Winnie, caretaker for the family plots

By Karen Brode

“Why do I have to come to the cemetery? I don’t like cemeteries,” I whined as I kicked gravel along the pathway to the family plot. I was ten years old and anything was better than going to the cemetery.

Winnie’s mother and father were buried at Sunnyside Cemetery in Savoy. Every time we drove under the sign, I said, “I’d like my eggs sunnyside up!”

Winnie tried not to laugh because this was no place to laugh, but it was a little funny, and Winnie could certainly picture Emma and Effie laughing about it.

She wiped the sweat off her forehead and looked up into the unrelenting Texas sun. Not a cloud in sight.

I sat in the only shady place in the cemetery.  It was a pavilion for people to sit and contemplate. I was glad to not be in the sun.

My aunt looked like a peasant hoeing the grass off her mother’s grave. She wore a long sleeved dress, a bonnet, and her comfortable shoes. She had brought her shovel, her hoe, and her rake. After she hoed all the grass off the grave, she raked the grass leavings out of the family plot. Then, she sat down near the grave and began to pick at the incorrigible roots that refused to be hoed down. Finally, she picked up the shovel and formed a mound of dirt over her mother’s grave. It looked almost brand new.

She gave the same treatment to her father’s grave, and then she picked up all of her tools and got back in the car.

The car was hot and it would not have time to get cool by the time we got to the Fairview cemetery in Ravenna where my father was buried. She turned on the air conditioner full blast. The sweat was running down her face in rivulets and it was hard to breathe in the hot car. Sweat seemed to be pouring down her sides, and her legs made a suction noise when they peeled away from the plastic coverings on the car seat. The salesman had told her that the plastic coverings would keep her car just like new. It would never lose that new car smell, and when it came time to trade it in, just take the coverings off!

I felt as if I had melted into those plastic coverings on the car seats. My bare arms and legs looked as if they had permanently been indented into the plastic.

Winnie resented a little the fact that her family couldn’t all be buried in the same cemetery.  It would make her life a lot easier! I told her that the people in graves did not care how their graves looked. I could just hear my father sigh when Winnie paraded forth each week to clean his grave.

She began to clean my father’s grave, but she was careful not to hoe any weeds from John Gamble’s grave that was right beside my dad’s. She didn’t want to honor her grandfather in any way, and for all she cared, the weeds could grow three feet high on his grave. In fact, she threw the weeds and grass leavings onto his grave when she took them off my father’s.

She thought her brother must’ve been out of his mind when he made his decision to be buried next to that scoundrel, John Gamble!  There was also the fact that it would make Effie so mad if she knew where Albert had chosen as his final resting place. Winnie thought it was Albert’s final statement to show Effie once and for all that she could not control him!

Her brother had been gone for three long years. More than once she had wondered why he had to die at only 45. Here she was four years older than him with no children of her own and still alive. It made no sense. She should be dead instead of him.

She looked up as I walked toward other plots in the cemetery.

I was drawn to one family plot I’d seen last time I was there. There was a picture of a young boy embedded into the tombstone. He was seventeen years old when he died. I had heard that the young man had a motorcycle accident. I stared at his picture, and he looked so happy, so full of promise.  But there he was with his graduation picture on a tombstone.

Winnie hoed and cleared every last shred of grass from my father’s grave. It was all she could do for him now, and it was precious little. A few tears leaked from her eyes as she surveyed the cemetery. It was peaceful there, and Albert would like that. Then she cried in earnest, but not for Albert. His children were still in this world.

Winnie wiped her eyes as she recalled the day Albert died. They had all been on the fifth floor at St. Paul’s Hospital in Dallas. She hoped she never had to see that place again. Suddenly, the nuns were scurrying about and then they came to tell them that he had died.

She had known he was dying, and really there was nothing to hope for since they had told them he would be a vegetable if he lived. Even though she knew that her brother was going to die, and it was the best outcome, it didn’t stop the hysteria when the news came.

When I  heard that my father would be a vegetable if he lived, I pictured a giant carrot sitting at the supper table where he had sat.

Winnie trudged slowly out of the cemetery as the sun sank lower in the sky. She should have waited until dusk to go to the cemetery. The heat was just about bearable at that time. I followed behind her thinking of all the people lying out there in their graves who had lived and loved and had plans just like me.

_____________________________________

Karen Brode grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972.  She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years.  She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon.  Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.

2 thoughts on “Winnie, caretaker for the family plots

  1. In these days of manicured suburban cemeteries, it’s hard to imagine the work that must have gone into maintaining family plots in Winnie’s day. Imagine keeping the graves looking as though they were fresh!

    I really love the child’s perspective in this story: her very rational resistance to working in the cemeteries in the heat, her image of her father as a carrot at the dinner table. It’s very fresh.

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