One Small Stone, Unforgotten

One Small Stone, Unforgotten

From A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul

One Small Stone, Unforgotten

To some people, a cemetery can be a frightening, sad place, full of unfinished business and painful memories. But, not to me. When I was a young child growing up in rural Indiana, cemeteries were my playgrounds. My father was the groundskeepers for several state-run and private cemeteries in the county.

He had come to America from Russia after the war as a young man and met my mother, also a recent immigrant, through mutual friends. Somehow they ended up in a small town in Indiana where my father found work as a landscape gardener. He worked hard all his life and his little business grew. He tended all the cemeteries in the county as well as all the lawns of the private homes in the area. Often, he would take me with him to work.

My father chose his profession partly because his English remained poor all his life and landscaping was something he could do well without extensive communication skills. That and the fact that he loved to make beautiful spaces, spaces that would cause one to pause and appreciate the serene loveliness in Nature.

When I was very little, I loved to go to the cemeteries with him. To me, the cemeteries were quiet, calm places full of life stories—millions of them which I conjured in my own imagination. Just the name and dates of a person’s life were enough for me. I would imagine whole scenarios about how that person lived and what kind of family he had had. I would infuse the dead of rural Indiana with all manner of mystery. Some of the graves belonged to long-lost royalty or heroes who had perished saving others. And, sometimes, I imagined that a grave bore a lover who, having met an untimely demise, would finally be forever united with the loved one in a better place. (I really believe that adults read obituaries each day in the newspaper for pretty much the same reason—to catch a glimpse of another’s life encapsulated, with all the details left to the imagination.)

All of my childish imaginings were given vent in the cemeteries because my own life was painfully devoid of any drama or excitement. By the time I reached my teens, I had grown so bored with my sheltered, quiet life in rural Indiana that my invented scenarios were my only means of escape.

My parents, I was sure, could not possibly have been able to understand my growing frustration. I considered them just ignorant immigrants who lived and worked where they did because that was all they could do. It never occurred to me to wonder about their lives before they arrived in America. To me, my parents were simple, uncomplicated people. They had settled in a place where settling was what life was about. They had no dreams, no desires to be anything other than exactly what they were.

But, I wanted more, much more.

Throughout my college years—tumultuous years of experimentation and rebellion—I searched for a way to leave my own personal mark on the world. I wanted to be defined, to feel myself important, significant. My parents had only been ordinary but, I, with all the fervor of my young heart, longed to really experience life.

While I was away at university,my parents grew quietly older. One winter vacation, I went home for a visit.

The years had taken their toll on my father and he could not work as he once could. He missed the feel of dirt in his hands and he said, he missed something else, too. While I had spent my time lost in my fantasies in the cemeteries, my father had done his work—mowing and edging and planting—making the cemeteries lovely. And just before we left each time, my father would take a handful of small pebbles from the back of his pick-up truck. These he would lay carefully on the headstones of some of the graves. It had never occurred to me to ask why he did this. I had just accepted that this was part of his work. But, I knew this act was as important to him as bringing beauty to these resting places.

On this particular visit home, my father asked a favor of me. He wanted me to take his truck out to one of the cemeteries and lay some of the stones on several of the markers. For some reason, this was very important to him and it had to be done that day.

I was beginning to outgrow some of my teenage rebelliousness so I agreed to do this for him. And, in fact, I wanted to revisit the scene of some of my happy childhood moments.

When I reached the cemetery, I parked on the hill overlooking the group of graves that my father had directed me to. Immediately, I could see that I was not alone. A woman, bareheaded against the cold November wind, had come to visit one of the graves I was to leave a stone on. As I bent to leave it, I heard her whisper softly, “Thank you.”

It was then that I noticed that the date of death on the grave was that same November day. The grave was that of a child, only five years old when he died some fifteen years before. I looked at the woman. She appeared to be around fifty, her face lined appropriately. I expected to see sadness in her bearing; instead I saw quiet dignity and calm acceptance.

“He was my son,” she said. “But, where is your father? He was always the one to leave the stone.”

I was so surprised that it took me a minute to find my voice. Then I told her that my father was not well but that he had asked me to come and leave the stones. It had been very important to him, I said. She nodded in a way that implied she knew my father and appreciated just how important this small act was to him. And so I asked her to explain. “I don’t know your father well. But, I knew his nature anyway. His kindness has meant more to me than anything else in my life. You see, when my child died, I came often to the grave to visit him. It is our custom to leave a stone on the marker. It lets everyone know that the one who is buried here is not forgotten but is thought of and missed. But, then we moved away from here . . . so many painful memories . . . all of us moved . . . family . . . friends. There was no one left to visit the grave and I was so afraid that he would be all alone. But your father marked the grave every time he came. Each time I have returned here, I have seen that stone and it has always comforted me. Your father is the kind of man who would ease the suffering of a mother’s heart even though we are strangers.”

The wind whipped my hair into my face and for a moment I could not move. But the woman reached out and touched my arm. “Just tell him you saw me today, won’t you?” she said. Then she turned and was gone.

As I sat in the old pick-up truck, waiting for it to warm up, I understood. Leaving the stones may have been something my father learned in his youth in Russia or maybe he just saw people like this woman do it here in Indiana. In any case, it was a gesture that touched and comforted the survivors. That small stone had marked the grave of a child and the heart of his mother.

The heater in the old truck must have worked because I was suddenly comfortably warm. But it was a warmth that penetrated all of me. I put the truck in gear and went home.

Marsha Arons

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