Last weekend she found herself behind the wheel of a medium-sized automobile, driving north an hour and a half from Westchester County Airport to Route 22. She had a sheaf of directions with her, because she had only been to the cemetery, Irondale Cemetery, once.
“It’s a quick left,” she had been told. “Keep a sharp eye out. We usually miss the entrance and have to turn back.”
She kept a sharp eye out. On the way up Route 22 her sharp eye saw a sign on the left that read “McGhee Hill,” so she spun around and took the left. She remembered being a child, and asking her grandfather why that road was named McGhee Hill.
“Because I live there,” he said.
He was washing up after his chores, at the little sink in that dark back entryway. Lava soap. Coveralls. Washing the manure and hay and dairy farm smells off his hands, splashing water over his balding head. How many times did she see him wash up after chores?
She took the left and she was determined to find the old farm, which was still there. She drove up and down a couple of times, searching for the driveway. But she couldn’t find it.
She did drive all the way to the top of McGhee Hill, and there she found the modern house that her grandparents had built when they sold the farm, long ago, when she was ten years old.
Her grandmother had loved the new house: it had an electric stove, as opposed to a woodburning one. It had wall to wall carpeting, as opposed to linoleum and hardwood floors. Everything in the old house was old, and everything in the new house was new, and her grandmother loved new.
Someone had built a small white house directly next to her grandparents’ modern white house. It did not look right. She was annoyed, and she reminded herself that her grandparents had not lived there for many years, and that whoever owned the house now had a perfect right to build a small white house directly next to it.
Maybe it was a son or daughter, living there next to them. She thought about that. What would it be like to live directly next to your parents?
She drove back down McGhee Hill and took a left onto Route 22 and continued north. She kept a sharp eye out for the cemetery and she did not even have to backtrack.
In she drove, down the dusty dirt road, peering for the markers. So many McGhees in this cemetery, good Lord. Who knew there were this many McGhees anywhere, all spelled correctly, with the “h” that gives pause to so many?
Oh, but there were her grandparents, the both of them together.
She parked down the way a bit and walked back. She was the only person in the cemetery. She sat down on her grandmother’s grave and brushed the few blades of mown grass and leaves from the sunwarmed tops of the low markers. This was a well-kept cemetery; there was nothing for her to clean or pluck or tidy.
It had not been that many years since she stood here watching them lower the casket into the ground at her grandmother’s funeral. It had been much longer since her grandfather’s funeral, a funeral that she missed and will always regret missing.
She spent the next hour talking to her grandparents and watching the squirrels running up and down the nearby tree. She thanked her grandparents for loving her exactly as she was and for giving her so many happy memories.
She remembered their dog, Jody, whose clownish black and white face she could conjure so vividly. Every night her grandmother had stirred the leftovers of the evening together in a large clean pan, Jody’s frying pan, and made a rich gravy to cover them, and set it down outside for Jody’s dinner. Her grandmother had been an incredible cook. Jody ate what they ate, and he was a happy dog. Why wouldn’t he be?
It was getting late and she still had a long drive ahead of her, almost four hours further upstate, to where her parents lived and where she had grown up. She went back to her car, but she didn’t want to leave her grandparents yet.
So she took out her Wallace and Gromit stationery and wrote her grandmother a note. Her grandmother would have liked that stationery. She would have liked it better if it were covered with little flower and star and heart stickers, but she herself is not the type to carry around flower and star and heart stickers.
She sealed the Wallace and Gromit envelope and went back to her grandmother’s stone. This was an extremely well-kept cemetery, and whoever kept it so well would not approve of a letter left on top of the stone. He – she was certain it was a he – would remove such a letter immediately.
So she folded it into a slender lozenge and tucked it down into the dirt behind the stone. She arranged a few leaves over it in a haphazard-looking manner. With any luck, the letter would remain where it was until the rain and snow dissolved it.
As she left, she asked her grandmother please to stay with her, and to give her a sign that would let her know she was there.
Back into the car she went, and north she drove. As she is a woman of diners, who has spent her life eating in them whenever possible, she stopped at the West Taghkanic Diner in Hudson, New York. She partook of the pot roast dinner special, which came with a cup of split pea soup, and she finished it off with a large slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie.
The extremely nice young waiter talked to her for a long time. She revealed to him that she had always dreamed of a) converting a classic diner into a home that she could live in, or b) living on a moored houseboat, or c) living in an Airstream.
He told her about another classic diner, the Diamond Street Diner in the next town up. The Diamond Street Diner was currently for sale, he said, and he sketched out a map so that she could check it out for herself.
What would it be like, she wondered, to sell everything, move to upstate New York, convert a classic diner into her house, and begin a brand-new life?
Since this would require her to leave her children, something which would kill her, she quickly adjusted the dream, as follows: What would it be like to sell everything once her children were all grown up, move to upstate New York, convert a classic diner into her house, and begin a brand-new life?
She drove on, north and north and north, through the tiny towns, around the winding roads, until she was driving into the driveway of her very own house, where her father was watching the Yankees on a muted television, her mother was next to him playing solitaire on the computer, and their sweet dog was waiting to jump on her.
Over the next few days she went to the diner with her father, planted a food shelf garden with her mother, sat on the porch, watched the Yankees and cheered for the other team, walked around the 5.8 mile block, petted the dog, and talked with her parents.
A hummingbird kept buzzing up to the feeder, alighting, then buzzing away. Her mother encouraged her to get a hummingbird feeder of her own, and told her the recipe for hummingbird feeder water: two cups water, a quarter-cup sugar, bring it to a boil and keep it in the refrigerator.
She agreed that it would be an excellent idea to have one of her own. She pictured it hanging outside her front porch, where she could sit on the swing and watch the hummingbirds buzzing up to it.
On each of her walks around the block, the cows grazing in the pastures came running up to her. Have you ever seen a herd of running cows? Truly, it’s not a common sight, at least in her experience.
“Why are you running to me, cows?” she asked them. “I have nothing for you. I am a peaceful hiker with no ill intentions.”
She told her parents that the cemetery was in good shape. They told her that they would be driving down there themselves, for the funeral of another McGhee, one that she herself remembered from her childhood visits to her grandparents.
“There’s a hell of a lot of McGhees in that cemetery,” she informed them, and they agreed. There certainly were a hell of a lot of McGhees there.
On her way around the 5.8 mile block, she stopped in at the little cemetery down the dirt road. There was her childhood friend’s stone, the first boy she ever kissed, in the barn, during a game of Truth or Dare. Someone had put a teddy bear on top of his gravestone.
There was the grave of her sister’s classmate, buried here in the tiny cemetery next to his family farm. Someone had placed a small red tractor on top of his stone.
She had asked her grandmother for a sign, and she kept looking for one. She didn’t see any, but she didn’t feel alone and sad about it either.
Then she thought of the running cows, and the hummingbirds. She thought about the squirrels at the cemetery, and how her grandmother’s nickname had been Squirrel. None of these were signs, and yet all of these were signs, weren’t they?
Abide with me, grandmother.
And that was her Memorial Day weekend.