It was so very strange. The landscape was very familiar, but the buildings were not places I knew. As we made the curve just coming over the hill into town, I saw the truckstop where I had eaten onion rings with my parents and their friends was gone. The white cinderblock building had been replaced with a gas station and an adjacent McDonald's. The Phillips 66 station my dad used to own and operate had been torn down. An empty lot of dirt marked the spot. The drive in hamburger stand, where I held my first job, had been turned into a full-fledged restaurant, without drive in windows. A flea market, Sonic, the Amish Cheese House...these were all places that weren't there when I lived there fourteen years ago.
My little town had turned cosmopolitan.
Well, maybe not so much. Thank goodness it still had just one stoplight.
As we drove through the one stoplight, my mind became flooded with memories. I remembered the night the wonderful, old brick buildings on Main Street had burned down and my parents got me out of bed so we could go down and watch. I remembered walking from my friend, Cathy's house down to the grain elevator where her dad worked, and he would buy us a Coke from the machine. I saw the post office, where I rode my bike every day to get the mail from our P.O. box.
Brother read the sign, "City Park" and, in his excitement, pointed the direction, even though I could get there blindfolded. Even that had changed. It was only a couple of swingsets and some wooden seesaws when I was a child. But a new, blue and yellow jungle gym with slides and monkey bars sat in the middle of the beautifully manicured green grass, shaded by the same lazy maples and elms. My parents were there, along with my aunt, uncle, grandma and brother. They had just finished grilling hot dogs when we arrived.
Each year at Memorial Day my family meets there, eats lunch together and travels about a mile up the road to the cemetery. Though I spent eleven years of my life in this town and consider it to be "where I grew up", it's the only time I ever go back. It's where my grandparents and my sister are buried. It's where my one remaining grandparent will be buried. And where my parents will be buried, too.
After hot dogs, complete with homemade chili, ice cold rootbeer and snickerdoodles, we loaded up the kids, tired and dirty from playing on the playground equipment, and made the trek to the cemetery.
Just next to the park was where the elementary school had been. It was a long, narrow building made of brown and rust colored rocks. I remember the halls and their shiny floors. I remember where Mr. Flemming's room was, next to the gym. I remember his wit, his black framed eyeglasses and his pale green shirt sleeve that flapped like a flag in the breeze because there was no arm to fill it. The school was gone, but the old cafeteria was still there. Now it was an administration building. As we passed it I turned and looked back, remembering how we used to "get married" behind that building at recess. Randy Caldwell had asked me, but I turned him down. I rather enjoyed picking flowers and being the bridesmaid. And I certainly didn't want to have to kiss anybody.
The road to the cemetery was paved. But I remember a brown, dirt road with many holes that bumbed me up and down on my red ten-speed. Many times I made that journey after my sister died. I went there often at first, always alone. Today I noticed the grass next to the road, rippling in the wind like waves of an emerald ocean. I wondered if that grass had watched me then, sad and grieving, as I rode my bike through the black, wrought iron gates to sit with her and cry.
Their graves were at the back, next to the fence. As we parked the van I saw Sister, who had ridden with my parents, emerge from their car, blonde ponytail flying in the wind, holding a heart made of styrofoam and purple, polyester roses. I feel a pang of sorrow, that she never knew my sister, and my sister never knew her. Sister is excited to decorate the gravesite. She tags along behind my parents, who carry more flowers. Mom is wearing her straw hat to sheild her from the hot sun. I haven't been to the cemetery for the past couple of years. I walk by the tombstones decorated similarly and recongnize names, but can't seem to conjure up a face.
And we are there. Reginna's stone is heart-shaped, with a border of purple roses, faded by wind, weather, and twenty years of a mother's touch. There are two angels sitting on the base and another hanging from a shepherd's hook. Mom shows Sister how to place the metal stake in the ground so the purple heart of roses doesn't blow away. Sister sucks in her breath and says, "Mommy! Look!", her fingers touching the angels with fascination and care. Oh, she and Reginna would have been great friends. Mom kneels down, brushing away the dirt that has gathered on the base and says she wishes she had bought flowers for the vases. She sits and looks at Reginna's picture on the stone. It's a wound that will never heal. It's a void that will never be filled. She puts a kiss on her fingertips and rubs it onto the glossy, ceramic photo, as she does each time she visits.
Everyone begins to file back to the vehicles, but Mom and I linger. I know her heart is torn between knowing her daughter isn't there and needing to be close to her. As we stand in silence I can't help but be in awe of how things change.
"Again and again I see my yesterdays in front of me, unfolding like a mystery. You're changing all that is and used to be..." - Garth Brooks "When You Come Back To Me Again"