Episode #3 from the Remember When...? Podcast.
In this essay RJ tells us about his beloved Grandma K and how she became his first true spiritual teacher.
Augh! Stuck again!
The wheels of my little red Radio Flyer wagon kept getting caught in the gullies of the graveled covered driveway. I was exasperated. Why was this so hard? Was it because I was only five years old? It was easy to pull my wagon load of “Decoration Day” plants at the other cemetery. At the other cemetery the paths were asphalt or cement. No such luck here. There were no paved pathways at the Ritenour Cemetery in Ridgeville.
Grandma Kaufman reached back and gave me a hand. “Here let me help. We’re going right over here. Tell grandma when you see a name that you recognize.” Together she and I pulled the wagon across the grass as my five-year-old eyes scanned the landscape for a familiar name. “Kaufman! I shouted with pride. “John and Edna Kaufman.” And then, confusion eroded my pride. I looked up at her with questioning eyes.
“Yes Jack, that is grandma’s name. what do you see below the name?”
“Dates”. I read them to her. “John, born 1880, died 1954. Edna, born 1889, Died…But there’s no second date.” “That’s right. That indicates that I’m still alive. They’ll add the date once I go home. Now, look at this little headstone here. Read what it says on that stone.”
The stone read: Sargent John Kaufman Jr. Born 1932, died 1952. That’s my little boy. He died in the war. John was my husband, and john jr. was my son. Now, let’s get these flowers planted.
As if she was about to pray, grandma knelt beside the graves of her husband and child. What happened next appeared to be a sacred ritual she’d done many times. It looked as sacred and practiced as a Japanese Tea ceremony. She commenced her work by gently removing the old frail looking plants from its urn. Gently. she knocked the good soil loose from the roots of the old plant back into the urn. Then she placed the dead plant into a compost bucket to be taken home. She added a bit of new soil to the pots as well as a bit of plant food. Then ever so gently, she placed a lush new plant covered with bright colorful blooms into the urn covering it with just the right amount of new soil. Then, as if pouring tea for a emperor, she delicately poured a generous serving of water from the thermos she had brought with us. Finally, she moved over to the little headstone and repeated the ritual once again
As I respectfully observed her work, I noticed that across the way from us I could see a troop of boy scouts placing little American flags near some headstones in what looked to be an older part of the cemetery. In watching them, I realized that section of the cemetery had no flowers or decorations. The entire area was in sharp contrast to the rest of the cemetery which was lush with it’s botanical display of color and fragrance.
“Grandma, why are there no flowers on that part of the cemetery?”
“Well Jack the people buried in that part of the cemetery died a very long time ago. Most likely, there children, even their grandchildren have also passed away, so there’s no one to decorate their grave. The people in this section died more recently. “
“But why are they only putting the flags on some of the graves and not all of them?
The flags are to honor the soldiers who have died. The boy scouts honor their service to our country by placing the flags on their graves, and at the same time, those flags remind us to be grateful to our veterans for protecting us and our freedom. Later, they will make their way over to this side of the cemetery and they will place a flag here next to John Jr’s headstone.”
It was a lot for me to take in. I found it all so sad. I wanted to cry for those people who had no one to decorate their grave. I felt sad for the mothers that had lost their sons to war like Grandma Kaufman. But then I was distracted from my thoughts when I realized she was quietly singing. Then I noticed that she had a grin on her face. She was smiling as she sang her hymn.
“Aren’t you sad?” I asked as she finished up.
She did not answer me; instead, she seemed to ponder my question. I watched as she returned her tools to the wagon along with the watering can and the weeds and dead plants from memorial days past. As she took off her gardening gloves, she placed them in the wagon and then shook the dust from her apron. She looked at me and said: “No Jack. This is a happy time.”
“A happy time?” I questioned.
“Oh yes! Grandma is happy, because I know that I will see my husband and my baby boy again.”
“Yes. Oh, it will be so wonderful. So, no, I’m choosing to think about the day we’ll be reunited, rather than the day I lost them.”
She pulled me close to her and we turned to face the graves one last time before we left. I watched her pray and noticed that even though tears were streaming down her cheeks, her smile was even more pronounced.
“Okay, let’s go now.” She pointed for me to take the handle of my wagon and to start pulling. Even though it was much lighter now, she still placed her hand over mine and together we made our way back to the car.
Years later, anxiety had me tossing and turning in my dorm room bed as I fretted about a chemistry test the next day; a test that I had failed to study for. Finally, I fell into an exhausted deep sleep and dreamed. In my dream, I was 10 years of age.
My parents were in the front seat; Grandma Kaufman and I were in the back seat of my parents Plymouth sedan. Everyone was laughing on what a delightful evening it had been. Where had we been? Was it a concert? A Movie? A recital? I couldn’t tell, but whatever it was, we all thoroughly had enjoyed it. As the car came to a stop near Grandma Kaufman’s backdoor, my mother glance back giving me the look to let me know that duty called. It was my job to jump out, go around the car, open her door, and escort her safely to her door. It was the gentlemanly thing to do. It was how I was raised. But just as I placed my hand on the door handle, Grandma Kaufman patted my arm through the open car window. “That’s okay Jackie. Sit right there.”
“But how ill I know that you’ll be, okay?”
“Oh, just watch! You’ll know!”
It was that same beautiful smile from years earlier at the cemetery. I watched as she walked toward her house, but as she got closer to the house she started to ascend. She moved with grace and ease, higher and higher into the night sky. Soon, all that I could see was a bright shining light as she moved upward. Suddenly her light became a star, and that star touched another star.
“John Jr.” I whispered to myself. Then those two stars became one, they ascended higher and touched yet another star. “Ah! It’s John Sr. I reckoned. They are together again. Just as she said.” The three stars now one, ascended higher and eventually out of sight. Yes, she was alright.
A ringing phone awakened me from my sleep. I answered: “Hello Mother.”
“How did you know it would be me calling?” She asked.
“Not only did I know that you’d be calling, I know why you are calling. Grandma Kaufman has passed away.
“How could you…”
“She told me and, I saw her safely home, just like you taught me.”
--Rev. Jack Elliott
Note: (c) 2022/2023 Rev. Jack Elliott. This essay corresponds with Episode #3 on the Remember When...? Podcast.