When I was two-years-old, I fell into a hole at a cemetery.
My mother had just replaced the plastic, cylindrical vase filled with water back into the ground and I accidentally stepped into it, soaking my entire right leg. Not as dramatic, I know, but that is my first memory — skipping around my grandfather’s headstone and falling into a “hole”. From there, we drove to the house where my grandmother and grandfather used to live — a 1950’s single story tucked into the quiet suburban neighborhoods of Santa Barbara. My mother had helped her sell the house — her childhood home — the year before, soon after my grandfather died, and we were going to say hello to the new tenants. (Or maybe we were visiting the neighbors. In either case, my pants needed to be dried and the water poured from my shoe.)
That day at the cemetery was my first visit of a long-standing tradition in my family, one that we still do whether together or separate 24 years later. My mother calls it “The Graveyard Shift”. Twice a year, we make a daily trip to Santa Barbara, stopping at my great-aunt’s grave in Los Angeles first and then my grandfather’s, who also happens to be buried near his sister, and his father’s in-laws, Rafaelle Iulo and Gabriella Iulo who were also Italian immigrants. La mia famiglia è stata una grande famiglia italiana.
My great-aunt came to this country from Naples, Italy in 1922 — Lucia DiBiase, named after the wet-nurse cared for her adopted newborn father. She is buried Lucy Musolino, 1919-1987, beloved sister, with no mention of her second husband. Her death was unexpected, yet not immediate. While crossing the street at night she was hit by a drunk-driver. One year later, my grandfather died on December 26, 1988 from a heart-attack in my childhood home. He was the son of an Italian immigrant and born in The Bronx — two family members, gone suddenly, before I was even old enough to know them or form memories of them.
There are many ways a person’s life can be remembered, sometimes in little traces stored deep inside the historical archives section of a library or, if one is so lucky, in the pages of a classic novel. The traces of most, however, are regulated to the headstones that display the most basic information of their lives — just enough to let the world that this person existed and was, hopefully, loved. It’s in the same way that I first came to know my deceased relatives and heritage, tracing all the memories of those older than me together.
I don’t think I can accurately describe what it feels like to get to know someone while standing over their grave. It can be very detached, almost emotionless experience, and if your family is not the talkative type it might feel awkward to ask many questions about a deceased relative that you never knew. In my case, I would just listen to my grandmother and my mother briefly talk about different memories from when he was alive and from when my mom and her brother were kids. There is a lot of pain in my family, decades of hurt and blame, and disconnection. If there is one thing I learned very early in my childhood is that after someone dies, you lose your chance to make amends with them; you have to make amends with yourself to move on. That’s why I cry when I think of the grandfather I got to know over a headstone; maybe his presence today would have prevented or healed some of the hurt that has been in my family for my entire life.
Just the other day, I visited my great-aunt’s grave with my boyfriend, Dennis. As I peeled back the overgrown grass from the top of the vase, I noticed flower stems left over from a previous visit.