One summer in the early 1990s, my grandmother chased my cousin Nicholas into the river that runs alongside the family cottage in Falmouth, Michigan. Apparently, he had referred to my then-infant brother Matthew as “Mattie.” Diminutizing my brother’s name wasn’t the issue; the issue was that my grandmother had asked him not to and, just to be a bit of a brat, he had done it again anyway. When he turned around to see if his childish insubordination had had the desired effect, my grandma was suddenly two feet behind him with a put-the-fear-of-God-in-you look in her eyes and a hand reaching out for Nick’s shirt. Naturally, Nick decided that any of the scaly, slimy, pincered, potentially disease-bearing things lurked in the cold and murky water of the Clam River was preferable to whatever would happen to him if Grandma got that hand on his collar.
It’s the kind of family lore that gets pulled out at Christmas and dusted off for a good laugh at someone’s expense (and with his encouragement) before being tucked back on a high shelf next to cautionary tales, family sayings, and an electric griddle made in the 1970s. It’s a story from before I was born, a memory that I have but will never be able to remember. There are lots of memories like that in my family. Many of them are thanks to yesterday’s holiday.
Like many children from West Michigan families, my Memorial Days were spent Up North™, with a largely static assortment of relatives and traditions, including scouring the river for one-clawed crayfish, sneaking dusty mints out of Grandma’s purse during tedious rural church services, the Sunday pancake brunch, and, crucially, beautifying the graves of dead ancestors.
Memorial Day was never a day to remember the Koster family’s war dead (we didn’t have any), so we planted flowers by the graves of people who died of far less patriotic things, like apoplexy and car crashes and being alive. My grandfather, a biologist both in his public and private lives, led the way, armed with geraniums and vincas and a five-gallon drum of water sloshing over his dirty white tennis shoes.
Depending on the year and feeling and how many extra trays of petunias my grandpa had bought at Ebels, different deceased relatives received flowers. But as long as I can remember, these six always did: Roy and Rula Tacoma (my grandma’s parents), Ed and Anna Koster (my grandpa’s), and Mattie and Peter Berghouse (my grandma’s favorite—and childless—aunt and uncle). And that’s why my grandma chased Nick into the river almost thirty years ago: “Mattie” was a sacred name, and heaven help the grandchild who disrespected that.
As I was a rather morbid child, our annual graveside rites were central to my young summers. I was starved for meaning and mortality, and I think that’s the reason the need to tangibly connect with the dead had such a hold on me. The desire for meaning and mortality has left me (part of growing up is realizing how astonishingly difficult and frightfully easy, respectively, those things are to find), but the fascination with memory rituals and cemeteries has not. In high school, I would convince my friends to hang out in graveyards, and in college, I spent long afternoons transcribing inscriptions on the Commonwealth War Graves in the Botley Cemetery as part of my final research project during a semester abroad at Oxford University.
But none of the graves I’ve encountered in the intervening years have had the same peculiar sway over me as Aunt Mattie’s, lichen-crusted and separated from the rest of the family by yards of shadeless cemetery and the ghosts of a hundred Dutch farmers. It represents the first time I can remember being fascinated by the potentiality of a person I could never know, someone not influential enough to feature in the public memory but who was so important to someone who was so important to me. Someday, I may pass over Roy, Rula, Anna, and Ed, but as long as I live in Michigan, I will never skip planting flowers for Aunt Mattie.
It is easy for me to remember her, even though she died thirty years before I was born. All I have of her is the memories inherited through story. I don’t even know her full first name. It is far more difficult to remember my grandfather, who we buried beneath his beloved geraniums one year ago yesterday, three months after ALS finally and totally locked his mind inside of his body, which gave up shortly afterward.
When he was dying, I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t going to remember him as he was now. I was going to remember him as he was when he was winning gold medals throwing javelins in the Senior Olympics and asking me to describe what my millennial colleagues were thinking about modern American politics and pausing in the middle of transplanting a trillium to listen to the multilingual chatter of the birds overhead before pointing skyward and naming each one.
I wanted to tell him these things but I didn’t, because even then I knew it would be a lie. I will remember him as he was in his last days. I will remember the sound it made the first time I ever heard him cry and the color his saliva was minutes before his last breath. I will remember how, a month before he died, I was charged with watching over him for just an hour or two. There was a Premier League soccer game on TV and he woke up and needed something and I couldn’t figure out what and we looked into each other’s eyes for the last time and I knew it was the last time and instead of sad all I could feel was selfish and useless and sorry.
Meaning, it turns out, doesn’t always accompany mortality.
The Koster family’s 2020 Memorial Day plans are among the least of the casualties of our current global crisis. On the one-year anniversary of my grandfather’s burial, we were going to gather as aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, children, grandchildren, and grandmother and plant our annual flowers on Roy and Rula’s grave, and Ed and Anna’s, and Mattie and Peter’s, and, for the first time, Stanley’s. We didn’t. Instead, I stood back as my parents worked on Roy and Rula and Grandpa’s headstones, and they did the same as I planted at Ed and Anna and Aunt Mattie’s. Geraniums for Grandpa. Vincas for Aunt Mattie. My dad carried the five-gallon bucket.
I’m never going to be able to remember my grandfather the way I remember Aunt Mattie. Because while I remember Aunt Mattie when I walk through Aetna Cemetery, I remember my grandpa when I stand in hospital rooms, when Manchester City plays on the monitors in sports bars, when blue jays scream at each other overhead, and when trilliums spring up between the trees.