather. Those are not their real names; they were nicknamed at birth by their grandfather, “Wash” Coppinger, whose imposing plot is directly behind his daughter, Mamie, and her husband.
Looking at that plot in the Bean-Roulston Cemetery, I saw the grace of God for my grandfather. I let myself imagine that he had found there a peace that comes with being settled. He belonged there: connected to people whom he both charmed and frustrated when they were all alive, who welcomed him back into that place when he died too young, who were connected to him in a way that went deeper than simply a personal choice. I enjoyed a picnic supper with my grandfather that evening. I am sure he had no idea what I was eating; as I spread my roasted red pepper hummus on crackers, then scooped out my Greek yogurt flavored with blood orange, I could only imagine how his face would have gone from puzzled to indignant and back to puzzled again. At least he probably would have recognized the Triscuits. But it was a calm evening, with only the cows bellowing in the field on the other side of the stone wall to disturb the peace, and we had a nice time. The memories of that evening calm my soul.