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My mother’s face was blank, her voice morose. I glanced up and out the window at the rows and rows of headstones. My hand quivered as it opened the door of the car, letting the beautiful, November day in.
It was quiet and peaceful as I stepped out of the car. My siblings galloped ahead insouciantly. They were too young to understand our solemn faces.
My grandmother was the last to join us, but I lagged behind. My feet re-paced my steps from my last visit, years ago. My mind was elsewhere, my eyes glanced over the surnames, the Jewish stars, they had meaning to me, but not enough. Not as much as the one I was searching for. I walked until I found myself staring at my own last name.
I looked at the dates, the inscription at the bottom, and who they were. They were before my time. After a few short seconds I moved on. There was another whom I wished to visit. But even though my brain had settled, my heart still needed more time to prepare.
As I walked down the pavement to where I knew the bucket of rocks rested, I took in the day. It was warm. The sun shone on the trees’ leaves, making the autumn colors glisten under the blue sky. A voice in the back of my head spoke the words that my mother used to explain to me as a young child. Back when I was too careless and immature to understand. “When people die sweetie, your soul goes up to God and your body gets buried.” I couldn’t then understand what a soul was. Thoughts, feelings, memories. Are you up there, gazing down on me? My head rose towards the heavens, as though I expected to see translucent faces. Childish, I told myself.
I heard my family’s voices, breaking the tranquility of my moment. Something pulled me towards them.
My Grandmother, Father, Mother, sister, and two brothers were gathered around a plain, humble, gray headstone, on which was a name I had heard many times before. But not hearing it spoken, and reading it here instead, had more impact than ever before. I looked at the dates again, recalling all the facts that I knew. They flew into my head, one by one: He lived thirty-nine years. He died on the day that unknowingly then, was my Mother’s birthdate too. As if reading my thoughts, my Father muttered “Making a bad day, a better one...”. This encouraged my mother to maunder away about my Father’s reaction when she first told him when her birthday was. But I wasn’t listening. This was all familiar to me.
In my head, I went over the hebrew words engraved in the rough stone. My grandfather’s hebrew name, that I shared. I read the inscription in English at the bottom; “Loving you more today than yesterday, and less than tomorrow”. As I processed what those words meant, my Grandmothers voice spoke the very same ones from above me. I reached out and drove my hand into the grooves of the words, into the letters of the name of a man I never had the chance to meet.
My head bowed down, blocking the tears from falling, but I still saw my three siblings run off carelessly, my Mother and Grandmother following closely behind. My father stood there for a moment, and judging by his expression, was doing the same thing I was. I could feel the tears develop in the corners of my eyes. I stared at the Star of David, and I said Kaddish for the deceased. I quietly whispered the Hebrew words to myself, not wanting to disturb my father’s moment. “Yitgadal VeYitkadash SheMay Rabah...”
My Father knelt down, kissed his fingertips, and placed them on the stone. I followed suit. We both stood up and he held out his hand. As I took it, we began to meticulously make our way towards the others.
We visited other graves, some of whom’s last name I’d long since forgotten. My Grandmother and my Father embraced, never neglecting the beloved man they both missed dearly.
We wanted to leave, but it was too hard to part with these loved ones. My Grandmother spoke of a part of the cemetery that was a Holocaust memorial. I all but jumped into the car; this I had to inspect.
We wove through the deserted streets, passed the Jewish and non-Jewish parts of the cemetery. Then, on the corner of Laurel and Crescent, I read a plaque engraved with the words “Virginia Holocaust Memorial”.
I was the first out of the car; the others hesitated. I determinedly, but cautiously steeped lightly on the patched grass, passing many names. Now more than ever, I felt my feet making a mark in the ground. Every step toward the large stone with the numerous, countless names, another tear yearned to escape.
I traipsed through the footstones until I got to the names of some who perished in Europe. “Theirs are no graves” was carved into the bottom of the stone, close to the ground. A tear ran down my cheek.
Although it was warm, the memorial garden possessed an eerie chill. My family drew my attention towards the names, separated by family. Whole families that were mercilessly wiped out.
Again, the others walked away; everyone but my Father. We turned around, as if making our way back to the car. But we paused back at the plaque, and as I read the words in smaller print, those I hadn’t noticed before, I cried. I forgot those words now, but what mattered was that standing there, protected by my Father, I could let go.
I thought back to my Father’s Father’s grave. His Father and my Father were about forty years apart, just around the same as me and my Father. Even though a father-son relationship is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, I have never more appreciated the privilege of having a Dad.