By buying the church, he bought the graveyard and used his children and grandchildren to become the librarians of the dead.
I remember his whistle more than his voice. Two fingers to his lips and blow. You could hear that whistle a good mile away. It meant it was time for the kids to come home or time for dinner or time for the find. The Story Find. His favorite time of all.
The Story Find was usually on Sundays, that holy day of stories. The time itself fluctuated between one and five depending on the when the sun fell or when he felt like disturbing the fun. The childhood fun.
The Story Find happened because of a purchase.
My grandfather, spontaneous, a chaser of dreams, out on one of his Saturday drives, his main goal to get lost, passed a small Methodist church with a sign that read “For Sale.” He was 31 and wanting to move out of what he described as the “small, time-constrained world of waking and eating and doing and sleeping and repeating.” With the church he saw a possibility of perception beyond the military march of day to day existence.
By the end of that day he owned it. He got with his purchase not only the church with bathroom and kitchen and space to create but he also found himself the owner of the dead, twenty-one headstones and their inhabitants. Some of the headstones held multiple names.
He was a competent executive of a small company and a competent craftsman. He whirled that church into a serene three bedroom, one bathroom, full kitchen home with an endless backyard that stretched beyond the small cemetery into forest and lake.
He met my grandmother, who was ten years younger, at the state fair, finding themselves the only singles on the wooden roller coaster, they shared a coaster car, and from that high speed topsy turvy kakakaka experience they married. Both knowing that they would never settle for the pedometer measure of specific calculations of day and night and everything in between.
They had one girl, my mother, and two boys, my uncles, and raised all three in their curious devil-may-care world. My mother hated it. She liked order, timelines, and schedules.
My uncles loved it. After college they started their furniture making business, setting their own schedules, neither tied down by the nine to five. They raised my cousins, three boys and one girl the same way they were raised; curious, devil-may-care.
None of them liked the Story Finds and would try on Sundays to get themselves good and lost deep in the forest but that whistle could penetrate the thickest of greenery. Hearing their father’s two finger call they would obediently gather.
He was always there waiting.
They were so young, my mom had her favorite doll with her and my uncles’ pockets were stuffed with GI Joe action figures.
They would stand at the edge of the cemetery and when all were settled my grandfather would call out, “Story Finds!” With that call they would run to a gravestone and lie down, head to headstone. Their little bodies covering as much of the grave site as possible. Their eyes closed.
It would get quiet, very quiet, even the birds would stop. And suddenly as if they were being moved by the ground itself my mother and uncles would start to shake. Their bodies convulsing, rattling, rattling, RATTLING
The dead would take turns speaking. They were all very polite. Taking turns telling their stories or the stories of those they knew. The stories would grow in detail and depth, often being taken over by one of the other members on the family burial sites. Each time they went out for Story Finds Grandfather’s tape recorder would be running, capturing the tales of the dead.
By the time my mother and uncles were teenagers the Story Finds had stopped, their bodies no longer accessible.
My mother and uncles went off to college, started businesses, got jobs, homes of their own, married, kids, and went back to see my grandfather and grandmother on holidays and in the summer.
It was when I and my brothers and cousins were eight and nine and ten that my grandfather made us the magic of his cemetery, creating once again conduits for his dead.
He was by then in his 80s and his movement had slowed, but his whistle had lost none of its power. On our holiday visits and summer excursions he would call us, his grandchildren, with that whistle, call us from our childhood fun.
We would gather and stand as our parents had, waiting for his cry of, “Story Finds.”
He would record those stories, the stories his grandchildren relayed, with his phone.
He had been transcribing the stories of those who once lived in our little part of the world for over thirty years. Knowing that he could capture another thirty years of stories, if only he had the time.
He wanted them, the stories of the dead, buried for so long, to rise up and live again.
He cared little for our stories, for the stories of his children and grandchildren, the stories of the living.
And we, the children and grandchildren of that spontaneous curious man got all those graveyard stories, all but one.
The small one.
The small gravestone, old and faded where we received nothing but silence. My cousins and brothers believed the grave held a murderer and that’s why it was silent, to keep the story of the murder, the “HORRIBLE murder” they would whisper, buried.
I didn’t think that was the reason for the silence. I thought it was that they, the person whose name was once etched clearly on that gravestone, had forgotten how to speak. They had lain mute for so long they didn’t want to sound stupid.
I tried again and again lying on that grave, opening myself to them but nothing.
I was 12 and a half when my parents got me my puppy. I carried her everywhere. I named her Petunia. Petunia was a chestnut long-haired daschund. She was the runt of the litter. Just like me. I was the runt of my family’s litter.
I liked to take Petunia out and walk the cemetery and the woods all the way to the lake. Just the two of us nobody else.
I don’t know why I laid down on that summer day but I did. I laid down on that small silent grave with Petunia and immediately felt the convulsions and the rattling. They were light not as violent as the others. From my mouth a child’s voice, a girl like me, exclaiming, “Puppy!”
I scurried off the grave holding Petunia. Petunia scrambled out of my arms and ran back and lay next to the headstone.
I called to Petunia to come to me. I didn’t want to get near that grave, the grave of a child, the only tiny child in the cemetery. Her grave not even part of a family plot. I could feel the child’s loneliness, her sadness, and it hurt my heart.
Petunia felt it as well. Its why she went back so that the child would have a friend. Petunia rolled on the grass above the child and snuggled to the gravestone.
This child had remained silent all these years until a puppy found its way to her.
In that moment, I hated my grandfather and the house that was once a church and the graveyard of those long forgotten. Why did he do this to his family? To the dead? The dead that should stay dead!
There on the grass surrounded by gravestones, I screamed,
“I HATE YOU! ALL OF YOU!”
Petunia crawled into my lap, to comfort me, the living.
We sat, she and I, there in the cemetery.
The dead, the living, the birds. my puppy. Silent.
My grandfather’s whistle. Both Petunia and I looked up.
I hadn’t noticed the sun going down.
The whistle meant dinner.
Grandmother died when I was 16. She crashed grandfather’s car into a tree. Everyone believed she had fallen asleep at the wheel. Grandfather died two days later. He died of a broken heart every one said. I think he decided it was time to join the ones he had always cared most about.
Both of them had asked to be buried in their cemetery.
My mother and her brothers did not honor their wishes. They had them cremated. They cremated the bodies with the tapes and transcribed papers of all the dead.
Ashes to ashes, story to story. The ashes are stored in a cupboard in the laundry room of my family’s home. They’re covered in dust. No one touches them. No one talks to them. No one in my family cares about the dead.
I drove past a church with a “For Sale” sign, behind the church a dilapidated ancient graveyard. I realized that anyone who purchased the church also got the graveyard. The story settled into my head as I was driving.