I began visiting Englewood Cemetery with my family after Grandma died when I was six. We visited occasionally, put flowers by her grave and talked to her a little. I never knew my grandmother very well, so when we visited I preferred to wander, kicking up gravel and deciding which graves looked prettiest.
Since then, I have lived in several houses and haven’t visited Grandma in years, but I still love to visit cemeteries. In Massachusetts, my favorite one was small and old. After centuries of rain and snow, the engravings were barely legible, but I eventually figured out every name. I would lean against Margaret Hawkins, 1728-1746 and wonder why she died so young. Across from her were Theodore and Mary Stimson. Ted died only a year after Mary. He must have died from grief.
When I moved to Colorado, the closest cemetery was newer. It was well maintained. My favorite part of this cemetery was the visitors. I liked to watch them bring flowers, and wonder how they knew those they were visiting. There was one older woman who came every day to put flowers on a grave. I thought it must be her husband’s, but it could have been her brother’s.
What I loved most about cemeteries was the mystery. I could look at any grave and imagine a whole life buried there. I could decide how they died. I could decide whom they married. I could decide their personality. And it didn’t matter if I was right or wrong, because I’d never find out. My imagination was always right.
Then I moved to Ohio and found Clayton Cemetery. It was hidden up a hill by a park, but it still had visitors. Each grave was neat with a small patch of earth in front for flowers. Most had a partially melted candle or wilting flowers from recent visitors. This cemetery felt boring. It was too well-kept to be spooky, and not well-kept enough for a steady flow of visitors to observe. I left soon after, planning to find a different cemetery. Months later, I returned, wanting to give it another try. I walked through the rows, occasionally leaning down to prop up a fallen bouquet.
After visiting cemeteries for years, I had trained my eye to look for the most interesting gravestones: the most worn, the tallest, the newest-looking, or the one with the most interesting inscription. At the far end, almost hidden in the shade of a small grove of oak trees, I spotted what I knew was the most interesting grave.
I made my way to it. The stone looked older than the rest, taller than most, but what stood out was how unkempt it was. Yellow grass shot up from its base, weeds sprawled around the bottom and moss was climbing up. I stepped forward and pushed aside the grass to see the writing that was still legible.
I returned the next day with my hedge clippers and snipped some of the grass. I felt like Richard’s savior. I was his only friend. I would take care of him even if no one else did. Later I came back with a spade and spent the afternoon digging up the weeds. As I yanked them out, I imagined what type of person Richard had been.
A week later, I brought flower seeds and scattered them in the soil. Every few days I would come to water Richard’s grave, and each visit brought a new piece to the story of his life.
I thought he must have run away at 13. He ran away from his drunken father, became a violin-maker’s apprentice, and later a master craftsman, spending his life creating lovely violins alone in his cabin for a living. That was why no one took care of his grave, and that was why no other Burkes were buried here; he had no family to remember him.
But there must have been someone who loved him; someone must have made sure he was buried in this quaint, tucked-away cemetery. I decided it was Esmeralda. Richard was in love with her, but she was married. She knew that finding a good resting place for him was the least she could do.
I decided that Richard had died of influenza, alone in his house. I knew there was no influenza epidemic when he died, but it seemed like such a romantic ending. In my tale, Richard came down with influenza one day and died the next evening. No one even knew he was sick. Just before he died, with his very last bit of strength, he wrote a letter to Esmeralda, confessing his undying devotion to her. That was why she felt obligated to find him a resting place.
I imagined all of this as I visited Richard’s grave during the next few months. I felt obligated to visit him, because I knew I was his only family. Then one day when I arrived, I saw a woman standing in front of Richard’s grave. I wished she would leave; he was my Richard, she could go visit someone else. After 20 minutes, she did leave. I scowled as I walked past her, but she didn’t notice. I hurried to his grave.
When I saw it, I didn’t know what to think. The woman had left something, a metal box the size of a small treasure chest. I shook it, and the contents rattled. I tried to open it but it was locked. I felt disconcerted and left.
I returned the next day and was relieved the woman wasn’t there. I watered the soil, glaring at the metal box. I continued my routine for several more weeks.
Then I saw the woman again ...
I was visiting Richard when she approached, so I slunk into the shade of one of the oak trees, watching her.
She looked fairly old in her 70s, perhaps. She walked slowly but with determination, ignoring the wisps of white hair the breeze blew across her face. She carried a flowered handbag. When she reached the grave, she drew a small tin from her bag. She dusted it off and laid it next to the metal box. Then she turned and hobbled away. I came forward and examined the tin. I wanted to open it. My hands gripped the lid. I looked around nervously, my heart beating faster. I knew I shouldn’t do it, but I pried the lid off. I could not have predicted what was inside. Chestnuts. A tin full of chestnuts. I felt exasperated. I put it down and left the cemetery, feeling betrayed. Richard didn’t need chestnuts. He didn’t need a locked metal box. I was his family, and he didn’t need anyone else.
I didn’t visit Richard the following day, or the next. I was afraid I would see her again, and that she might have brought more strange items.
Finally, weeks later, I returned. At first I didn’t think the old woman had added anything, but then I noticed a red ribbon tied to the handle of the metal box. It was frayed at the ends, and looked dirty.
I was infuriated. For a moment I considered taking the box and the tin and throwing them away. I didn’t know why I was so angry; the old woman was doing nothing to me. Then I realized she was ruining my idea of Richard. She was ruining my story of Esmeralda, the influenza, the violins. She was taking Richard away from me.
For several moments, I stood there staring with confusion at the grave, looking suspiciously from the corner of my eye. Then I saw her. She was slowly making her way toward the grave, bag in hand. This time I didn’t hide. I waited. As she neared the grave, I saw her eyeing me warily. I had no doubt I was giving her the same look.
“Excuse me,” I said. Her look disappeared, though she still looked apprehensive. “Are you the one who’s been leaving these things?” I gestured to the metal chest and tin.
“Oh, yes,” she said, grinning sheepishly, “that’s me.” Her voice was as wispy as her hair.
“Right,” I said. I paused awkwardly while I decided whether or not to press on. “So, what’s in the tin?”
The woman blushed. “Oh, just some of Grandpa’s fishing things. I thought he’d like to have them.”
“Oh, yes. He was my grandfather. He used to take me fishing.”
There was another awkward pause. The old woman was looking at me as if she wanted me to leave.
“Sorry, but could you just tell me what’s with the chestnuts?”
The woman looked startled. Now it was my turn to blush, as I realized I’d just given away the fact that I’d opened the tin.
“He used to eat them in the evenings with my brothers and me. I thought it would be nice to leave him some.”
“Oh,” I repeated. “Right, thanks.” I started to leave, but then I turned. “What’s the ribbon for?”
“That was my grandmother’s. I wanted to leave a piece of her at his grave.”
“And why have you only just started visiting?”
“I just moved here. I’m living in the retirement community down the road.”
“Ah,” I said. I stood for a moment, unsure what to do. “Thank you,” I blurted, and scuttled away.
I still visit Richard so I can water his flowers. I avoid his granddaughter, though the occasional appearance of an odd trinket next to his gravestone tells me she still visits him too. I’ve had to let go of Esmeralda, the violins, and the influenza. But I’ve imagined a new life for Richard that fits with his granddaughter and chestnuts and fishing and hair ribbons, and I admit that it is better than the life I had imagined for him. He must enjoy having two visitors now, rather than just one. And I can still imagine about him, only now his story is not my sole creation. Now I’m sharing him with someone else.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.