Tending Graves (Flowers on A CHristmas Wreath)


By Wayne Allensworth

Outside, the windswept landscape is dotted with prickly pear and yucca plants and patches of green. Live oaks and cedars dot the pasturelands marked by grazing cattle, rusty barbed wire fences and lonely windmills and deserted county roads.

The truck bed is full of Christmas wreaths.

We are on our way to two graveyards.

I’ve heard it said that there is more wisdom in sorrow than in joy. Joyous sensations pass, but sorrow lingers, and contained within it are joy and happiness passing into grief and longing, encompassing the deepest human attachments and emotions.

I’ve lived long enough to know that is true.

Nostalgia, that powerful longing for a lost world, is like that, but the past is never really past.

The lonely church graveyard in Shive, Texas, sits behind a chain link fence on the prairie. The old church is disused. The town, as my wife’s aunt explains, once thrived, but has, as she says, dried up. 

But the graves remain, and so the visitors return, tending them, placing wreaths and flowers honoring the dead who, like the past itself, never really leave us. We must not forget or neglect them. Silent markers, silent witnesses.

The three of us stand in silence for a bare moment. The cemetery was overgrown last year, so I brought a weed trimmer in case the gravesite needed to be cleaned up.

We have come to visit the grave of a girl of 14 months, the aunt’s sister. We place the wreath near a modest headstone befitting a small child.

When we leave, we drive through the remains of the town, and the aunt sorrowfully, happily, recalls what it was like oh so many years ago when she was a girl.

The rest of the family is gone. The aunt is the last of her brothers and sisters. Her parents preceded them in death.

She won’t leave this place. In her 80s, she lives alone in the old family farmhouse, surrounded by rusting hulks, cars and tractors and farm equipment, old barns and storage sheds, and the lovely lantanas that still bloom in winter. Her mother planted them. The flowers of December, reminding us of a life that endures on gray winter days on old farms no longer worked in a county no longer the vital center of so many lives as it once was.

The next graveyard is outside the county seat. We have many wreaths to place and flags for the veterans.

I watch my wife and her aunt place the wreaths and survey the graves. Old men and old women, and children passing so very young as they once often did. Beloved husbands and wives and fathers and brothers and sisters and mothers.

A plaque has been placed by one of the graves and I walk over to read it:

No Farewell Words Were Spoken,

No Time to Say Goodbye.

You Were Gone Before We Knew It,

And Only God Knows Why.

A paper flower from one of the wreaths has blown off and is caught in a barbed wire fence near the graves. Its petals flutter in the wind.

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of  The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.

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Wayne Allensworth

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