When I toss a story out into the world, I never know if it will take wing, or where it will fly. I’m still amazed and grateful that Johan Lebichot found me via a post I’d written about my father.
Last year my sister and I traveled to Belgium to visit the Lebichot family to honor a friendship that reached across the ocean and seventy years back through time.
Lightning struck twice when I was emailed by a stranger who works at Machpelah Cemetery, where my father is buried. Kim wrote:
“While doing research on unused burial spaces here at Machpelah Cemetery in Ferndale, Michigan I googled your family name and found you! When I found “A Box in the Attic,” I realized I’d found the family who owns the space. I must tell you I couldn’t stop reading, to be able to put a face and story with these people was a gift…”
The plot thickens. My father died fifty years ago! The burial plot Kim wrote about was intended to be Mom’s final resting place. But when she died twenty-five years later, she wasn’t allowed to be buried beside my father because she wasn’t Jewish.
My dying mother said, “It doesn’t matter. He’s not there.”
What followed reads like the plot of an Afterlife Soap Opera. My mother Eleanor’s mother, Rhea, was buried next to her first husband, William, the true love of her life, and my grandmother’s second husband, Gus, was buried in another cemetery beside his first wife, Laura, but Mom’s stepdad, my Grandpa Gus, ended up with an extra burial plot, probably because his son Karl wanted to be buried beside the love of his life, Barbara, but Grandpa had always loved my mom, his stepdaughter, and so he offered it to her, since she couldn’t be be buried by her one and only, which is why my mother was buried next to her stepdad and not her husband, Harry, who was the true love of her life, but that’s okay, because Mom loved Grandpa too.
Last year, when visiting Mom’s grave, we spent nearly an hour kicking around the weeds before we found it and cleared away the grass. Mom would say, “It doesn’t matter. I’m not there.” In a way she’d be right. All her kids left Detroit long ago. After Aunt Loena is gone, I doubt I’ll return. But I decided to replace her headstone with one easier to find, just in case someone, maybe even from the next generation, wants to leave a pebble on her grave. Kim’s email was an eerily timely message, or at least a poke with a sharp stick.
Kim said we could plant a tree in the empty plot or even engrave Mom’s name on the glaringly empty space on Daddy’s headstone. “We could do that?” I asked. “If you write ‘In Memory…’ so people will know she’s not actually buried there,” said Kim. “I’ll consult my siblings and get back to you. It could take awhile–there are seven of us. In the meantime, please don’t bury a stranger beside my dad!”
I admit there were undercurrents of resentment because Mom was denied her place by Daddy all those years before. But times change, rules relax, Kim probably wasn’t even born when this drama occurred, and the people at Machpelah were eager to make amends. Our parents’ lives were hard, their story bittersweet, but no one could deny their love was true. Why not be grateful for the opportunity to give them as close to a happy ending as can be expected?
Most of us were onboard, and the others simply abstained as we discussed ideas for the inscription. It being my mom, “Wish I’d Brought a Book” would’ve been fitting. And at the start of each road trip, she’d say, “If there’s something we forgot to pack, we’ll buy a new one or do without.” This was a monumental journey for our mom, but we finally settled for the simple truth. “In loving memory.”
No bones about it, after fifty years or even just twenty-five, all that remains is ashes and dust. And their story. In West Africa they say, “One is not dead until one is forgotten.” Dear Mom and Dad, that which was surely connected in spirit has been commemorated–and written in stone. And now I’m lovingly sending your story out to the world. May it take wing, land where it will, and never be forgotten.
All words and images copyright 2014 Naomi Baltuck