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I looked to my right, and I saw nothing.
I turned to my left, facing the warm wind, and I saw nothing still.
I looked straight ahead towards the damp grey horizon and all I saw for miles were bland green crops and the odd protruding colored line of a tractor or construction crane. It was the same old Minnesota wasteland, the same old shadowed skies blanketing the saturated earth.
I looked down at my feet, clad in rubber flip flops, my pink-polished toenails glistening with the warm dew from the grass. They were red and swollen in patches, bitten up by horseflies and mosquitoes. I felt a chill run through my body, even though the pavement was still steaming from rain.
It was a disgustingly hot summer afternoon and my father decided to take me to his hometown of Hector in west-central Minnesota. He likes to take me there once in awhile, since I used to go there several times a year before my grandmother died. I suppose he likes me to catch a glimpse of his childhood once in awhile, he likes me to see how he used to live as opposed to the neat, clean-cut suburbs we inhabit now.
My father got out of the car and started scanning the area. “I know my Grandma Brown is on this side,” he said absently, waving his arms over the section we were closest to, “and I know my other grandma is over there.” He said, pointing to the far left side. He then stood and rubbed his hand down his face, laughing dryly. “I sure know a lot of these names. I know a lot of these names.”
The tissue-thin cotton of my black sundress clung to the sweaty small of my back as I stepped off of the sloppy, wet dirt path and into the damp, unkempt grass. My dad never really remembered where the gravestones of his relatives were, he only knew the relative location (cemetery pun, quite intended).
“Oh, there’s Mr. So-and-so, the old basketball coach. He was a mean old man.” my dad comments in passing. “He was a nice, funny guy unless you played for him- then you hated him.”
I started making my way through the slightly crooked rows of headstones- some flat and parallel to the earth, some large and rounded at top, just like in the movies. I, on the other hand, didn’t recognize any names.
“Oh, hey, there’s Hank Johnson. God, I remember him. He lived a pretty hard life. Died in a pretty horrible way.” My dad stops in front of the headstone.
I swat a mosquito that landed on my neck. “How did he die?”
My dad starts moving again. “He shot himself. But he didn’t kill himself the first time, so he had to reload his gun and do it again.”
We keep moving, but my stomach hurt a little, like I’d swallowed a large pill.
“I don’t know why I can’t find them,” my father grumbled from a few yards away, glancing at every headstone before moving on. I smiled to myself and shook my head. He wouldn’t remember the next time, either, or the time after that. He points to a headstone far away and says, “I wonder if that’s Chuck’s parents. I think it probably is.” Chuck is one of my father’s best friends, they’d known each other for years.
I stumbled through the weedy lawn, wincing as I step directly on a small, prickly plant. I dodge acorns and dandelions as I meander messily in between grave markers, stopping to let the names and dates sink in a little. Elsa Krueger was 89 and widowed…Mr. and Mrs. Johnson’s daughter was only a baby, she had a lamb on her gravestone.
It was impersonal, so displaced and far away. Like characters in a book.
Every other headstone, my father said he knew the name. He then took a second to wonder if the person under that stone was an old classmate, a teacher, a friend’s parent. He was often mistaken, but he also learned that a lot of people who he thought were still alive had been dead for years.
The hot wind blew and ruffled my sweaty bangs, the roots wet and the ends frizzled from the humidity. I ran my hands over a tall, dark grey headstone, the gritty limestone decay rough on the pads of my fingers.
“Oh wow, there’s Jim Sing.” my dad commented with a sentimental laugh.
“Who’s that?” I ask, swatting a bug that landed on my leg.
“Let’s just say Jim was the ladies’ man of Hector.” my dad laughs. “He could’ve had any girl he wanted. Great looking guy, great personality. He lived near me, was always nice to us.” He was then quiet for a moment. “I bet a lot of people attended that funeral.”
We split ways for a moment. I continued looking for my great-grandmother. But every time I saw a name, I could’t help wondering things. Did my father take that girl on a date? Did this woman bake her son and his friends cookies after school? Did my dad buy a soda from this man at the local store?
“Jess, come here!” My dad called from the opposite corner of the plot, and I slowly make my way towards him, my feet sore and my neck damp and uncomfortable with sweat. My foot suctions to the earth and I shake it free with a disgruntled sigh as I plod between two matching headstones, a husband and wife.
“Here it is. My grandma, your great-grandma.” My dad says with a small, happy sigh. We stand in front of that grave, side by side, just looking.
I keep my vision trained to the ground, and for some reason, I just can’t look away.
My name glares back up at me, cold and foreboding.
My last name is on a headstone, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of that endless grey, and for some reason, it scared me pale. I felt like it was mocking me, crooking a white finger at me and laughing.
I scanned the stick-straight lines of headstones in the cemetery and for several yards my last name marches along the grass like a colony of ants. One dead relative after another, parade of faceless names.
Then something shifts inside of me. As I stared at my name, and the names of my paternal great-grandparents (Augusta, who outlived her husband William by fifty years), and all of those names that meant nothing to me but everything to my father, I had a striking moment of clarity. A real moment of clarity, which is pretty hard to come by for a sixteen-year-old.
My father knew these people. My father grew up with these people. They were his neighbors, his teachers, his friends, and even his family. My family, too. I mentally clicked through images of people I see every day in my hometown that I had stored in my mind- and then I imagined them lying, cold and emotionless, under a slab of monogrammed concrete in the middle of Nowhere, Minnesota.
This cemetery was the home of everyone my father had loved in his old hometown. He lost almost everyone he ever knew.
I imagined that all of those foreign names disappeared and were replaced with the names of people I knew from around my little town- the middle aged woman who worked mornings at the corner gas station, the kid my age who lived across the street from me, the tiny elementary school gym teacher who made me climb the rope when I was seven. It was unfathomable and at the time, incomprehensible.
At sixteen years old, I didn’t feel ready to face the fact that people leave. People die. People don’t last forever. And one day, when I stride through the cemetery and gaze at the headstones, I would start recognizing names. I would have to come to terms with the fact that those people were gone, never to return.
I would have to stand in front of the grave of my own mother and aunts and uncles and cousins.
My head swam when I thought of all of my friends and family, lying side by side in the wet earth underneath a neat row of shiny headstones.
I swallowed thickly, my throat dry as sand. I blamed it on the pressing, iron-gripped heat that boiled me down until I was nothing. It was easy to blame the heat.
My dad nudges me in the arm and asks, “Are you ready to go?” I nod stiffly and answer, “Yeah, I guess.”
The car was boiling as I slid into the passenger seat, and my dress stuck to the back of my knees and sweat dripped down my forehead. As we pulled away from that damn cemetery, my father said once again, “Yeah, I knew a lot of those people in there, Jess.”
His voice was soft and gentle, and it made me want to cry.